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.

Cookbook

"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 today's "dollars."

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
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.

Coffee moistened with cold water
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.

Coffee egg slurry
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 clots
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.

Brewed cup of coffee

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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