Coffee, Tea, and a Recipe for Life

September 5, 2013 in Outlandish Recipes of the 18th century, Resources and Research by M C

A friend of mine passed away, unexpectedly and very young, a few months ago.  This was a woman who held down two, sometimes three, jobs to support her family, kept a garden, and was, always, tired. Yet she managed to maintain a certain standard of gracious living, and a blog to go with it. 

She was also one of the few people in my life who thought experimenting with the 18th century, including releasing pungent poltergeists in a quest to reproduce soap from an 18th century recipe, was a perfectly delightful way to spend an afternoon.  And she surely would have approved of Colonial Blackberry Cordials, and had the right glass to serve it in.  So I give you, in her own words, Sherianne’s piece on Coffee, Tea, and why experimental archeology matters:


coffee-nog I do not like to drink coffee from a paper cup.

In fact, I don’t like to drink anything from a paper cup. Or a plastic cup.

This will surprise no one who knows me.

Several years ago, during a Girl Scout awards ceremony (my daughter was in the third grade at the time), my co-leader introduced me to the assembled parents as “our expert in fine living.” Yes, I had taught the girls to embroider napkins and had orchestrated an elaborate formal tea party, but I was not alone in choosing to do this. Our activities were all undertaken with eager consent. Yet her introductory arrow was sharp and direct, a bloodless hit, and still whenever I use a cake pedestal or a toast rack or silver teaspoons, I feel the sting of it.

I am not an expert in fine living, but why should I drink coffee from a paper cup when porcelain is readily available?

About that same time, I worked with a girl (at 20 years old, she was very much a girl) who had just gotten married. She was very silly girl, shallow and ignorant, and blissfully unaware of her own silliness. She divulged, rather loudly, in the middle of the office one day that she bought Styrofoam plates in packages of 500, and that she and her new husband ate off the foam plates every night, with plastic utensils, because she didn’t like to wash dishes (and yes, she had a dishwasher in her new condo), and with no after-supper clean-up, she didn’t have to worry about missing the beginning of her favorite television shows.

Moderation, please.

My father died in January. I have been working on a slideshow for his memorial service, scanning old photographs, contacting distant relatives, and giving considerably more thought to where he came from than I had ever bothered to do before.

He was one of ten children (number six, I think), growing up in far northern Vermont during the Great Depression. It was a very hard life, full of hunger and suffering. His mother was born in 1900, and she died in 1973, when I was too young to have memories of her. His father had died just three months after I was born, so I never met him. I have cousins who are up to 20 years older than me, most of whom I hardly know at all (and some I have never met), and I am beginning to understand that their memories of our grandparents are considerably different from the images I created from the few stories I had ever heard of them.

In attempting to reconcile my ideas with their memories, I have been hard at work trying to understand the times in which they lived. Not from a political standpoint, but from the practical, the daily. What kinds of foods would have been available to my grandmother? What did her kitchen look like? What did she yearn for? Did she ever have fresh flowers on her kitchen table?

In trying to put myself back there, I have been even more interested than usual in old cookbooks. As you can discern from my adventures with baking, I have been studying one Depression-era cookbook more than others. Many of the recipes are much older than the Depression, of course, which helps frame the consciousness of the mothers and grandmothers of the time. Recipes are signposts, telling us where we are and how we got there.

One of the recipes that caught my attention was for Coffee Nog.


If you undertake Coffee with Cheese, I don’t want to know about it.

I made some Coffee Nog to have with my breakfast yesterday. The coffee was delicious. And not only was it delicious, I presented it to myself beautifully (see photo above). Admittedly, the flavor was not unlike other high-end flavored-coffee beverages I have purchased from various store-front outlets (despite the local, fresh cream, the real vanilla, the fresh nutmeg, the absence of any form of corn syrup), and I had to assume the idea of it would be of little interest to anyone who regularly buys coffee in a paper cup. Nevertheless, it was beautiful. Calm and unrushed, it gave me more than my morning caffeine. It took me out of the electronic world and disposable economy, and put me into a world where two minutes spent whipping cream was not considered wasted time, and where no one would ever consider, not even for a moment, eating off Styrofoam plates with plastic forks every night. I doubt my grandmother ever had the time or resources to think about something as frivolous as Coffee Nog, which makes me sad.

It’s not fine living. It’s not lifestyles of the rich and famous. It is a simple pleasure, slow and meaningful and deliberate, and meant to fortify the soul as much as the body. And it does.


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