Saturday, November 27, 2010

Civil War Coffee

My work on coffee comes at an ideal historic moment, in which social networks are helping to build support for fairer trading systems in coffee. Those same social networks help me to be better informed, in part because they allow for friends near and far to share coffee stories, including some rather unusual ones. (Just enter "coffee" in the search bar above to get a sampling.)

The latest is a story that is nearly 150 years old and comes from a friend who is over 2,000 miles away. The story is from CNN, and describes the peculiar geography of coffee during the civil war. Soldiers on both sides were addicted, to the point of chewing the beans when brewing was not feasible. Then, as now, suppliers were apt to cheat if they could get away with it, cutting coffee with anything to add weight -- even sand! Soldiers wisely sought whole beans, so that coffee might be the only relatively fresh ingredient in a soldier's ration. (Paula McCoach, who prepares coffee for Civil-War re-enactors. The article does not mention that any pan used for roasting should not be used to cook other foods. Garlic coffee, anyone?)

Early in the war, however, the northern army realized that the soldier-baristas were spending more time grinding and roasting that was deemed appropriate, and a "coffee essence" was devised. It was, according to the article's description, similar to -- and even a bit worse than -- the "coffee melt" that is offered in some restaurants and by Sodexo on my own campus. (Thanks to local managers and my marvelous students, Sodexo also offers some real coffee, but not campus-wide.)

As the Civil War dragged on, the coffee supply became one of the casualties, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon Line. This important commodity was blockaded, creating a black market for real coffee (with 300-fold price hikes) and a creative, if disgusting, array of alternatives. The article concludes with a positive result that occasionally followed -- soldiers would create temporary truces in order to trade coffee for tobacco, each being available only on one side of the line. 

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