A charming and hopefully true story about how coffee first came to Texas.

They Boiled Their Coffee Beans with Ham

We continue our series of reintroducing select works from The Junior Historian, the magazine published by the Texas State Historical Association between 1941 and 1970, with this article by Ms. Barbara Harris of Henderson High School. 

Published in 1953, the story provides an account of how coffee was first introduced into Texas.

Is it true? It’s difficult to say. We don’t know the whereabouts of Ms. Harris, who presumably would be in her mid-70’s today. She references descendants of W.W. Smith, aka “Uncle Coop,” as her sources, but we’ve yet been unable to find anyone of this lineage. We note that a W.W. Smith appeared in two stories in the Gonzales Inquirer in 1853 and again in 1878. If anything, those references help give dates to when the events in this narrative occurred; Ms. Smith does not provide any in the story.

Whether true or not, it’s a charming anecdote all the same. Our vote? It’s true. It seems just a little too odd and a little too random in its details to have been made up. And besides, we want it to be true.

The Texas coffee cup illustration above is by Stephanie Jimenez exclusively for No. 4 St. James. The story of the first Texas Coffee Party is below, after the photo of morning Joe. Enjoy.

Texas Coffee

The First Texas Coffee Party
by Barbara Harris
Henderson High School

One warm night long ago some shepherds tending their sheep noticed something strange about the animals. The sheep were jumping and playing long after they should have been asleep. The shepherds were amazed and soon discovered that the sheep did this only after they had eaten berries. When the shepherds tasted the berries, they too stayed awake far into the night, and in this way, coffee, one of the most popular drinks in the world, was discovered.

For a long time coffee was used only as a stimulant because of its tendency to prevent sleep. The Mohammedans used it to keep awake during their long religious services. This was soon stopped, however, by some of the more orthodox priests who threatened severe punishment to any one addicted to its use.

The use of coffee as a tasteful drink is said to have been started by an Arabian king who was given coffee as a medicine. He liked the drink so well that he carried some of it back to Arabia, where it became the national drink, despite the warm climate.

From Arabia coffee spread to England, where coffee houses became so popular that King Charles II tried to abolish them on the grounds that they were centers of political agitation.

From England coffee came to the tropics of the New World, and then to the United States by way of the port of New Orleans.

The first coffee was probably brought into Texas by W. W. Smith, better known as Uncle Coop, who was an ox wagon freighter. One morning, as he was gathering freight, he heard that some goods had been traded at New Orleans for a new product called coffee. The people in New Orleans talked as though coffee were food for the gods, so Uncle Coop decided to buy one hundred pounds of the peculiar-looking green beans to take back to his family at Gonzales.

Back in Gonzales, Uncle Coop's mother was very enthusiastic about the beans and made plans to introduce coffee at a quilting bee, since it would have been unthinkable not to share the treat with friends.

By mid-morning of the appointed date, people began to arrive by wagon from all over the countryside. The women who had arrived early were advising Mrs. Smith about preparation of the beans. They had no recipe or instructions, but everyone knew that beans had to be boiled. They also agreed that the flavor of all kinds of beans improved by boiling a ham with them. So the coffee beans, along with a choice ham, were put into a huge iron pot, and the boiling began.

The women went on with their quilting and the men with their talk. Soon the air was filled with the aroma of boiling ham mingled with something strangely different. Quilting production was slowed down by frequent trips to the kitchen to have a look at the beans. Gradually concern and misgivings crept over the crowd. The mixture had turned green, and the beans were still hard as metal. Someone suggested parboiling, so the cooking process started all over. Two o'clock came, and the beans showed no signs of getting done, so they called a meeting to decide what was to be done with the coffee. They reluctantly decided to throw away the mixture. They took special care not to throw it near the hogs, however, as one ham had been ruined already.

Mr. Smith apologized to the crowd of disappointed people as they prepared to leave the coffee party. He said he guessed they just did not know how to cook the beans.

Uncle Coop, however, was not so willing to give up his bag of coffee. Every letter he got from Tennessee praised coffee. A year later his caution paid off when the settlers learned that coffee should be roasted and a drink made from the ground beans.

The settlers tried the coffee again and liked it so well that it became a habit. The habit grew stronger, and during the Civil War substitutes had to be made from corn meal, rye, okra seed, and ever parched sweet potatoes.

Uncle Coop and his family have many descendants in Gonzales, and today they still tell the story of the first Texas coffee party.


Loraine Michalek:

I have heard this story many times. My mother used to tell us about how Uncle Coop, Uncle Jack and Arthur Smith (my Grandpa) brought coffee beans to the Gonzales area. But our story has a little more to it. They buried the mixture as not to harm any animals. Also it was thrown out because Uncle Jack had lockjaw. All his food was mashed and he sucked it in with a straw. The beans were never soft enough to be mashed for him.

Jan 25, 2018

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