As the Civil War continued, food became scarce for folks in the South. Southerners also had a hard time obtaining coffee. They seemed to be just addicted to the beverage—especially soldiers—as people are today so they searched for substitutes. Rye was one of the substitutes.
In an early scene in my Civil War romance, A Musket in My Hands, the protagonist, Callie, does not have coffee beans to make her pa a cup of coffee. Instead she offers to fix him a cup from rye that she’d boiled and dried.
Though I am not a coffee drinker, I wanted to prepare rye for coffee. There is a recipe in Confederate Home Cooking.
I’ve never seen or tasted rye coffee so this was a learning process. The recipe mentioned “parching” after drying, so I reached out to Southern cooks for help with this term. Parching means roasting, which makes sense. (Thanks, Charlotte and Debra!)
I boiled ¼ cup of rye on a medium high heat for 10 minutes. By experimenting, I discovered that longer than 10 minutes begins to split the grain, which the recipe advises against.
Boiling softened the grain, expanding it over double the original size. The water was a clear, brown broth.
The rye was drained and then set aside while I lined a cookie sheet with parchment paper. The oven was preheated to 275 degrees to dry the rye.
After spreading a thin layer of rye over the parchment paper, I set the cookie sheet into the oven, stirring the rye every five minutes. After 10 minutes, most of the grain was dry. After 15 minutes, it was removed from the oven.
While the oven preheated to 450 degrees, the rye was transferred onto a fresh piece of parchment paper on the cookie sheet.
Many homes in the Civil War era had coffee grinders. I don’t own one so I ground the roasted rye with a rolling pin. Worked pretty well.
Then I experimented with how soldiers in camp might have made the coffee. Using 1 teaspoon of ground rye in each case, I tried the following:
1) Poured boiling water into a cup with the rye and let it steep about 5 minutes. (left side of main photo)
2) Boiled water with rye—strongest coffee flavor. (middle)
3) NOT the way soldiers made coffee but applicable for folks today—a single-serving coffee maker. (right side of main photo)
All of these tasted like coffee to me. Granted, I am not a coffee drinker, but I agree that this probably worked well as a coffee substitute for soldiers. Though #2 made the strongest coffee, the others tasted almost as strong.
Tasting the beverage made me wonder if roasting it 2 minutes less would enhance the flavor. I will try roasting for only 8 minutes next time.
This was a fun experiment! I’d love to hear if you try it.
-Sandra Merville Hart
Mitchell, Patricia B. Confederate Home Cooking, 2014.