The lingering importance of coffee

Mychal Wilmes reflects on his mother's embracing of instant coffee and how much coffee worked into daily life on the farm.

Coffee long has been a staple for a morning kickstart or something to warm oneself in the cold. Pixabay photo.

Mother, who was more resistant to fads than most, was quick to embrace instant coffee when she was introduced to it in the 1960s. Visitors who drank coffee with sweet rolls tolerated the freeze-dried product.

Instant coffee arrived during the Civil War, much to the dismay of Union troops who complained that the product had the consistency and taste of axel grease. The coffee was so bad that its suppliers stopped providing it.

Mother liked the instant coffee product because of its convenience. The blackened pot she used for decades certainly was inconvenient.

During the Great Depression and World War II, coffee was hard to get and a luxury that the family could ill afford. Barley was plentiful and yielded a lesser, but similar taste.

Dad, when the day included felling trees with a two-man crosscut saw or shoveling coal from railroad cars, drank coffee to take the edge off the cold. Homemade slices of bread ladled with butter dipped in the cup somehow managed to keep their shape.


His youngest son watched with intense interest and pestered Mother for a cup.

“It will stunt your growth,’’ she said.

I took her at her word, but perhaps shouldn’t have. The myth that coffee stunts growth began with a decades-old study that found caffeine consumers had lower than normal bone density, which could eventually cause osteoporosis. Modern health experts are in general agreement that a small amount of weak coffee is better for youth than consuming too many high-octane sugary drinks.

Another of Dad’s cups attracted my attention. It was kept in the medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink. The cup, which may have been even older than Dad, held a sliver of soap and a soft brush. A straight-edge razor was close by. It was fascinating to watch Dad work the soap into a lather.

I tried to emulate him once, but the soap burned, and the razor did nothing to peach fuzz. Dad noticed something was amiss when he opened the medicine cabinet and warned me not to touch it again.

There were other things to try. Those included a large bag of lemon drops that dad kept in the hall closet. He used the sweet but sour candy as a treatment for heartburn flareups that kept him from sleeping.

He did not miss one or two being gone, but when the count soared trouble followed and so did a lecture that began and ended with a conviction that stealing is stealing.

Candy was a rare treat and soft drinks rarer still. The situation worse made worse because Dad often promised to bring pop home when his card game at the local establishment ended. He always forgot to do so – perhaps because he had lost money at cards.


Mother, as she often did, came to the rescue. Kool-Aid was cheap, and when mixed with enough sugar, was a reasonable substitute. A neighbor lady who depended on home remedies that included hot mustard baths for cold sufferers, decided that liquified Jell-O cured most other ills. It soon became apparent that her remedies were worse than disease.

“If you have to cough when she’s around, go to another room or you will get the treatment,’’ my sister warned. It was advice that her chronically misbehaving brother followed religiously.

Dad’s shaving cup remained in the cabinet long after his sudden death. A pipe and cigarette smoker and tobacco chewer, he left an open pack of cigarettes on the front seat of the car. I decided that smoking one would be a way to honor him.

The smoke seared by lungs and caused my head to spin. Perhaps the reaction had more to do with the loss than the cigarette. In any case, the cigarettes were thrown into the gutter.

I hope someone in the family has kept the shaving cup and brush. As for lemon drops, on occasion I pop a couple into my mouth because too much coffee seems to cause heartburn.

To read more of Mychal Wilmes' Farm Boy Memories, click here.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.

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