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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

15 Pounds of Coffee

I'm finishing up a book project entitled 'Switchel, Sack Posset and Shrub' and in my research, I came across a fact I've probably read a dozen times before:
"The allowance of provisions for each grown person, to make the journey from the Missouri River to California, should suffice for 110 days. The following is deemed requisite, viz.: 150 lbs of flour or its equivalent in hard bread; 25 lbs. Of bacon or pork, and enough fresh beef to be driven on the hoof to make up the meat component of the ration; 15 lbs. of coffee, and 25 lbs. of sugar; also a quantity or saleratus or yeast powders for making bread, and salt and pepper." The Prairie Traveler: A Handbook for Overland Expeditions [Applewood Books, Bedford MA] 1993 (Originally published as A Hand-Book for Overland Expeditions, Randolph B. Marcy, Captain U.S. Army, [Harper & Brothers:New York] 1859)
Did you catch it? 15 POUNDS of coffee. Per PERSON.

Whoa!

That seemed like an awful lot of java to me and I wondered what that meant in per-cup-measure.

Weighing a level tablespoon from three different ground coffees we happened to have on hand (no lectures from the 'grind as you go' crowd, please . . . or I will be forced to mention the Folger's Singles we have in the cupboard!), they all came out about the same: 5ish grams.

With this reliable data in hand, and already knowing that a pound equals about 453 grams, I quickly surmised that there are approximately 90 tablespoons in a typical pound of coffee. Most resources will cite two tablespoons of grounds per six ounce serving of coffee as the standard ratio. If that's true, there are about 45 portions of black gold tucked into each pound of coffee!

From there, it's a quick jump to our final destination if we multiply those 45 cups per pound by the 15 pounds suggested per person. The big answer!?!? There are approximately 675 cups of coffee in 15 pounds of beans! For a 110 day journey!

That's a lot o' joe!

Given that every guidebook, including the one quoted above, was VERY clear about not taking ANYTHING superfluous to the basic needs of the journey, this seems a bit of a puzzle. Leave grandma's china behind so you can bring a drink? Forego books and photos and mementos from home for a cuppa? Well, SIX cuppas? Each day? Per adult?

I don't really get it . . . and I confess I've tried to figure it out. A lot of pioneer reference materials allude to a few possibilities: coffee made water safer and more palatable to drink, it was believed to have a number of health benefits, it was a patriotic thumb on the nose to the Crown and her abhorrent Tea Tax, and it was probably slightly addictive. All these reasons might be valid . . . but I think there might be one more.

After living in the UK for the best part of nine years, I came to understand the value of 'a nice cup of tea.' It's more than a habit or an addiction or a social norm. It's a deep comfort: a moment to pause, regroup and breathe amidst our hectic, stressful lives. I'm back in the US now, tucked back into the lovely Sierra Nevada Mountains, but my learned respect for a hot beverage has definitely come home with me.

Perhaps that's what coffee meant to the pioneers, too, and why it was considered an absolute necessity rather than a luxury. In the midst of a very stressful, very long, and very dangerous journey (moving step by step away from all they had known and loved), the comfort of a steaming cup in the wilderness . . . well, that had to be worth its weight by any means.

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