We are sitting here in our living room watching “The Man From Laramie (1955),” Anthony Mann’s psychological revenge saga starring James Stewart. It’s one of Stewart’s grittier roles and the cast is A-list. It’s a good one.
All of that being said, none of it explains the coffee. That there was coffee I was ready to believe. It arrived in Paris around the same time cocoa showed up during the long reign of Louis XIV. How did it get from 17th century Paris to every ranch, general store, restaurant, ranch, or lonely house on the prairie in North America?
Here’s the scene I was watching: Stewart got shot. A woman is patching him up. They are discussing life, love, hatred, vengeance, violent death, and other chit-chat. Finally, she says: “I don’t know about anyone else, but I sure could use some coffee.”
This is supposed to be a tiny no-name town. It’s a dusty village in cow country, not even the U.S. yet. There’s one store the size of our kitchen. They may not have much, but they sell coffee. How did they get coffee? It doesn’t grow in North America, so it had to have traveled there from Central or South America, a Caribbean island, or Africa.
I think we tend to forget that before “modern” inventions, the world found ways to get by. There were trade routes extending from Europe to China and those creaky old wood boats rounded Cape Horn. We — modern century — humans did not invent the world. We might yet un-invent it, but that’s a different issue.
An Ethiopian Legend
Coffee supposedly traces its heritage to ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau. There, legend has it, a goat herder named Kaldi discovered the potential of the beans we love and need. Kaldi discovered, after eating the berries from a certain tree, his goats became so energetic they wouldn’t sleep.
Kaldi reported his findings of super energized goats to the abbot of the local monastery. The abbot concocted a drink made from the berries. He discovered the drink kept him alert through long hours of prayer. He shared his discovery with other monks at the monastery and coffee was off and running.
Knowledge of those energizing berries began to spread. As the word moved eastward across the Arabian peninsula where it nestled forever, it was the beginning of a journey that would make coffee the international breakfast beverage of champions. And me. And maybe, you.
By the mid-17th century, there were over 300 coffee houses in London, many of which attracted like-minded patrons, including merchants, shippers, brokers and artists. Many businesses grew out of coffee houses. Lloyd’s of London, for example, came into existence as Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House.
Coffee Comes to America
In 1714, the Mayor of Amsterdam gave a young coffee plant to France’s Louis XIV. The King had it planted in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. In 1723, a young naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu obtained a seedling from the King’s plant. Despite a challenging voyage — horrendous weather, a saboteur who tried to destroy the seedling and a pirate attack — he transported the seedling to Martinique.
The seedling thrived. It is credited with being the ancestor of more than 18 million coffee trees on Martinique over the next 50 years. Even more amazing? It was also the parent of all coffee trees throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now that’s ancestry!
Brazilian coffee exists because of a flirtation of Francisco de Mello Palheta with the French Governor’s wife. She was charmed by his good looks. Although her husband was unwilling to share his coffee, she gave Francisco a bouquet of flowers in which she had buried enough coffee seeds to begin a multi-billion dollar industry.
Missionaries and travelers, traders and colonists carried coffee seeds to new lands. Coffee trees were planted wherever they might grow. Plantations were established in tropical forests and rugged mountain highlands. Some crops flourished, others didn’t survive. New nations were based on coffee. By the end of the 18th century, coffee was the world’s most profitable crop. Even today, after crude oil, coffee is the most sought-after commodity on earth.
Somehow, some of that coffee landed in a general store in New Mexico. Given one thing and another, I suspect those cowpokes would sooner have run out of bullets than coffee, though the combination of bullets and coffee has been … well … interesting.
From sleepless Ethiopian goats, to hyped-up gun-toting cowhands, coffee rules. If all those western guys had been tea drinkers, would there have been a wild west? Or would everyone have politely sipped tea and settled down to read a book?
You have to wonder.
The mystery answer to whether or not they used milk in the coffee is yes, they did when they could. If they were home at the ranch, the first thing in the morning, they were out milking the cows because not only did it give them milk, but it gave them cream and butter.
Out on the trail, until the invention of the chuck wagon, it was difficult, but once they had someone to cook for them, if they weren’t in a big rush, someone would always milk a cow or two in the morning so “cookie” would have the wherewithal to make butter and there would be milk and cream for the coffee. Sugar was harder to come by. They brought suge with them, but until they got back to a town, they couldn’t replace it so they were careful in how it was used.
The coffee they drank was what we called in the middle East (and in all Arab countries) boiled coffee. You roast the beans, grind them. Boil water. Put the ground coffee into the boiled water (after it is finished boiling). Let it steep for a few minutes and put it in a cup. That coffee is STRONG. The caffeine is enough to keep you up for days. No wonder they were all so edgy!