Cuppa Joe?

Some believe that the origin of “cup of joe” stems from a 1914 ban on alcohol on U.S. Navy ships imposed by the Secretary of the Navy Josephus “Joe” Daniels a notorious teetotaler. After his order, imposed near the beginning of World War I, the strongest drink a sailor could get on a ship was black coffee. So it began.

When you watch a home improvement show and the host points out the “Farm Kitchen” you should know that they are very wrong every time. No farm kitchen ever looked like that. The one thing that took pride of place wasn’t the Sunbeam mixer or the International Harvester refrigerator but the coffee pot. Right there on the back burner of the old enameled General Electric range, watched over by my mothers glass figurines in the windows over the sink. The little glass bulldog, exposed to the sun for fifty years and slowly turning purple, its little glass eyes surveying all the goings on of a family of five. His gaze scanned all the things that made it our kitchen. The old chipped cast iron sink set in a solid painted counter top, a single cupboard on each end, the pull out breadboard where my mother rolled her pie dough and were we clamped the hand cranked meat grinder, an antique even 75 years ago. A half turn and he could see the drawing over the steel enamel cabinet that came from my grandmother Annie’s house on El Campo road. The drawing above was a Chinese peasant mom had done from a photograph in the National Geographic. He carried his basket and pitchfork on his way somewhere, reminiscent of a Pearl Buck story.

Every morning for the 18 years I lived in that house my father would roll out of his warm bed an hour before dawn, dress in the dark in his Levi’s and Pendleton flannel shirt, the uniform never varied in all the time I knew him, he then made his way to the kitchen, pushing through the swinging door turning to his right and switching on the burner under the coffee pot. Then, and only then would he turn on the lights.

We perked our coffee. No French press or Kuerig ever saw the light of day in our kitchen. We kept a big red can of Hill’s brothers coffee at the ready. I have no idea why it was Hills Brothers. Maybe because it was a California company from San Francisco, a city that held a special place in Shannon family lore. The shipbuilder Austin Hill Sr. built clipper ships in New England. He emigrated with his sons to California in 1873. Two of his sons, one his namesake, Austin Herbert Hill and his brother Reuben started a small company in 1878, as the Arabian Coffee and Spice Mills. In 1900, Hills Bros. began packing roast coffee in vacuum sealed cans. This allowed them to ship all over the west and still keep the coffee fresh. They incorporated under the Hills Bros. name in 1906. In 1926 Hills Bros. moved its operations to Harrison Street in San Francisco, into a solid brick building on the Embarcadero. The roasting operations once made the entire surrounding area smell like coffee.

A symbol of an Arab drinking coffee called “the taster” was designed by an artist named Briggs in 1906. A strange bearded fellow now more than 100 years old , he stood perfectly still, wearing a sunny floral robe and a turban, a coffee bowl perpetually held to his lips. His expression was one of either deep contentment or otherworldly knowledge. Morning, noon and night he stood there, a strange and familiar family icon who job was to wake us up.

My grandparents, a full two generations older still seriously boiled their coffee. At 212 degrees and bubbling hot, they poured it into a cup and saucer. Hot enough to scald, they would spill a little into the saucer until it cooled a tad then drink from the saucer. My grandmother, an expert in the ways of Ladyhood, being raised in the latter part of the nineteenth century by her wealthy aunt and uncle never stooped to the plebeian use of mugs. That was for the shanty Irish .

Mom and dad were much more egalitarian. My mother, from a family that lived in 72 houses while she was growing up, carting around something like fine china just wasn’t possible. My dad, of course knew about fine china but he was always an unpretentious and practical man and mugs it was.

Visitors to our kitchen shook hands first, drank coffee second. In this order, you would be offered coffee, a chew of gum and in return some friends would offer in return, a smoke. Matters of great import were then discussed. How much rain, what was the harvest date for celery, a little gossip about other farmers, but no too much mind you, we lived in a small community and things got around. My father and his friends weren’t much for that anyway, a farmers world is very serious. Every day can ruin you. Too much rain, too little rain, keep an eye on the barometer, bad markets, hope for a better one. Much of a farmers life is held in the palm of fate and no one knows what tomorrow might bring. Crops ruined in Michigan, good news for California, bumper crops in Florida, not good news. Every woman in the grocery store holds a farm families life in her hands.

As kids we didn’t drink it much and if we did it was heavily laced with milk and sugar. We thought is was sour and nasty. My dad liked it though, especially when it had been perked down to a viscous, muddy sludge. His cups, if left on the tabletop when he went outside actually stuck to the table.

Surfing was the thing when I was in High School. Beach Boys and Dick Dale on the radio, we were all going to Surf City where the girls were two to one which I was to learn to my sorrow wasn’t exactly true. In the sixties the ocean was cold, very cold though, it may surprise people to know that before wetsuits this was not considered a great obstacle to the joys of waveriding. Cars that you paid a hundred dollars for had great heaters that could steam up the windows in a hurry, blue feet and numb fingers were quickly restored to pink. The perfect anecdote was the short walk to the Sea View Cafe just a hundred yards from the beach where you could get a donut and a steaming mug of coffee poured by Diane Frederick a gorgeous girl just a couple of years older than we were and thus unatainable. Hey, a perk is a perk though and you could consider that one.

When I was in the Navy I learned how serious coffee could be. My first duty station was at the Naval Hospital in San Diego. A beautiful old building of pink stucco built in the Moorish style to match the buildings in nearby Balboa Park, the site of the Panama-Pacific exposition held in 1915. The hospital first opened for patients in 1925. Our clinic was in the original building and featured terrazzo floors, lath and plaster walls, fifteen foot ceilings and being a navy building was kept in beautiful condition. Decks (floors) were waxed and buffed by night duty sailors every single night. The only way this could be interrupted was by emergency treatment requiring our doctors and scrub nurses (OR Techs) to head down to the surgery wing.

