Anti-Recipes for Coffee
U.S. Army, West Germany

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson


October 2005

Unenlightened coffee

The fascinating history of coffee is still more wonderful to the discerning few who know that this beverage is unfit for humanoid consumption.

Yet coffee has a medicinal value, toughening stomachs and digestions; and a social value, excusing people to gather in coffeehouses who might otherwise visit liquorish tap-rooms and then run wild in the streets, or visit sushi bars and eat something that is both tasty and healthy.

Over the centuries, coffee has had its ups and downs socially, in France for instance as H. E. Jacob relates in his delightful history:

... coffee fell into disrepute among persons who were critical of the follies of the mode in the French baroque epoch. Those who made a cult of its use were somewhat ludicrous.

But later:

It was characteristic of eighteenth-century France that the terms "coffee" and "enlightenment" were practically synonymous.
Heinrich Eduard Jacob
Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity

To join in the spirit of this unspiritous but almost ubiquitous beverage, I hereby share two favorite recipes for brewing coffee which I daresay, discovered independently, have taken others through thick and thin, as it were. The turgid thickness of attempting to explain that the stuff simply is unpalatable no matter how much milk, spices, or even spiritous liquors are stirred in; and the dispiriting thinness of one's social circle when coffee joins beer as social drinks that are undrinkable in any company under any provocation. For yes, some of us also detest beer with a lifelong abhorrence.

Mark Twain's Recipe for German Coffee

At any rate, the first recipe, a historical and thin concoction. Toward the end of A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain provides a recipe for an Ash-Cake (noting that "tramps never return for another ash-cake") and New England Pie ("invite your enemy"), and then his Recipe for German Coffee:

Take a barrel of water and bring it to a boil; rub a chiccory berry against a coffee berry, then convey the former into the water. Continue the boiling and evaporation until the intensity of the flavor and aroma of the coffee and chiccory has been diminished to a proper degree; then set aside to cool.

Now unharness the remains of a once cow from the plow, insert them in a hydraulic press, and when you shall have acquired a teaspoonful of that pale blue juice which a German superstition regards as milk, modify the malignity of its strength in a bucket of tepid water and ring up the breakfast. Mix the beverage in a cold cup, partake with moderation, and keep a wet rag around your head to guard against over-excitement.

H. E. Jacob describes how the rise of chicory as a supposed coffee substitute occurred in Germany during Napoleon's attempt to blockade Britain from European trade — begun in 1806 — the Continental System. But "Chicory is an innocent and insignificant plant", as Jacob says. A marginal substitute for coffee, as even Mark Twain might concede.

Sergeant Franson's Recipe for Army Coffee

57th Ordnance Brigade patch By coincidence, the occasion and invention of our second recipe, a personal and thick concoction, also took place in Germany: at Kaiserslautern where I was stationed with the headquarters of the 57th Ordnance Brigade, U.S. Army, doing no doubt useful works.

One day I was asked by more senior folks to make coffee for our headquarters office. I protested that as a lifelong non-imbiber of coffee, I had never brewed it myself. But they assumed correctly that I had seen it made and thus must have the general idea, so I was asked more decisively to make the coffee.

I remain doubtful of the contribution of coffee to winning the Cold War, but at the time this request certainly possessed the authority of command.

Okay. So, my Recipe for Army Coffee:

Take the simple coffeepot out of sight of the potential drinkers, to a washroom for instance where water is available for cleaning and brewing. Important: do not dump out old coffee grounds or the dregs from the previous brewing; we desire a flavor that builds. Fill the coffeepot near to its rim with fresh coffee grounds from the canister. Note that we are not abstemiously measuring the coffee grounds, we are generously filling the entire pot from bottom to top, or nearly so. Do not pack the coffee tightly, let it settle loosely.

The next subtlety of this recipe involves the method of heating water. We do not simply add a little water and put the coffeepot on a stovetop to boil; this provides insufficient character to the brew. Instead — still in the washroom — we run the hot-water tap until the water is maximally hot, and then fill the coffeepot entirely with hot tap water, slowly soaking it into the topped-up coffee grounds.

That's it, all done. Serve, and depart.

Later I was informed that even among infamously flavorful Army coffees, mine was especially bad. Yet the recipe was a perfect success from my viewpoint: never again was I asked to brew Army coffee.

Testing for enlightenment

My father, a lifelong fan of coffee — even of the Army's — liked to claim that the method of testing the doneness of the brew was to drop in an iron horseshoe. If the horseshoe floated, the coffee was almost ready to drink; when the horseshoe dissolved, it was finished.

You will appreciate the advantage of my thick recipe over Twain's thin one, that the horseshoe will float more readily. To make it dissolve completely however, one must add more exotic ingredients.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

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