The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge


By Susan M. Thigpen © 1991

Issue: April, 1991

If there is one common thread that runs through everyone's memories about growing up in the mountains or on a farm, it's the smell of coffee brewing first thing in the morning.

Old timers bought green coffee beans and took them home to roast and grind in their own coffee grinders as they used them. No matter how poor a family was, coffee was considered one of the essentials that their money would be spent on.

Coffee was an adult drink and it was a passage into adulthood for a child to be offered a cup of coffee. Some families even had traditions about when a child was old enough to drink coffee. If a child was offered coffee, it was always about half and half with milk and usually sugar or honey.

Sometimes old people who had teeth problems would eat practically nothing but bread soaked in coffee. Sometimes a teething baby would be given piece of cloth that had sugar knotted into it and dipped in coffee. Coffee was even used in cooking. After country ham was fried, coffee was poured in the old cast iron frying pan with the ham grease to make "red-eye" gravy.

I have an idea that a large part of the success of pioneers settling the frontier had to do with strong coffee made over a campfire. It was a reminder of home and braced them to go on.

A lot has been said about the first settlers in America refusing to pay the tea tax and making substitutes, but little has been said about what people did when they ran out of coffee. Many passable substitutes were used by our forefathers.

One of the favorite substitutes were dandelion roots. You could dig them up, roast them in the oven until they were darn near burnt and grind them to make a pretty good brew. This tasted very close to coffee if chicory was added.

Some parched acorns to brew. They would boil acorns in water, throw out that water, boil them again in fresh water, and repeat the changing of water several times to get rid of the acute bitterness before roasting the nuts. I have tried to make a drink with acorns, but have never been able to boil them in enough changes of water to get rid of enough of the bitterness to be able to drink it.

Another substitute is chickpeas. You can roast them until they are black in the oven and grind them also. They make a very rich, mild tasting coffee substitute that needs little cream or sugar added. To me, it's the closest substitute in taste to real coffee.

We take coffee so for granted these days. If we run out, it's only a trip to the store for more, but it was one of the main comforts and luxuries of another generation's life - running out of coffee meant a whole lot more to them. They might not plan to go to the store but twice a year - in the spring to get what they needed to plant their crops and in the fall after harvest time had put a little money in their pockets to spend on the winter's supplies.