A little coffee on the prairie

I was reading Little House on the Prairie with my youngest daughter the other day. Here’s a passage that surprised me.

Then Pa brought water from the creek, while Mary and Laura helped Ma get supper. Ma measured coffee beans into the coffee mill and Mary ground them.

I’d read this book with my other children and hadn’t given this part a thought. This time I thought about how odd it was that they had coffee. At this point the Ingalls family was moving from Wisconsin to Kansas some time in the 1870’s. The family of five and all their worldly goods were packed into a covered wagon. They shot wild game for food. They gathered water from creeks. And yet they had coffee.

Coffee doesn’t grow in the continental United States. It grows in the tropics at high altitudes. These settlers living off the land in the middle of nowhere had some coffee beans that had been imported from thousands of miles away. It’s interesting to think that despite all that they lacked, they had these tropical beans and apparently took them for granted. Said another way, of all the benefits of civilization, coffee made the short list of things settlers chose to take with them.

10 thoughts on “A little coffee on the prairie

  1. I wonder what else falls into this category? Salt and sugar maybe? Flour would be a staple they may have bought but it would not have come from far away. Reminds me that the whole ‘white folk expansion’ of the 1500’s was spawned by the spice and gold trade.

    I’ll have to send my nieces and nephews researching this. They are my rural American distributed research network. Sort of a mechanical turk of kids under 15.

  2. I don’t know about salt, but the first book in the series talks about how they made sugar from maple trees. Maple sugar was for every day use. They bought a little white sugar to bring out when guests came over.

  3. I’ve been to the maple sugar festival in Highland County VA so I should have thought about that!

    I recall reading somewhere that coffee began to take hold in the US following the tax issues that culminated in the Boston Tea Party. If coffee did get traction I could see how by 1870 it was considered a staple. I also recall seeing lots of coffee pots in Civil War camp scene paintings. That would have been just a few years before the books were based.

    According to this site on Prairie foods, coffee was common by the 1850’s: http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodpioneer.html There’s an excerpt of a book discussing coffee on the Oregon Trail: http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodbeverages.html and the following advice is given:

    “Although Peter Burnett advised his family, “If you are heavily loaded let the quantity of sugar and coffee be small, as milk is preferable and does not have to be hauled,” his counsel was the exception. Most emigrants took the advice of Anna Maria King: “Fetch what coffee, sugar and such things you like, if you should be sick you need them.”

    and right below there’s this Civil war excerpt:

    “Finally there was coffee. Soldiers could go for days without food, if only they had their coffee. In the Confederacy it became as highly prized as shoes, and commanded outrageous prices in times of scarcity. Substitutes were tried using chicory or parched corn, but nothing approaced the real article. As a result, coffee was the item most often requested when Rebs informally met Yanks between the lines for illict trading. Virginia tobacco being the commodity exchanged. In the North, by contrast, there was rarely any shortage of coffee beans, and many regiments were actually issued special rifles, one per 100-man company, with a coffee grinder built into the butt stock. The best coffee was slow roasted over a low fire, “until of a chestnut brown color and not burnt, as is so commonly done.” It was to be boiled briskly for two minutes, then take from the fire at once, a little cold water thrown in, then the boiler’s contents poured through a piece of flannel after it had settled for five minuutes.”
    —Civil War Cookbook, William C. Davis [Courage Books:Philadelphia:PA] 2003 (p. 16)

    I’ve always thought it funny that Cafe du Monde touts its “coffee and chicory” as chicory was simply a poor man’s way to stretch coffee.

  4. Later on in one of the other books, they were out of coffee, and they used roasted grain instead. I think that coffee was a staple in their family like flour and sugar. Maybe it was because Pa or Ma needed caffeine everyday. I think that was mentioned in one of the books.

  5. Little Starbucks on the Prairie would be good title too.

    Another common essential was whiskey. It was about the only effective medicine to be had (anesthetic/antiseptic).

  6. I *love* this post!!

    I never thought about that.

    When we lived in Kenya, it was fun to stay at a rural home with coffee growing outside our bedroom window.

  7. I’m reading that series to my youngest as well. I love those books. In addition to being educational, they are great conversation starters, and a plus: they are very well written.

    Pa loves his coffee.

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