Friday, March 11, 2011


What do we do in the early a.m.? A lot, if not most, of us have a routine. You wake up, open your eyes, put your feet in our slippers or shoes, and after a stop in the toilet, start out for the kitchen. You know what you need. It's the caffeine rush - java - that's calling your name. It's our long-time, morning friend beckoning us, and we don't know what we'd do without it. But, wait a minute. What if the price of that steaming, brown liquid goes too high? You know the answer, even  if you want to deny it. Like so many other luxuries, if the economics is wrong, the purchase must slow or stop. And, afterall, it's really not part of our nutrititional needs and we could eliminate it, couldn't we? But, oh, the pain...

And, the news is out. Just recently, there has been talk all over the newsmedia about the cost of the bag (or whatever the measure is) of fresh coffee beans. It seems that the coffee bean is the next peak crop (sort of like peak oil), and that means we may have to modify our coffee drinking habits. Soon a pound of those precious beans will cost us more - maybe a lot more than the milk and bread. Already, the careful grocery shopper must have noticed the increase in its price on the supermarket shelves. Next week, if not sooner, coffee shop consumers can bet that their morning brew will give them a bit more of a burn. And this is almost certainly a permanent trend for a number of reasons.

We will have to pay more.
For the first time in caffeinated-civilized history (Or would that be civilized-caffeinated history?), java consumption is outpacing production in all countries with possibly the exception of Brazil and India. That means everyone else is vieing for the tasty, brown stuff on the world market, including importantly the Chinese. (The Chinese were tea drinkers, weren't they? Yes, of course, and they still are. The problem seems to be their shear numbers and the fact that some fraction of their population has learned to drink coffee in addition to tea. That spells trouble.) The bad news is that there is no commercial - zero - production of coffee in the US and Europe where the demand is no less than outrageous.

What's more, in "our heart of hearts", we know that we really haven't been paying the true cost of coffee, either for the coffee workers' labor or for the ecological damage to the hilly areas where it's grown and the contaminants that end up in the waterways below. These are the real economic facts, but as a coffee-guzzling population, we just aren't emotionally  ready to grasp the fact that we'll be paying higher prices. On the other hand, we can't hide forever from the grim reality, that for coffee growing to be fair to the workers and sustainable for the environment, we should be paying far more than we are. Sad but true, coffee drinking adds a big load to our carbon footprint. And, if we aren't already drinking organic, what we're consuming is guaranteed to include a hugh dose of ugly things that we don't need in our bodies.

Here's another thought. What most of us are "enjoying" in the morning is already the cheap stuff - for three or four dollars a pound in the can and one dollar a cup in the gasoline station. You know that it's really bad coffee. It tastes rough and is barely palatable, but we drink it, at least some of the time, because it's coffee. And java, in almost any form, is our caffeine rush of choice. We know we could find some caffeine somewhere else. There are, afterall, a number of other cheap, commercial caffeine-delivery packages out there. There generally known as sodas. But, they're hardly recommendable, either. Looks like we have to make a painful change. Maybe we should be thinking more seriously about fine coffee like you do fine wine, very expensive, but worth it now and again, just to enjoy some of the good rubust, aromatic stuff.

My coffee-guzzling story
Now, everyone has their own coffee drinking history, like the stories of their other habits (notice I refrained from saying addictions). Let me mention something about my history.  I never drank coffee as a young person. My Mom and Dad drank a lot of it, but made tea for my sister and me. So, when I went off to college, I was a convinced and proud tea drinker, who was also just a little snobbish about all those coffee drinking students around me. Needless to say, after one semester, six term papers and six final exams, I had settled into coffee drinking as a much better caffeine-delivery system. So much for being a tea-drinking snob. Even then, I continued to drink both coffee and tea, coffee in the early morning and mostly tea in the afternoon and evening. Coffee in the evening has always affected my sleep.

After my university years, I went to live in Mexico City.  My husband's family was from the south of Mexico and they knew about good coffee. They refused to drink anything else. So, members of the family would always return from their hometown visits with the really good stuff, high-mountain coffee from Chiapas, and share the wealth with all the other relatives. It was a good system. That coffee was superbly good for both  morning and afternoon coffee-drinking sessions. I seldom had to drink coffee from the supermarket, and only did so, with the thought that it was a poor substitute for the "real" item. And, given that all kinds of teas, including herbal teas, were (are) commonly available in Mexico, I also drank a couple of cups of tea each day. Other than taking a few rests, several weeks at a stretch, to dry out from such a high caffeine load, I happily continued to drink good coffee almost every day.

But then, about fifteen years ago, I left Mexico and returned to the US to live. I was jolted. The coffee that others around me were drinking, the same that was available in the supermarkets, was really of poor quality. For a while, I tried to drink only tea but later, for social reasons (that what we addicts often say about our chosen mood-swinging drugs), I gave in and started drinking a couple of cups of the regular brew everyday. Sometimes, I would throw budget caution to the wind and buy the higher priced stuff, but not too often. Also, I found that the standard, national-brand coffee shops served pretty good coffee, and once or twice a week, I paid the higher price for a morning or afternoon cup. And so, on the whole, my java-drinking habits continued mostly uninterrupted ... until recently.

