My Grandma Eunice took her coffee from a cup and saucer, often mismatched. She would “spill” the coffee from the cup into the saucer and after it cooled, drink from the saucer.
Naturally, as a child I watched and wanted a taste of the beverage that gave her so much pleasure.
Though eccentric in many ways, Eunice was like most grandparents in that she saw little reason to ever say no to her grandchildren.
Thus, I got my own ration of coffee, sweetened and highly diluted with milk. Even after my mother’s decree that I should have no more.
For some reason, this image flashed through my head while waiting on coffee recently at a downtown coffeehouse. I’d ordered a café au lait, which is essentially what Grandma Eunice gave me, less the sugar.
It was a chill, wet morning. I’d been at the doctor’s for a checkup, gotten a good report. A small celebration.
My childhood coffee drinking didn’t last long, and I’m not sure when I took up again. Probably sometime after college, the result of some road-trip where coffee is the unavoidable complement to a truck-stop breakfast.
Starbucks, which came into being in 1971, raised the bar on what coffee could be, and for many, Folgers out of the can and Maxwell House weren’t going to cut it any more.
In the following decades, coffee shops serving fancy espresso drinks and offering wi-fi supplanted the small-town cafes where earlier generations of coffee drinkers gathered — places like Steve’s Cafe, the Bell Café, Ed’s Grill, The Straight 8.
In the Golden Triangle, The Starkville Café may be the last of this almost extinct species.
Steve Castanis of Steve’s Cafe favored Old Judge coffee, which came in cans, six cases at a time from St. Louis. Christ, his son, carried on the Old Judge coffee tradition after his father’s death. Christ, 91, (Steve lived to be 99.) credits an older gentleman, a sales rep, for his dad’s allegiance to the brand.
The list of musicians who have offered their tribute to the dark, bitter brew is long. Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Otis Redding and Johnny Cash to name a few.
Mississippi John Hurt sang about coffee in his “Coffee Blues.”
After recording a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful album for Okeh Records in 1928, Hurt returned to his home in Carroll County to resume a life of farming and playing house parties in the Delta. Then in the early 60s two blues researchers found Hurt at his home in Avalon and convinced him to move to Washington D.C.
By then the folk music revival was in full flower and Hurt’s arrival on the scene was met with enthusiasm. He played the Newport and Philadelphia folk festivals, appeared on Johnny Carson and recorded for the Library of Congress.
For a time he was a regular at the Gaslight, the Greenwich Village folk-music mainstay. It was there a young John Sebastian heard Hurt sing his “Coffee Blues,” which repeats the phrase “a lovin’ spoonful.” As in the case of many blues songs, different meanings have been attached to the phrase.
Sebastian, who would become friends with Hurt, appropriated the phrase for the name of his band, The Lovin’ Spoonful.
My most recent memorable coffee experience was with river guide extraordinaire John Ruskey’s Cowboy Coffee while paddling on the Mississippi River a couple years ago.
John’s coffee recipe can be found on RiverGator on the Quapaw Canoe Co. website. He calls it River Rat Coffee and mandates it be made with Community coffee and filtered Mississippi River water heated over a willow fire.
Romantic as that sounds, John dispensed with the willow fire and river water on our outing, instead using a Coleman stove and bottled water.
Even so, the coffee had the desired effect, a feeling of warmth and well being as only a lovin’ spoonful of that dark elixir can produce.
Birney Imes ([email protected]) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.