Friday, June 22, 2012

Coffee: Home, home on the range

"There is nothing like being left alone again, to walk peacefully with oneself in the woods. To boil one's coffee and fill one's pipe, and to think idly and slowly as one does it." --Knut Hamsun

A Norwegian author who was described as "the soul of Norway" and "the father of modern literature," Knut Hamsun was probably talking of the wild places of his homeland. Yet, his words could have as easily spoken by a cowboy.

Only one image is more vivid than the lone cowboy with his tin cup. That's the image of a group of cowboys around the campfire with a large pot sitting close by, ready to supply refills. The free-range cafe, where stories are swapped, politics argued and weather discussed.

Americans weren't always big coffee drinkers. The colonists were primarily tea drinkers until the Boston Tea Party. Boycotting tea because of unfair taxes and the monopoly of the East India Company, Americans turned to coffee as their preferred drink.

Not that there hadn't been coffeehouses before that. The intelligentsia of Boston, New York and Philadelphia had been hanging out drinking coffee since 1668. Just like their European and British counterparts, these coffeehouses were hubs where stories are swapped, politics argued, weather discussed and business transacted.*

Until 1773, coffee was considered too expensive to be consumed in most households. After the Boston Tea Party, coffee became the patriotic beverage of choice. It also helped that Central and South American growers were producing enough coffee to bring the price of beans down.

Coffee represented independence, democracy and free thinking. It's no wonder it traveled well with the western expansion. That is, the tradition of coffee traveled well. The beans were another story.

"If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee." --Abraham Lincoln

Until 1865, when Arbuckles introduced their ground coffee in one pound paper bags, consumers bought green coffee beans in cloth sacks. The beans picked up odors in transit and were often stale by the time they were used. Cook, wife, or lone cowboy would then have to roast the beans in a pan, being careful not to burn them. Then the beans had to be ground before you could start to boil the coffee.

Even with Arbuckles', brewing a good cup of coffee was iffy. (How to make Cowboy Coffee - Canadian style.) At it's best it was never "Good to the last drop" because the last drops contained a sludge of coffee grounds.

Of course, a dark, bitter-sweet brew with a smooth finish wasn't in the cowboy phrase book. When you had to wake up before dawn, or stay awake long after dusk, all you needed was something hot, strong and caffeinated. However, if the coffee was weak, instead of swapping stories, arguing politics and discussing weather, the cowboys might be looking for a new camp cook.

International Coffee Organization
Arbuckles Coffee History
Coffee Traditions

* Coffee trivia: Edward Lloyd opened a coffeehouse in London in 1688. It was frequented by shipping merchants and became known as a place for obtaining marine insurance. The business became Lloyd's of London.

Alison Bruce is the author of Under A Texas Star (western romance) and Deadly Legacy (mystery). Find her at:


Unknown said...

Another interesting and informative post which I've already shared. We just returned from camping and the thing I missed most was my K-cup maker. I love my coffee, but it has to have French Vanilla Creamer. Hey, maybe I really love the creamer, but I sure have created a few stories where the cowboys gather round the campfire with their tin cups and enjoy a good ol' cup a joe!

Good Job, Alison.

Paty Jager said...

Fun information about a staple that has been around for a long time. And it's so true, when I think of cowboys I think of the coffee pot on the fire and the cowboys squatting by the fire.

Alison E. Bruce said...

There was another bit of coffee trivia I wanted to use but couldn't shoe-horn in logically. However, you've given me a great lead-in Ginger.

"Physicians say that coffee without cream is more wholesome, particularly for persons of weak digestion. There seems to be some element in the coffee which combined with the milk, forms a leathery coating on the stomach, and impairs digestion."
The Buckeye Cookbook (1883)

Alison E. Bruce said...

As you can probably tell, I'm rather fond of coffee - but it wasn't always so. My mother was English and her coffee hit all the stereotypes of English made coffee - too weak, too watery, too bad. Even she knew she made terrible coffee, so she drank instant.

The first cup of joe I truly appreciated was boiled in a pot much like the one pictured. It was prepared over a propane stove instead of a campfire - and thank heavens it was a propane stove. The electricity was out, the heat off, and sub-zero temperatures outside. Three teenagers cut off from the world.

We sat around the kitchen table, which was illuminated by candles, and drank strong, sweet coffee while we traded stories. One of my happiest memories of the time.

Unknown said...

Glad I could be your shoe-horn. Coffee with my creamer is one thing I can enjoy without throwing it up. Defcaf at that! :( I'm happy to report that my creamer is non-dairy, and if anyone is inclined to list the risks associated with it, please don't ruin what little I have left to enjoy. *lol*

Lyn Horner said...

I remember when I was little, visiting my grandparents up in the small town of Montgomery, MN. Grandma Novotny always had a huge enameled coffee pot on the stove. She brewed it the old fashioned way with grounds in the pot. I think she threw in egg shells, too. Were they supposed to clarify the coffee? Anyone know?

Devon Matthews said...

Love this post, Alison! Thanks for info about early coffee, which I've never really looked into. Years ago, when I really enjoyed the taste of coffee, the best brew was the one where the grinds were tossed right into the pot, and so strong it would float a horseshoe. ;)

Another tidbit about Arbuckle's. Back in the day, they always included a peppermint stick in each bag of their coffee. Many an argument took place around the campfire over who was going to get the sweet treat.

Ellen O’Connell said...

That's great, Alison. I didn't realize that you could buy ground coffee that early.

If any of you like history from different eras than the cowboy, there is a bit in David McCullough's JOHN ADAMS where John Adams struggles with learning to make coffee, not happy about giving up tea but doing it.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Alison, thanks for that post. I learned several things. I'm a tea drinker, but my characters drink coffee. Wish I could like it, but I've tried and hate it any way it's prepred. Don't even like it in desserts. But, hey, someone has to keep the tea industry going, right?

mesadallas said...

Lyn, putting egg shells served several purposes. They settled the grounds to the bottom of the pot,and they took out some of the bitter taste from poor quality beans.They also helped give the coffee more of a clear appearance.

Jacquie Rogers said...

I live in Seattle and we take our coffee seriously here. I guess that means we're very patriotic. LOL. We drink it strong and black, always made with freshly ground beans in a French press--or espresso. But growing up, Mom used a percolator. There's just something about the sound and smell of coffee percolating that soothes the soul.

About drinking out of those tin cups--I remember the cups stayed hot and the coffee got cold. It's an art to drink out of those things!