Procaffenating: (n) the tendency to not start anything until you’ve had a cup of coffee.
—Anonymous, but obviously the wisdom of every serious coffee drinker.
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Savoring hot coffee while searching for inspiration in crafting a column is routine for me. Confession time: I’m a coffeeholic. I just brewed another fresh pot. Never mind that it’s 8 p.m. as I’m writing this.
That vice is owing to one of two things; probably both. One, when I entered the newspaper business just a few years shy of half a century ago, “are you a coffee drinker,” was a common question in employment interviews. And a valid one too, because the old journalist’s saying about “ink in the veins” is the gospel. But, but what one learns only after committing to a life of deadlines is that ink flows better when blended with hot caffeine.
As a semi-retired freelancer these days, I miss morning discussions about stories and headlines over a cup of joe at the office. Old habits die hard, and when I sit down to write at home now, there is still a steaming cup of coffee by my computer whispering, “Together, we can do this.”
The other influence was likely Dad’s heritage. As a 1950s youngster, trips with my grandmother to the A&P on Mount Pleasant Street in Pittsburg, Texas, meant watching her grind a bag of Eight O’Clock in the big red machine. Not only was that an intriguing process for a kid to watch, but the aroma of freshly ground beans was also a delight long before I was allowed to consume a cup of the brewed drink. “You’re too young to drink coffee,” Granny would caution me. “It will stunt your growth.”
The growth of “Eight O’Clock Breakfast Coffee” sold by The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company began in 1859, also the company’s founding year. The coffee reportedly didn’t get its official name until a few years later when A&P conducted a survey and found the most popular times for drinking coffee were 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Therefore, the company dropped “Breakfast” from the name, using “Eight O’Clock” as the official brand.
By the 1930s, A&P was the world’s largest retailer, and their Eight O’Clock coffee claimed more than a quarter of the U.S. market. At that time, a pound of their java would set you back a whole 25-cents.
The price of coffee had no doubt gone up by the 1950s when A&P began facing financial setbacks. By the late 1970s, the once grocery giant had pulled out of many U.S. markets, including Texas. In 1979, they licensed Eight O’Clock coffee for other supermarkets to sell and sold off the brand in 2003 before filing for bankruptcy and going out of business for good in 2015.
They were still an iconic business when I attained teenager status, the magic age for gaining my parent’s approval to consume coffee. While I liked the smell, I had yet to develop a taste for the morning pick-me-up in liquid form. That was likely a good thing when that same year, I accompanied my father and his brother to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in my uncle’s brand new 1961 Ford. A stop along the way included dinner and “visiting a spell with coffee” at their sister’s house located on a dirt road that ran through a sugar cane patch outside Baton Rouge. The next stop on the way back to East Texas the next morning included coffee with their father who lived alone near the Mississippi River banks. Sitting in the kitchen of his unpainted “dog-trot” house that morning, I learned a way to make coffee that had little to do with A&P. Coffee grounds were involved all right: cooked in a skillet with a healthy helping of something called “chicory root” and strained through a cloth into a pot where the concoction was heated to a rolling boil.
The smell wafting from the pot perking on the tiny stove was similar to the aroma at the A&P in Pittsburg, just stronger—a lot stronger. Brief conversation and coffee completed, Uncle Zebedee announced the need to “get on down the road” toward home. As we exchanged good-byes, the elder Aldridge poured the remaining brew from the still simmering pot into a thermos and said, “Here, you’ll need this coffee for the trip home.”
We were barely out of sight of the old house when my uncle turned to Dad, smiled, and asked, “You gonna drink any more of that coffee?”
“Nope,” my father quipped, “But let’s save it in case we run out of gas.”
The coffee keeping my muse awake for writing tonight bears no resemblance to that Cajun version fifty years ago. But it may have something in common with the Eight O’Clock brand Granny bought at the A&P; my favorite coffee time is 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. But, you can also pour me a cup at any hour in between.
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