November 15, 2017 • Los Angeles
When I watch old movies, people who are out late at night, sometimes after they’ve been drinking, sometimes stone sober, turn to coffee to steel themselves after an emotional shock. Sitting around the kitchen table when things need to be discussed, processed, or decided, one of the characters will inevitably say, “I’ll put on the coffee,” even though it’s the middle of the night.
If I drank coffee after 6 p.m. I wouldn’t get any sleep, and I’d have a migraine the next day. At first I thought their reckless caffeine habits might be attributed to poor screenwriting, or perhaps that there was nothing else to drink besides booze in the 1940s. But people who remember that era will tell you, however, that coffee wasn’t nearly as potent as it is today.
Wartime shortages and rationing meant you needed to stretch your ingredients farther, so people made cowboy coffee—essentially mixing the ground beans into hot water, something like Greek coffee but with a lot less beans and a lot more water. Even if they ran it through a percolator for half an hour, a spoonful of ground beans in a quart of water will only stretch so far.
This leads me to assume people in old movies could drink coffee at night because in terms of potency, it was somewhere between herbal tea and decaf. My protagonist, Mason, drinks a lot of coffee, and also time-travels regularly to the mid-twentieth century, so in upcoming books he’s definitely going to be complaining about cowboy coffee.