When my grandmother, Almeda Day, married my grandfather little did she realize that she would end up living in Mexico in a little Mormon settlement that banned the drinking of coffee. Well, she drank it anyway.
My father said that when he was a little boy he would find her brewing coffee early each morning and never failed to warn her:
“Grandma, that coffee will kill you!” “Well, she just wouldn’t listen,” he said. “It did her in at age 102!”
During the American Civil War a Union naval blockade of the southern coast cut off the supply of coffee to the Confederacy.
Between 1861 and 1865 the price of coffee, if it could be found at all, could cost as much as $70.
A soldier’s salary was only $11 per month. The Rebs tried everything including roasting dandelion and okra seeds, sweet potatoes and peas, persimmons and even acorns, trying to come up with a substitute.
Caffeine-starved rebels sometimes declared an unofficial truce so they could swap southern tobacco for Yankee coffee.
The boys in blue had all the coffee they could drink. Rations were generous at six cups per day.
David A. Norris reported that, “Union Army camps glowed with thousands of campfires at night, each one with a soldier roasting beans and boiling water.
Discarded tin cans with handles of twisted baling wire became personal coffeepots. Soldiers ground the beans with a musket butt and a hard surface, or created a rude mortar and pestle with a tin cup and bayonet.
If there was no time to boil water, soldiers chewed on the whole bean as they marched.”
Believing that the soldiers were spending too much time grinding and roasting coffee, the Union army decided to provide the soldiers with a concentrated instant coffee mix.
It was composed of coffee, milk and sugar boiled into a thick pudding-like product called “essence of coffee.” According to Bell Irvin Wiley, “it looked like axle grease, a beverage so villainous that the men would not drink it.” Some suppliers, it was later found, used spoiled milk in the concoction and would sometimes even add sand and dirt in order to increase their per-pound profits.
So the War Department continued to issue whole beans which the soldiers brewed themselves into a beverage “strong enough to float an iron wedge,” as one of Sherman’s veterans described his recipe.
“Innocent of lacteal adulteration, it gave strength to the weary and heavy laden, and courage to the despondent and sick at heart.”
But perhaps coffee’s greatest contribution to the Union cause might have been its contribution to the public health.
“The discovery that water-borne pathogens caused diseases such as cholera and dysentery lay more than a decade in the future. In boiling water to brew their java, they were unwittingly sanitizing contaminated water supplies.”
(Source: David A. Norris, “Strong Enough to Float an Iron Wedge,” American Heritage, Winter 2008)
So, what of coffee? A deadly brew or a life-saving potion? Modern science would have it both ways. Do we really know? It reminds me of a story told by Walt Disney:
“Remember the story of the boy who wanted to march in the circus parade? When the show came to town, the bandmaster needed a trombonist, so the boy signed up.
He hadn’t marched a block before the fearful noises from his horn caused two old ladies to faint and a horse to run away.
The bandmaster demanded, ‘why didn’t you tell me you couldn’t play the trombone?’ And the boy said, ‘How did I know?—I never tried before!’”