“Coffee, Nectar of the Gods…er…Chief Petty Officers”
By: Garland Davis
If asked, “How do you take your coffee?” I reply. “Seriously, very seriously.”
The coffee plant, discovered in Ethiopia in the 11th Century, has a white blossom that smells like jasmine and a red, cherry-like fruit. At that time, the leaves of the so-called “magical fruit” were boiled in water and the resulting concoction was thought to have medicinal properties. As the fame of the coffee plant spread to other lands, its centuries-long voyage was about to begin.
Istanbul was introduced to coffee in 1555 during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent by Özdemir Pasha, the Ottoman Governor of Yemen, who had grown to love the drink while stationed in that Country. In the Ottoman palace a new method of drinking coffee was discovered: the cherry seeds, later called beans, were roasted over a fire, finely ground and then slowly cooked with water on the ashes of a charcoal fire. With its new brewing method and aroma, coffee’s renown soon spread even further afield.
Over the next century coffee spread throughout the countries of Europe. England first became acquainted with coffee in 1637 when a Turk introduced the drink to Oxford. It quickly became popular among students and teachers who established the “Oxford Coffee Club.” The first commercial coffeehouse in Oxford opened in 1650 and was called the “Angel.”
In 1652, the first coffeehouse was opened in London. Using his extensive knowledge of how to prepare and brew Turkish Coffee, the Greek owner introduced his friends and clients to its peerless Taste.
By 1660, London’s coffeehouses had become an integral part of its social culture. The general public dubbed coffeehouses “Penny Universities” as they were patronized by writers, artists, poets, lawyers, politicians, and philosophers. London’s coffeehouses offered customers a great deal more than piping hot cups of coffee: the entrance fee of one penny allowed them to benefit from the intellectual conversation that surrounded them. It is believed that William Shakespeare conceptualized and wrote plays in the coffee houses of Strafford upon Avon.
Many coffeehouses of London placed a brass box bearing the words “To Insure Promptness” where patrons could leave a coin in payment for the services rendered by the coffee wenches. That is where our current term “TIP” and the practice of “Tipping” originated.
Coffee reached North America in 1668. The first coffeehouse in New York, “The King’s Arms”, opened in 1696.
Coffeehouses of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, as in London, were frequented by students and intellectuals.
In 1714, the Dutch presented Louis XIV with a coffee sapling from their plantations on Java. The sapling was planted in the royal Jardin des Plantes in Paris.
In 1723, a French mariner took a sapling from the Jardin des Plantes to the island of Martinique. From here, the coffee plant spread to other Caribbean islands, as well as to Central and South America.
In 1727, a Portuguese sailor carried coffee saplings to Brazil from French Guyana. Today, Brazil is the number one producer of coffee in the world, accounting for 35% of global coffee production. By the mid-nineteenth century, coffee had become one of the most important commodities in world trade.
After the “Boston Tea Party,” the drinking of tea by the colonists fell out of favor. Coffee grew in popularity throughout the colonies and later the fledgling states. During the American Civil War, the blockade of Southern ports created an extreme shortage of coffee. Numerous substitutes were attempted, primarily toasted corn, toasted barely and the ground root of the chicory plant. Many in the deep south developed a taste for chicory and still mix chicory root with coffee.
Coffee was mostly drunk by the officers in the early American Navy. The sailors preferred their beer and rum rations. It slowly became more popular as a morning drink throughout the Navy.
The practice of coffee being made available twenty-four hours per day was established as a Naval tradition at the Battle of Manila Bay when Commodore George Dewey ordered the fleet to keep the galley fires lit to make coffee available throughout the battle.
Early versions of the Navy Cook Book required that the coffee be made only so strong as to see the bottom of the cup. This was to prevent the sailors from becoming overly stimulated. It later became customary to make and drink coffee strong enough to “float a marlinspike.” Coffee became the favored beverage of sailors until the invention of Drink, Instant, Strawberry, Artificially Sweetened better known as red “Bug Juice.” There were also Lemon (yellow Bug Juice), Lime (green bug juice), Orange (orange bug juice), and Grape (you guessed it, purple bug juice) flavors available. It was not uncommon to hear a sailor answer, “Red,” to the question, “What flavor bug juice do they have today.” But bug juice is another story for telling at another time.
Coffee not only became the at-sea beverage of choice, the cans of coffee grounds raised the practice of barter (Cum Shaw to the Asia Sailor) to an art practiced by some of the canniest bluejackets afloat. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if some sailor didn’t have the SRF in Yokosuka build him an entire ship. I have a brass ashtray that was produced by the Foundry at said SRF. My boss traded coffee for it and presented it to me after winning the 1982 and 1983 Ney Awards as Leading MS in Midway.
Being the Chief Cook and Baker, I was also the custodian of the ship’s supply of coffee grounds. I could always tell when my shipmates were going to hit me up for a can. They would be extra nice to me for a few days before. Of course, I always acted as if it would place a financial burden on the General Mess, but after listening to them tell me of all the glorious products they were going to get for a mere twenty pounds of coffee, I would relent and give in. Of course, I always kept a stock of coffee already charged as used just for these instances. In preparation for an extended availability while in Midway, I had over two thousand pounds of coffee charged off. I would surmise this isn’t done in our new kinder and gentler Navy.
During stores on loads and working parties made up by sailors from all divisions, it became a game for me to make sure all the coffee made it to the storeroom with my fellow Chiefs urging their troops on the working party to misplace a case of coffee (two twenty pound cans). Coffee wasn’t the only items popular for pilfering. Aforesaid bug juice was popular, it would take the tarnish off brass and shine deck plates. Wonder what it did to our stomachs. And snipes would take anything edible, even dehydrated mashed potatoes. But again, coffee is the story.
I remember when the Navy made Coffee, Powdered Instant available. We tried it on one of the ships I was in. (The Food Service Officer claimed to prefer instant coffee.) To placate him I ordered a case. I took a jar into the CPO Mess. Those of us who tried it figured you could make a better beverage with the detritus gathered at evening sweepers. The jar sat alongside the coffee pot for a couple of days and then disappeared, I presume into the shitcan. The Food Service Officer took a jar, paid for by the Wardroom Mess. Two years later when I transferred, the were ten jars of the original twelve still on the books.
As for decaffeinated coffee, it is one of four items that I consider substitutes for the real thing. The other three are non-alcoholic beer, skim milk, and masturbation. Not even worth consideration.
Having retired some twenty-six years ago, I am not sure which direction coffee has taken in the Navy and aboard ship. With the rise of the specialty coffee stores and shops offering Expressos and other foo-foo, exotic made up drinks, I would not be surprised to see an espresso coffee maker in the Wardrooms and General Messes and, I hate to say it, even the CPO Mess. As for me, I’ll take my coffee hot, black, and strong enough to float that marlinspike.
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A native of North Carolina, Garland Davis has lived in Hawaii since 1987. He always had a penchant for writing but did not seriously pursue it until recently. He is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University, where he majored in Business Management. Garland is a thirty-year Navy retiree and service-connected Disabled Veteran.