Cowboy coffee: Keeping it real
About a dozen of us were staying in an old stone chateau with a view of the Beziers cathedral, high up on a bluff near the Mediterranean Sea, and my friend Bill Chisholm was up early, hootin' and hollerin' the way good ol', goodnatured Montana boys are wont to do.
Everybody else wanted to sleep in, but that's tough when someone is yelling, "I'm gonna make YEW some good ol' Montana cowboy coffee! (whoop, holler)."
So, eschewing the little French press coffeepot that sat on our blue-tiled counter, Bill boiled up some coffee and eggshells in a big ol' stew pot and gleefully came around with big mugs and a pitcher of milk, asking, "Yew want that ah-la-moday? (whoop, holler)."
"Well, this oughta be good," I thought. I love coffee in any way, shape or form and am always willing to test a new incarnation of its many powers. This one was a good mug of coffee, strong and chewy, and I still remember feeling so loved and happy with that warm cup, sitting there with my friends, bare feet feeling out the crevices between that old house's terracotta tiles, thinking, "Cowboy coffee my foot, this is the coffee that a Montana mom makes when she has six kids and the pipes are frozen and Dad's off working in the sapphire mines and won't be home for another week with the new coffeemaker."
It had never occurred to me to ask Mom why there were always eggshells in with our coffee grounds -- it just was, like the sauerkraut crock in the root cellar and the beef jerky ageing in the pantry.
|These blue and black enamel pieces are the quintessential pieces that I remember from my childhood. This photo is courtesy of the fine purveyors at Cowboy Coffee.|
But if you didn't grow up in a trailer Out West like I did, or in the mid part of the last century, you can still partake of the old ways: All you need is water, ground coffee, a pot and a fire.
Why the fire?
It wasn't so long ago that cowboys rode off for days when working large ranch herds, and the mornings in those mountains where Bill and I grew up always dawn cold. A pot of cowboy coffee brings the warmth of that campfire right into your belly, where it belongs.
It's still the way hikers and campers (and, heck, world travelers!) can get their fix. And if you remember to pack a few grounds in your overnight bag, never again will you be panicked by these early-morning words from your host: "Oh, we don't drink coffee."
The best cowboy coffee, in my mind, comes out of an enamel pot. Once the campfire is going, fill the pot with cold water and, when it boils, dump in the coffee. (The only way to know how MUCH coffee is to work at it. Your comfort zone may range from 3/4 cup per quart of water to twice that.) Let it cook for a minute -- no longer! -- and set the pot in a protected spot to steep for 5 minutes. A soft, sandy soil works well as an insulator here, and it's a good idea to cover it with a small towel.
Now, this is the only tricky part: keeping those grounds in the pot as much as possible while pouring a cup. And, of course, as long as there is an Internet and more than two people alive to use it, there will be arguments over even something as simple as cowboy coffee and how to keep those grounds in the bottom of the pot, where they belong.
Some people think that adding cold water sends the grounds to the bottom; other people argue that this practice only makes the coffee cold. If you can find a slightly sloped spot on which to place the coffeepot, you can allow the grounds to collect near the front, where they are less likely to be disturbed by pouring a cup. (I found that tip at ineedcoffee.)
Even hardcore black-coffee drinkers might want to add a little sugar to the resulting "brown gargle" because the taste probably will be somewhat bitter. In fact, the sugar-and-egg glaze developed by the Arbuckles' roasting company may explain why that brand became THE coffee bean of choice -- their motto is "The Coffee That Won the West." Up until a method of sealing in flavor and aroma was patented in 1865 by John and Charles Arbuckle, coffee was sold green and had to be roasted over the campfire before it could be brewed. While that meant that cowboys and soldiers drank fresher coffee than most of us do today, most people don't want to roast coffee while they're still asleep -- one burned bean can ruin your morning.
Today's packages of Arbuckles' coffee still contain a stick of peppermint candy, which was used to grind the beans. This may have been the secret to the brand's popularity -- between the sugar glaze and the peppermint stick, Arbuckles' had a distinctive flavor.
When I was younger, cowboy coffee meant fresh mountain mornings, camaraderie and a marvelous feeling of independence. It reminded me of my mother and her coffee can full of eggshells by the stove. Here in the flatlands, surrounded by my three fancy cappuccino machines and only memories of Mom, some mornings I still simply put a pot of water on to boil -- and revel in the feeling of how simple and rewarding life can be.
Sept. 29 is Coffee Day! At Dave's Garden, we are observing the occasion with a week's worth of coffee-themed articles. From growing coffee to drinking coffee to using coffee in your garden, join us each day to read something different about the beverage that says "Good morning!" to so many of us.
Not a coffee drinker? We didn't leave you out. Look for articles on chicory and biscotti. And thanks to Melody for the darling "mug shot."
Happy Coffee Day!