Oh, and sometimes, when I'm in Northern Mexico, a place where I spend part of my time, I can buy at a reasonable price (and truly enjoy) good-quality Veracruz coffee, ground to taste, in a downtown, coffee specialty store. But, in general, I find that, what with the poor (and getting poorer ) quality of the product that I buy at the supermarkets along with the rising price-tag, I'm drinking only one cup of coffee in the morning. Sometimes, I don't even finish that cup. It's doesn't have a good taste and makes my stomach a little uneasy. Also, I'm a little worried about all the contaminants that commercial coffee has in it.  But, being all too-budget conscious, I'm reluctant to pay the substantially higher cost of organic coffee. Tea drinking, at least black tea drinking, isn't really a good alternative either. It’s the same story. The tea that's being sold at most stores is of poor quality, and there's inflation in its price-tag, too (like just about all other basic commodities at this time). Besides that, tea production also does significant ecological damage  (then again, apparently, somewhat less than that of coffee).

So, what are our real alternatives?
The good news is that humans, even the U.S. population, has lived very well for long periods drinking hot beverages other than java. Many Native American tribes brewed up ceremonial drinks with caffeine-like properties, and European colonists adopted some of these beverages. They called them "cassina". What's more, U.S. people never were great coffee drinkers until after World War II with the huge expansion of markets that finally created the Great Consumer Society. Before that time, imported coffee was a minor product and only certain groups of urbanites drank a lot of it. The bulk of the population made somewhat similar drinks from roasted grains and brews of other plants. Some of the traditional ingredients for these pre-java-age drinks included: nuts - almond, cottonseed, acorn, beechnut; grains -  wheat, rye, and barley; and fruits and vegetables - beetroot, carrot, chicory root, corn, dandelion root asparagus, fig, cane molasses, okra seed, peas, persimmon seed, potato peel, sassafras pits, and sweet potato.

Obviously, you and I could also survive and learn to wake up in the a.m. with a hot cup of one or another of these products. We just need to find one we like and get started on a new habit. And some of these coffee-substitutes could even be grown in our own gardens. Will they have the same level of caffeine-delivery? Probably not. But then again, even very mild stimulants are usually enough to get you going in the morning. (The best way to feel good in the morning is to get enough rest the night before, and we can start doing that right away - even before we find a new morning brew.)

Some possible substitutes
Ground roasted chicory root, an easily cultivated crop, has been among the most popular coffee-like drinks since before the American Civil War. It even made a strong comeback during World War II when coffee imports were drastically reduced. Mixed with coffee, this brew continues to be a favorite in the South, especially in New Orleans. (Personally, I like chicory coffee a lot and have bought it from time to time, at the big-box stores. Unfortunately, it's now packaged as a "gourmet" product and priced 50% higher than regular coffee.)

Postum is (or was) an instant coffee substitute made from wheat bran, wheat, molasses, and corn maltodextrin. During World War II, it was very popular in the United States due to coffee rationing. For a few decades after the Second War, it was still available on the grocery shelves, but, at least, according to one source, has recently been discontinued. Most Postum-like beverages are now found in health food stores and, otherwise are available through Internet sources. You possibly could concoct your own Postum-like beverage by buying all the ingredients and finding some traditional recipe for the hot, grain-based beverage that you looking for.

Another product that has been used in rural areas throughout the centuries is the roasted dandelion root. They have to be 'true' dandelions (Taraxacum spp.) and not some other little yellow flowers that can be confused with the dandelion. True dandelions have thick straw-like roots and look a little like scrawny carrots. These roots are ground into granules for dandelion brew. This drink can be bitter and is usually more palatable diluted with milk and sugar. While it’s supposed to be a good tonic for the liver, you should be careful to closely follow an original recipe because a strong dose of dandelion root has laxative effects.

Note (added 3-12-11)
After writing my blog post yesterday, I remembered - And how could I forget? - that it's not necessary to make a brew in the morning and that gruels have happily been served as hot beverages throughout the centuries.  Here's a recipe that I often make.

ATOLE (another a.m. - or p.m.- drink) is a traditional Mexican drink based on corn. For centuries, It's been made with masa harina, the flour used for tortillas and tamales, but modern versions also make it with cornstarch or rice flour. It is, of course, a type of gruel but it's a thinned down version that's easy to drink. It's always served hot, and is a main feature for certain Mexican holiday celebrations but is also popular just about any time of the year. A usual Mexican breakfast includes atole along with pan dulce (a sweet roll) or a torta (a thick sandwich).

Recipe for Chocolate Atole
1/2 cup masa harina or 1/3 cup of cornstarch or rice flour
5 cups of water
1/2 cup of dark brown sugar (or the quantity that you like)
3 heaping TBS.of cocoa powder or one large chocolate tablet
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
(milk to be added as an option)

Heat the water and starch substance over a medium fire, stirring briskly until it's free of lumps. Continue heating and stirring until it just begins to thicken. Then add the sugar and other ingredients and bring it to a boil. If desired, you can add a cup or two of milk with the atole for the last three minutes. Be careful to stir constantly and watch the pot because it boils over very easily. (You can make fruit atole by omitting the chocolate and cinnamon and adding pureed fruit in the last three minutes of cooking.)

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