Friday, August 10, 2007

Coffee, if you can get it.

Today, August 10th …

General Orders No. 54, dated this day in 1861, specified the ration for a Civil War Confederate soldier to be:

22 ounces of soft bread or flour, or 1 pound of hardbread (hardtack) per day.
1 pound 4 ounces salt or fresh beef or 12 ounces of pork or bacon.
1 pound of potatoes three times per week if available.
To every 100 rations 15 pounds beans or peas AND 10 pounds rice or hominy; 10 pounds green coffee or 8 pounds roasted coffee; 1 pound 8 ounces tea; 15 pounds sugar; 4 quarts vinegar; 3 pounds 12 ounces salt; 4 ounces pepper; and 1 quart molasses.

Sounds deficient in some vitamins, and very boring, but filling enough. Of course, this was the ration in theory. In practice things were not so luxurious. Apparently the biggest and most bemoaned issue for both civilian and soldier of the South alike, was not the vitamins or the variety – but the lack of coffee. Something had to be done, and much imagination was applied to the problem.

The range of coffee substitutes invented by desperate humans is quite astounding. Not all have been the result of wartime shortages. There are those anxious souls who fear what might happen to them under its stimulating effects - but don’t want to relinquish a hot beverage at breakfast. Such souls as Ella Kellogg, whose recipe for Caramel Coffee made from parched cornmeal we featured in a previous story – staunchly pure souls who consider prunes on toast an delicious alternative to marmalade. Most coffee substitutes are not the result of misguided opinion and choice however, they are the response to necessity in hard times. We have previously featured a Civil War recipe for ‘coffee’ made from sweet potato, but there were many, many, more ideas – and a significant amount of newspaper space was taken up with letters and recipes for coffee substitutes during the war. It seems to me that the range of ideas is testament to human ingenuity in deprivation – and to the amazing ability for hype in desperation. Most of the suggestions and recipes are accompanied by enthusiastic assurances that the substitute is as good, if not better than the real thing (so why was there an enthusiastic return to drinking expensive coffee instead of the infinitely cheaper substitutes after the war?).

Such creativity should be acknowledged: I will give a few more recipes for coffee substitutes in the future. For today, I give you an alternative idea – a method of ‘bulking up’ a limited amount of coffee, to make it go further. It is from a Georgia newspaper in 1865.

Substitutes for Coffee.
Nobody has had more occasion to mourn over the blockade than that numerous and highly respectable class, the coffee topers. Many an one would cheerfully munch his dry crusts at breakfast, if he could wash them down with the cheering beverage which used, in former times, to atone for the short-comings of cooks and fortify him against a day of vexations. For the stimulating property to which both tea and coffee owe their chief value, there is unfortunately no substitute; the best we can do is to dilute the little stocks which still remain, and cheat the palate, if we cannot deceive the nerves. The best substitute which we have yet found for either tea or coffee, is plenty of good, rich milk, which is at least nutritive, if not stimulating. But alas! the price of butter plainly tells that milk is almost as scarce as coffee, and many persons want something hot to drive off the fogs of the morning. After many unsatisfactory trials of rye, wheat, corn, potatoes, okra, acorns, and almost everything else that can be purchased, we have found in molasses, we will not say a substitute for, but an adulteration of coffee, which leaves but little to be desired, but the stimulus. Don't be alarmed, Mr. Editor, we are not about to propose "long sweetening." Molasses when boiled down until it scorches, is converted into an intensely bitter substance, called by chemists caramel. Our method is to put a quart or more of sorghum syrup into any convenient vessel, and stew it down over a slow fire, as if making candy, stirring constantly until the syrup is burnt black; then pour it out into a greased plate to cool. The blackish porous mass thus obtained is pounded, when quite cold, in an iron mortar. We mix it with twice its bulk of ground coffee, and use a teaspoonful of this mixture for each person; thus one teaspoonful of caramel and two of coffee will make six cups of a beverage which, as far as taste is concerned, is far preferable to pure Rio coffee. The burnt molasses or caramel, attracts moisture when exposed to the air, and must, therefore, be kept in a close vessel. It would be well, for the same reason, to prepare it in small quantities. If the molasses is burnt too much, it is reduced to charcoal and loses all taste. By the way, though a very simple matter, many housekeepers do not know that it is perfectly easy to clear coffee by adding a small quantity of cold water, just as it "comes to a boil."

Next Week …..

Next week, just for a change of routine, we will dine in mid-nineteenth century France with the writer and gastronome, Baron Léon Brisse.

Quotation for the Day ….

Give a frontiersman coffee and tobacco, and he will endure any privation, suffer any hardship, but let him be without these two necessaries of the woods, and he becomes irresolute and murmuring. U.S. Army Lt. William Whiting (1849)

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