Anthropologists really should take a closer look at the story of $600-a-pound coffee passed through Indonesian civet droppings, known as kopi luwak. This ‘news’ story has been repeatedly recycled across TV, newspapers, bloggers, and other media throughout the country for several years now — propagating like a Nigerian bank scam e-mail. And just like a Nigerian bank scam e-mail, it goes away briefly and yet comes back strong … as if no one has ever heard of it before.

Apparently, one of the last managing editors in the country to pick up this story is Leo C. Wolinsky of the Los Angeles Times: $600-a-pound coffee – Los Angeles Times. (Nice job, Leo. Looking forward to the Times‘ upcoming exposé on there being no WMDs in Iraq.)

It was over a year and a half ago when we wrote here about how this was a tired, old, recycled story. For example, kopi luwak coffee was even mentioned on TV episodes of Oprah Winfrey and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation back in 2003. Doesn’t that define the death knell for any trend? Rather than being trendy, the coffee has very limited production and attracts enough people — people curious about its price as well as its production methods — to keep its ridiculous novelty price up.

As a coffee, it’s not even very good. One complete fabrication by the Times is their opening sentence, “To connoisseurs of fine coffee, only one is good to the last dropping.” If the Times‘ Paul Watson bothered to do any research, he would have have learned that, to connoisseurs of fine coffee, kopi luwak is largely a novelty gag for the specialty coffee “tourists”. (Q: How does the fool who knows nothing about wine impress his guests? A: By buying the most expensive bottle he can find — along with a good story to tell about it.) Apparently there are enough people duped into equating price with quality that they probably believe that the U.S. Navy’s infamous $640 toilet seat was once considered the most luxurious in the world (to cite a story with similar “legs” from the early 1980s).

So why doesn’t this story go away? Something about this civet-dropping-coffee story has kept it in the public consciousness and imagination as if it were a trendy, brand new discovery about the excesses of gourmands — even when it clearly isn’t.

“Urban legend or weasel poop? Coming up at 11.”

The propagation of this story has mirrored that of many urban legends, even if the coffee itself is real. For an urban legend to have legs, it must hold a plausible kernel of potential truth, and it must also push buttons of the public subconsciousness to make people spread it. For the kopi luwak story, one of the subconscious buttons is undoubtedly the sense that specialty coffee has gotten too fancy for its own good.

For a few years now, people in the media (and in real life) have universally lamented “the $4 coffee at Starbucks“. But I dare you to find a cup of coffee that costs $4 at any Starbucks. But behind the “$4 coffee” statement is a sort of resentful, eyes-rolling, grandpappy-ish sentiment of, “I remember when coffee cost 50¢ a cup and tasted like black tar mixed with hot water — and that was good enough for everybody!” (If these people had their way, we’d still be eating all our vegetables out of cans.)

But don’t underestimate the role of desperate media outlets either. Faced with a slow news day (especially during those summer holidays), managing editors across the country often come face-to-face with dead airtime and empty columns. This is when they have to pull out their arsenal of ready-made, evergreen filler. And few things nicely pad the segue between Iraqi car bombings and Tiger Woods’ place on the leaderboard like a “Gosh, did you hear about this one, Bob?” story, complete with scatological animal references and snickering on-air banter between the anchors.

Years from now, somehow I just know that the civet will go extinct and we’ll still be subjected to this story. When in reality, for an even better media-ready rare coffee story, I’ve long advocated that we forget the weasels and go straight for “celebrity blends”. Tom Cruise, my offer still stands: my home-roasted coffee and your bowels could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The civet: media star for the specialty coffee age