If War Is Hell, Then Coffee Has Offered U.S. Soldiers Some Salvation : The Salt "Nobody can soldier without coffee," a Union cavalryman wrote in 1865. Hidden Kitchens looks at three American wars through the lens of coffee: the Civil War, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

If War Is Hell, Then Coffee Has Offered U.S. Soldiers Some Salvation

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Time now for the next story in our new season of Hidden Kitchens, stories about the role food plays in conflicts around the world. Today, the Kitchen Sisters, producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, bring us "War and Peace and Coffee," a look at coffee in the lives of American soldiers.


JON GRINSPAN: Reading through the diaries of Civil War soldiers, nurses and people on the home front, I went looking for big stories about war and freedom and slavery, secession and union. And all they kept talking about was the coffee they had for breakfast or the coffee they wanted to have for breakfast. They wrote the word coffee more than they wrote the word mother or war or cannon, slavery or Lincoln, even.

My name is Jon Grinspan. I'm a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. I wrote an article called, "How Coffee Fueled The Civil War." As these armies grow over the course of the war, they'd become makeshift cities with hundreds of thousands of people in them, some bigger than Atlanta, with no infrastructure.

As the morning starts, you could hear the sound of tens of thousands of people grinding coffee at exactly the same time. They're in battle between one or two weeks of the whole year. They're not shooting their muskets at enemies that much. They're not being chased or fired upon that much. But every day they make coffee.

ANDREW F. SMITH: As soon as the war began, The Union put a blockade on Southern ports, so coffee could not be exported into the American South. I am Andrew F. Smith, author of "Starving The South: How The North Won The Civil War."

The Confederates had access to tobacco and Southern foods. Northern soldiers had access to coffee. When there was not a battle going on, Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers met in the middle of fields and exchanged goods. By far, the most important was coffee from the North to the South.

GRINSPAN: People in the Confederacy are dying for coffee, and they're being blockaded from having it. They invent all these makeshift coffees - roasting rye, rice, sweet potatoes or beets until they're caramelize and grinding them up. It's not the same as coffee, but it's a cup of something warm and brown to drink and console them.

Some Union soldiers got rifles with a mechanical grinder with a hand crank built into the buttstock. They'd fill a hallowed space within the carbines stock with coffee beans, grind it up, dump it out and cook coffee that way. Here's an irony - these soldiers, who are fighting ostensibly to end slavery, are fueled by this coffee coming from slave fields in Brazil.

DAVID ZEIGER: Oleo strut is the vertical shock absorber on a helicopter. During the Vietnam War, the concept of the GI coffeehouses that were established around several bases was as a shock absorber. It's a place where GIs could get away from the military and say what they really felt.

My name's David Zeiger. I am a documentary filmmaker. In the 1960s, I was an anti-war activist. I spent about three years at a GI coffeehouse name the Oleo Strut.

In the 1960s, the idea of a coffeehouse was subversive. The coffee houses were where the beats read their poetry. It's where people, traditionally, had gone to plan revolution. The town of Killeen, just outside of Fort Hood, is a dry town. We couldn't have had beer if we'd wanted to. GIs didn't have anywhere to go. There was no place to go and just talk.


FRED GARDNER: The Shelter Half in Tacoma near Fort Lewis and the Oleo Strut in Killeen. There was Fort Ord coffeehouse in the old Greyhound terminal. My name's Fred Gardner. In 1967, I founded the UFO coffeehouse in Columbia, S.C.

The coffeehouse in Fort Leonard Wood was the first really integrated place in Columbia - not just black and white, but students and soldiers. The war was heating up, and the peace movement was trying to figure out how to end U.S. involvement.


JANE FONDA: You know, I grew up believing that if our flag was flying over a battlefield that we were on the side of the angels. My father...

GARDNER: Jane Fonda would come visit the Oleo Strut. The first time she came, the local newspaper had a big headline, Barbarella Comes To Killeen, Texas.


FONDA: (Singing) I went down to that base...

GARDNER: Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland created an anti-war cabaret called the FTA show. She was very much involved with supporting soldiers who were opposed to the war in particular. The coffee houses were the starting point for that movement.

HARRISON SUAREZ: The military runs on coffee. the Marines especially. It's this ritual, part of the experience. All the way through, it's hey, let's get coffee. Let's figure out what's going on and what we want to do. Michael and I became friends in the Marines over coffee, learning how to navigate with a map and compass.

MICHAEL HAFT: I'm Michael Haft.

SUAREZ: I'm Harrison Suarez.

HAFT: Co-Founders of Compass Coffee...

SUAREZ: In Washington, D.C. The first day down in North Carolina with our platoon sergeants, it's, hey, gunny, you want to get together for a cup of coffee? That's how every new relationship in the Marines is formed.


TOM BROKAW: Good evening. American-led military attacks against targets throughout Afghanistan continue tonight, even as the first emergency...

SUAREZ: One of our missions was to develop the Afghan police and army.

HAFT: Any time that we shared coffee with our Afghan partners, it was just a train wreck.

SUAREZ: The Afghan culture is much more about tea. What was very important was embracing the local culture. Michael's having tea with Ali Shah (ph), with Captain Ali Mohammad (ph). It's not coffee, but the experience of taking time to develop a rapport with your partner that you're fighting alongside holds the same.

When people get back from deployment, there's all sorts of things they get into. Coffee had that allure to capture our attention.

HAFT: We've sent coffee to Marines on aircraft carriers, to Afghanistan. Basically, any time somebody's requested some crazy coffee delivery, we've done our best to accommodate getting it out to them.

SUAREZ: Going back during the Civil War to our experience in Afghanistan, you've got this common thread of people coming together, sharing their experience, their stories, over coffee.

HAFT: Ebenezer Nelson Gilpin, Civil War soldier, writing in April 1865, the very end of the war, says, everything is chaos here. The suspense is almost unbearable. We are reduced to a quarter rations and no coffee, and nobody can soldier without coffee.


MONTAGNE: "War and Peace and Coffee" was produced by The Kitchen Sisters with Sam Robinson and mixed by Jim McKee.

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