Culinary Archeology II: How to make a kick-ass cup of coffee
Poverty is increasing in our land at
a very swift rate, the rich are steadily getting richer and the poor
poorer, and the great middle class is disappearing. We are growing more
and more like Europe every day, and soon I presume there will be no
middle class, only rich and poor.
--The Rev. Reed of Brooklyn, New York, 1885, in an address to the Industrial Restaurant Association
by Peter Duveen
MUSEUM OF BROOKLYN ART AND CULTURE, January 11, 2009--About four years
ago I acquired a volume, perhaps the only remaining copy in the world,
entitled "Choice Recipes from Experienced Housewives: A Cook Book."
Numbering 104 pages, this 1883 work was put together by a group of
ladies belonging to a Brooklyn, New York literary society who had tired
of being hit up for donations by street beggars. They resolved to stop
this "evil" by establishing the "Industrial Restaurant," a place
where the destitute could work for a meal and a place to stay, along
with some of the other rudimentary advantages society has to offer,
such as a bath and a shave. The year was 1878.
"Two small rooms and a wood shed were engaged; wood was purchased by
the chord for men to saw; and sewing, scrubbing, and braiding of rags
for rugs were provided for women and children to do," the ladies tell
us in a brief history. "Substantial meals of baked beans, meat stew,
bread and coffee, were furnished for five cents per meal, or for work
done on the premises."
The society women also imposed a voluntary levy of five cents a week
upon area residents, while encouraging them to donate "broken" food,
clothing, and other materials. They eventually moved their budding
social service program to more spacious quarters.
"A reading room was opened, lodgings at ten cents per night were
provided for men, evening classes were held for boys in reading,
writing and arithmetic, and a more thorough visitation of the poor was
carried on," we are told.
They moved once again in 1882 to a new location where they planned to offer expanded
programs for women. "Numbers of women did not know how to patch, darn,
or do plain sewing, to say nothing of making clothing for themselves
and their families, or teaching their daughters at home," they wrote.
"Here we purpose, if we are blest with the means, to teach washing,
cooking, sewing and cutting, dish washing and scrubbing, to women and
girls; and printing, shoemaking and carpentering, to boys, besides
providing a day nursery and kindergarten for children."
They had already racked up an impressive record. During the winters of
1878 through 1881, they served 29,000 meals, all within an expenditure
of $3,528.80. Mind you, that is the rough equivalent of $144,980.75 in
Then, there came an appeal to the public.
"In order to carry on this work of remedying the great evil of street
begging, helping the poor to help themselves, and teaching them how to
do it, we need not only the waste of your houses and your money, but
yourselves. Will you not help us?"
Up to this point, the government had not yet played a role in this
exclusively private enterprise, organized for the benefit of society
and not for the turning of a profit. In 1884, the ladies'
entrepreneurial venture was incorporated under the name of The
Industrial Restaurant and Training School Association. It was
essentially a woman-run organization, not a single man being given the
honor of sitting on the association's governing board.
What finally happened to this institution? We are told by a
commentator, writing in 1891, that "it did an extensive and a worthy
work for about ten years, when the bureau of charities took up this
branch and relieved the industrial women of their burden."
So much for this wonderfully-run private-sector experiment in social welfare.
We are bequeathed, in our present age, due to the wonderful invention
of the printing press in the 15th Century, a record of the fabulous
recipes of the women of the Industrial Restaurant, formerly of the
Literary Society. Among these are instructions for brewing coffee, a
tradition that has held firm in American homes through revolutions,
wars, presidential administrations, social upheavals and economic
downturns. We present this recipe in all its grandeur, and shall
attempt, I believe with great success, to reproduce it.
Buy coffee in the roasted kernel if
you cannot take the trouble to roast it; have your own small coffee
mill and grind the amount needed for each meal just before using it;
mix three tablespoonfuls of ground coffee with a little cold water and
a well beaten egg, pour in one pint of boiling water, and let it boil
two minutes. Use condensed milk in the cups.
The first set of instructions is quite important, because it emphasizes
the benefit of roasting one's own coffee. Please refer to any one of a
number of websites, including one on my own website at
http://www.petersnewyork.com/SCPC/index.htm, for a discussion on
roasting coffee at home. In the event one chooses not to roast one's
own, one is advised to purchase the already roasted whole bean and
grind it as needed. If I were the reader, I would opt for the first
choice, because, after using fresh-roasted coffee on my first try, and
comparing the final product to one generated from the same batch of
ground coffee two weeks later, I found an appreciable difference in
quality. If you want the "kick ass" effect in its greatest potency and flavor profile, get
into the practice of roasting your own coffee. You can do it by hand
with minimal equipment, or procure a machine that performs the task
with far less human effort. At the same time, don't be intimidated into
not trying this recipe using the familiar brands of ground coffee.
Now that we have investigated the ground rules, let's look at the rest
of the recipe. If you are like me, you anguish over precisely how much
coffee to put into a coffee filter. We are fortunate that our recipe
spells out these proportions: 3 tablespoons of coffee to a pint of
water. Now that that's set, let's inquire into the means of brewing.
Ingredients and utensils
Benjamin Thompson, known also as Count Rumford, who became persona non grata in
the United States after the American Revolution and moved to England,
marrying the widow of Antoine Lavoisier and becoming the director of
one of England's premier scientific institutions, was a great proponent
of non-boiled coffee, and has left us writings on the subject. There's
a long-standing debate over whether or not boiling destroys the flavor.
I would say not necessarily, for I have tasted great coffee out of a
perk pot. There are obviously other factors that enter into the
destruction of the flavor profile besides the mere application of heat.
I mention this because our recipe calls for boiling.
Moistening the ground coffee
We are told to moisten three tablespoons of coffee with cold water, in
order, one would guess, to prep it for binding with the well-beaten
egg. You may have already come to realize that, at this stage, the
process is the same as that of making tempera paint. I use an electric
coffee mill to grind the coffee to the point where it begins to cake.
That is usually fine enough.
The coffee-egg slurry
After adding the egg to the coffee, I stir
the contents with a wire spatula to break up any lumps. One gets a
slick brown mixture, which, if applied to any surface, will adhere
strongly upon drying. But that is not our purpose at present. We have
already prepared a pint of boiling water and immediately add and
lightly stir the egg/coffee-grind slurry. We then time the mixture for
two minutes, as per our instructions, and then remove the pot from the
flame. We find that the coffee grounds have combined with the egg,
forming large brownish-gray clots, and enabling the pouring off of
clear coffee into our cup.
Coffee grounds combining with egg, leaving brewed coffee to pour off.
This having been effected, the coffee may be consumed as is, or with
the addition of condensed milk, as our ladies have instructed us, or in
any way to which we are personally accustomed.
Give this recipe a try. It does cost an extra egg, which is an expense
many of us may not wish to incur, but it does provide options in the
event we run out of coffee filters, and the final product is as
competitive as any that I have found with other methods of brewing.
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