Night duty was simple much of the time. After a day of work you simply spent the night in the clinic on an on-call basis. We had a little room with a single bed, a head and a bank of lockers for each of the enlisted staff. It was shared by both sailors and waves though the waves returned to their barracks at 22:00 hundred hours. In the corner of this little room stood a small cabinet which was the base of a sort of shrine on which stood the coffee maker. When reveille was piped at 06:00 and you rolled out, your first duty wasn’t unlocking the front door or turning on the lights or making up the rack, it was starting the coffee. Every enlisted sailor came in, opened their locker, hung their coat or dixie and poured a cup. Everyone, every time.

The pot itself belongs in the Smithsonian. Lord knows how old it was. It carried its dents proudly, waxed and polished on every field* day it shone like a diamond. Beware the inside though, all it ever got was a quick rinse with cold water. No soap was allowed anywhere near it for it might corrupt the taste. Imagine that. The interior was coated with a layer of what looked like shellac and I was warned by Chief Bosse on my first day on duty that it had to stay that way, it was never to be touched. I often wondered if the Captain ever took the lid off for inspection and if he did what did he expect to see. He was a medical doctor and had spent many years at sea so I imagine he knew what to expect and never peeked.

How did this ever come about. In 1793 the Continental Congress, wishing to thumb it’s nose at King George after the Boston Tea Party when the Sons of Liberty threw the British East India Company’s entire shipment of imported teas into Boston Harbor, declared Coffee to be America’s national drink. The rebellion to come was being planned in the coffee houses of Boston by Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and John Hancock a trio of non-tea swilling, no nonsense, no pinky finger in the air patriots. Not like those effete southern planters like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, nope, those men would have to drink coffee like the rest of us.

John Hancock was a ship owner and international trader, read part-time smuggler, and the primary reason he was a patriot was because he owed old King Georgie oodles of pounds in unpaid taxes. A good revolt would clear his ledgers and keep him out of an English jail. As a “Good” patriot, one of the first things he did was to outfit some of his ships as privateers and start nipping the odd British merchantman. Not for profit, mind you, but a way to thumb his nose at the King. From these humble, but very, very dangerous beginnings sprang the Continental Navy. If you get a look at the things that were shipped aboard the original Wasp and Hornet you will see beans, flour, sugar and coffee, lots of coffee.

Five things have driven the Navy, Coal, Diesel, Uranium and a cup of Joe. It is said that when Admiral Thomas Dewey ordered his battleships into Manila Bay in 1898 he turned to Captain Charles Gridley of the USS Olympia and said, “You may fire when ready Gridley.” Historians have failed to note that Captain Gridley replied, “Gotta finish my coffee first Admiral.”

American sailors always in the alert for ways to make a hard life easier quickly made coffee messes an omnipresent feature of ships afloat and berths ashore. By the time of WWII, there were coffeepots on the bridge, chartrooms, in the engine and boiler rooms, the ships supply office, in the magazines and the machine shops. Ships distilled water being typically rank, naval geniuses devised ways to make it palatable. In the machine shops, machinist mates turned out intricate devices meant to boil the finest brew possible. After Pearl Harbor, the Navy established its own roasting plants in Oakland, California and Brooklyn, New York. Typically the services bought the cheapest coffee it could get but in a boon for the Pacific Fleet, the Navy contracted for the entire state of Hawaii’s Kona Coffee crop for the entire war. Sailors were vey happy, sort of. You see, water distillation units on ships were only partly efficient at removing all the salt from seawater which gave the coffee a salty flavor which you had to get used to because sugar and cream were almost nonexistent on warships, especially ships with no Admiral aboard.

There were few Old Salts left from the war when I was in but you might see an old Chief Petty Officer over in the Chiefs mess drop a pinch of table salt in his mug. Old habits die hard.

It has been written that, “For any sailor, coffee is a Holy substance blessed by king Neptune himself and gifted with the power to jumpstart a watch-stander to a level of alertness that ensures success. Ships may run on diesel but Boatswains mates sure run on coffee.”

When we had visitors to our house who couldn’t abide the mighty strength of Shannon coffee, it was considered funny. It provided a healthy feeling of superiority. When you left the table with coffee still in the cup you were automatically branded as a person of weak constitution. I once supposed that my mothers parents rated their future sons-in-law by the way they drank their coffee. Perhaps thats why they married a rancher, a farmer and a sailor.

The same can be said of farmers and ranchers as of sailors. No matter the kitchen in our family, the pot was always on. Coming in from the fields and wrapping your hands around a hot mug of steaming coffee is one of life’s quiet joys.

*Field day is a day in the service given to cleaning. When I was in the service we did it every Thursday after noon chow. Everything was cleaned dusted and the brass polished. Decks were stripped and then waxed and buffed ready for Friday inspection. If you think the movie joke about white gloves is funny, it’s not. The inspection officer comes aboard, ostentatiously pulls on his gloves and goes to work. The best time to attack the US Navy is on field day because everyone is doing maids work.


2 thoughts on “Cuppa Joe?

  1. That coffee pot reminds me of a mug that a Gunnery Sergeant in my unit had. Us lowly Lance Corporals were convinced that all he had to do was pour hot water in it and viola, he had coffee. And in the grunts, field day took place on Thursday evening after chow. We all hoped that the Company First Sergeant wasn’t too drunk by the time we were done and he came to inspect. If he was, it made for a long night.


  2. Mary Anne (Foremaster) Harrington says:

    So enjoyed this remarkable essay on an American tradition. Coffee may have changed recipes, but farmers and ranchers still reach for that mug! Thank you for the memories from the farmhouses to the high seas


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