There’s No Substitute For A Good Substitute

My latest book, The Dala Horse, is set in post-Civil War Texas. As I was researching that era, I came across an amusing compilation of recipes for coffee substitutes. The Union/Yankees/Northerners included the port of Galveston as part of their naval blockade to cut off supplies to the South. Many items, not just coffee, were unavailable for years.

The blockade was called the 'Anaconda Plan' because it was supposed to squeeze the life out of the South. The 'Scott' referenced on the map was General Winfield Scott, U.S. Army. At 6'-5" and 300 pounds, when people say he was the inspiration for the term 'Great Scott!', I believe it.

Newspapers went kaput because newsprint was no longer available. Although many folks were used to making their own clothing at that time, they had the additional fun of having to make their own fabric during the war as well, since bolts of woven fabrics were scarce. But of all the things on hiatus in the South during and for a time after the Civil War, coffee was the most missed and most celebrated upon its return.

When contemplating this post I was sorely tempted to try out some of these substitutions and report on how they tasted compared to the real thing. There's just one problem: I don't drink coffee, mainly because I don't like coffee. I don't think I could have rendered a fair opinion. Roasted lug nuts would have probably tasted as good or better than actual coffee to me.

Then, as now, coffee was grown mostly in tropical hemispheres and imported for our consumption. So getting a crate of coffee beans delivered from Sao Paolo to San Antonio wasn't gonna happen with Great Scott's Anaconda snappishly guarding the door. But lots of other things grew wild and rampantly in the warm American South and were quickly pressed into service. Anything that could be roasted, ground, and brewed with hot water, was. Everything from corn meal to beets, rye, asparagus (seeds, not spears - mercy, no!), acorns, chicory, turnips, barley, parsnips, wheat, field peas, okra seeds, sweet potatoes, popcorn, cotton seeds, and tree bark was put forth. I kid you not. Tree. Bark. I will quote the actual 'receipt', as they were wont to say for 'recipe' back then, lest you not believe me:

"Take tan bark, three parts; three old cigar stumps and a quart of water, mix well, and boil fifteen minutes in a dirty coffee pot."
Arkansas True Democrat, October 17, 1861

And you thought Starbucks had exhausted all possible coffee iterations. If this really was a thing, it goes a long way toward explaining coffee drinker halitosis.

Every substitute suggested was strongly backed by the person suggesting it, claiming it was as good or better than the real thing. This is utter nonsense, of course (except maybe for the chicory, which I understand is still popular as a coffee ingredient in certain parts of the south). People couldn't wait to get their coffee beans back in the pot after the war. I wish the acorn recipe had panned out. I would be sitting on an acorn coffee goldmine thanks to the massive and prolific jack oak tree in my front yard. Instead, I'm forced to rely on the local squirrel population to remove them from underfoot, bless their hearts. If they can learn to operate a wheelbarrow, they can use mine, no charge.

There have been many other instances food shortages since the 'unpleasantness' between the North and the South. Many items, including sugar and dairy products, were rationed during World War II. But this was before my time. More recent supply chain interruptions have not been war-related, thank goodness. We had the 2015 Blue Bell listeria scare. And the Cheesepocalypse (the 2014 rumors of a Velveeta shortage). And the temporary Twinkie extinction of 2013. All three products are restored or soon will be, and their consumers are ecstatic - even though their waistlines won't be. (Is anyone else worried that the most recent shortages have occurred not in an effort to conserve resources for a nobler effort, but because of faulty business or manufacturing models of over-processed, unhealthy junk food we shouldn't be eating anyway?)

That's not to say current generations haven't experienced sacrifice. They've come up with a way to inflict one upon themselves. It's called a 'diet'. Just talk to anyone who has voluntarily given up meat or pasta or sugar. Their behavior is eerily similar to the pioneers who longed for their coffee beans. Here's the modern version of the Five Stages Of Deprivation:

1) Reminiscing - stories of how things used to be 'before', when their metabolism was fully functioning or before they learned more than they wanted to know about the processed food industry.
2) Self-pity - The sad little tear quickly wiped away after fruitlessly perusing a menu at a chic new bistro for something they are willing to eat, and having to settle for a side salad.
3) Ingenuity - The bizarre formulations concocted in a desperate attempt at approximating the missing item. Google 'gluten-free brownie recipe'.
4) False Confidence - The insistence that their substitute food of choice is just as tasty as the original. For the best example of this, sit next to your vegan cousin next Thanksgiving.
5) Ecstasy - The rapturous expression at the inevitable slip when they allow themselves a nibble of the forbidden item.

I wish it weren't so, but I've learned these things from sad experience. Our coffee supply is fine. But the ice cream - well, that's another story. Here at my house, we're somewhere between Self-Pity and Ecstasy. At long last, the first Blue Bell delivery in months finally arrived at our local grocery store. But it's so dang expensive, we wait for it to go on sale. They better hurry. We're starting to run out of tree bark and cigar stumps.

The original version of this post was published in December 2015.

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