betsy-tacy, beverages, books, settlement cookbook

Boiled coffee

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I love coffee. It’s the first thing I turn to in the morning, and while I appreciate a good cup of Earl Grey, the lure of a freshly-brewed cup of coffee is often just too strong.

There’s something comforting about the ritual of coffee. Wrapping your hands around a steaming mug, savoring the rich, slightly bitter taste before the day really begins. It’s my preferred way to wake up.

La Colombe coffee shop, Philadelphia

One of my other abiding loves is the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. It’s a children’s series based on the author’s childhood in early 20th-century Minnesota, where the author lightly fictionalizes herself as Betsy Ray. The later books follow Betsy’s adventures in high school and beyond, and they’re everything that’s wonderful about classic literature. Warm, comforting, friendly. I reread the high school books about once a year, and each time I yearn to be Betsy Ray.

Lovelace spends a lot of time describing the rituals of early 20th-century Midwestern life. For example, the Ray family invites their friends over each week for “Sunday night lunch:” an evening of onion sandwiches, coffee, and singing around the piano. Each part of the meal is lovingly detailed, from Mr. Ray’s careful attention to creating sandwiches to the process of making coffee. Like so many activities in these books, I fell in love with Sunday night lunch. But it was the coffee that gave me pause.

“The meal was prepared by Mr. Ray… First he put the coffee on. He made it with egg, crushing shell and all into the pot, mixing it with plenty of coffee and filling the pot with cold water. He put this to simmer and while it came to a boil, slowly filling the kitchen with delicious coffee fragrance, he made the sandwiches.”

Egg! In coffee! With no filter!

My grandparents affectionately referred to hot water mixed with coffee grounds as “camp coffee,” but I’d never head of mixing in an egg before. It sounded weird. It sounded slightly gross. It sounded like I needed to try it.

It turns out that the method described above was America’s preferred way of brewing coffee in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The filtering method we use today was known as the “French” way, and very few Americans deigned to make their coffee this way. The egg served to clarify the coffee (since it was so muddied by coffee grounds). So of course there was a recipe for this method in the “Settlement” Cook Book, which was so focused on Americanizing immigrants. What better way than to teach them the American way of brewing coffee?

So, dear reader, I tried it. Carefully following Kander’s instructions, I mixed 1 tsp of coffee with a rinsed eggshell and a bit of cold water in my shiny red teakettle. Then I added 1 cup of boiling water, and set the pot to boil for five minutes. After letting the mixture sit off the heat for ten minutes, I added half a cup of cold water, mixed the whole thing again, and poured myself a cup.

It was…less than thrilling. It tasted like incredibly weak Turkish coffee–it had all the complex, rich and bitter flavor of Turkish coffee, but like it had been watered down to a quarter of its strength.

But I was most astonished by the effectiveness of the eggshell. It worked! The coffee grounds settled to the bottom of the pot, and all that poured into my cup was brewed coffee. Magic.

Still, my morning was not the same with this pitiful excuse for coffee. Apparently I much prefer the French method. So I brewed a normal cup with my trusty Black & Decker coffeemaker, and set to the painful task of cleaning the eggshell out my teakettle.

So, what about you? Have you ever made coffee this way? Or are you a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the French method?

Works cited: Heaven to Betsy by Maud Hart Lovelace. Food in the United States, 1820s – 1890 by Susan Williams.


2 thoughts on “Boiled coffee”

  1. This is super interesting! I bet Thomas Jefferson always made his coffee the French way. I wonder what is behind the egg shell trick. I know that in gardening you add coffee grounds to soil for more acidity, and ground eggshells to make it more basic–maybe it's a pH thing? We need a science teacher!

    This is good to know for camping. Maybe you could add more grounds and less of the cold water, then pour it through a tea strainer.

    This past Christmas my mom gave me a Chemex glass coffee maker. It's simply a glass carafe, and you put a special filter in the top and just pour hot water through the grounds. It took me several bad cups to get the hang of it, but now I prefer it. It's a lot easier to keep clean than an electric maker.


  2. Yeah, I think that's where my grandparents got the term “camp coffee.”

    Is your coffee maker anything like a French press? It sounds sort of like it, where you mix the grounds and water together and press out the grounds. Yours sounds very handy!


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