Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Belly-Wash and Six-Shooters

by Anita Mae Draper

I bet all sorts of images are crawling through your mind after reading the title, eh? Put your hand up if you know what I'm talking about. Or at least take a wild guess.

Here's a hint...

Yes, we're talking about coffee. And not just any old coffee, but frontier, wagon train, and cowboy coffee circa the latter half of the 19th century.

Back then, making coffee was a big deal. If a cowboy was riding the range and too far from the ranch or a line shack, he'd spend the night under the stars. So once he decided where he'd bed down, he needed to find some fuel for a fire. This meant wood, branches or buffalo chips depending on the landscape. Using a flint or matches, he'd get a nice fire going. While waiting for the fire to burn down, he had time to fill his coffee pot with water. That is, if he had any water left in his canteen or had chosen a site near a water source. When the fire was down to embers, he'd set his coffee pot to boil.

At this stage if it was prior to 1865, the cowboy had to roast the green coffee beans and grind them before adding them to his boiling water.

The standard recipe for cowboy coffee was one handful of ground coffee per cup of water. The cowboys liked it good and strong. How strong? Strong enough to pass the six-shooter test. Cowboy lore says if you dropped a horseshoe or six-shooter in your coffee and it sank, the coffee wasn't strong enough yet.

And according to a number of sources including Western Words by Ramon Adams, weak coffee amounted to a cup of belly-wash.

For years, coffee sellers had been trying to process and sell roasted coffee but it just wouldn't keep.

Then in 1865, the Arbuckle Brothers out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania invented a method of preserving the flavour by coating each roasted bean with an egg white and sugar mixture. Arbuckles packaged their Ariosa (air-ee-o-sa) roasted coffee in 1 lb airtight paper packages with 100 in a case.

Apparently, the Arbuckle package with the distinctive yellow label and Flying Angel trademark was so successful, many cowboys thought it was the only roasted coffee on the market. Of course, what made it so successful was that anyone could walk into the closest general store or mercantile and walk out with a convenient package of roasted coffee.

Other coffee companies followed, but Arbuckles maintained their market share by including a coupon on the bottom of the package which could he traded in for all sorts of catalogue items. The package also included a peppermint stick and a collectible advertising trade card which could depict a scene from any one of the 50 states or numerous countries around the world as well as flora and fauna. These perks helped Arbuckles own the slogan...

Getting back to my cowboy coffee, you may be wondering about all those grounds floating in the old coffee pot. Well, you had a choice. One, you could throw a dash of cold water on, which surprised the little grounds so much they sank to the bottom. Or, you could do like this fella...

That explains where all those missing socks go. LOL

And in case you're wondering, here's the current recipe for a decent cup of Arbuckles coffee...

Cowboy Coffee

It’s basically three steps:
• Boil your water and remove from the fire.
• Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of perk-ground coffee per cup of water.
• Let it steep for 4 to 5 minutes before drinking.
The grounds usually settle by then. If they don’t add a splash of cold water, which sinks and carries most of the grounds to the bottom of the pot. A few grounds remain in the bottom of each cup. But, that's the nature of any unfiltered coffee.
Keep the pot close to the edge of the fire to keep it warm enough to drink. Don't put directly over the fire to cause scorching.
So; brew up a pot, pardner' and enjoy the sunrise.

And no, I'm not getting a kickback for promoting Arbuckle coffee here, but I found this other nice video on their site and since Western is my favourite type of music (after gospel), I thought I'd invite you to grab your own cup of coffee, sit back, and soak up the cowboy atmosphere for a couple minutes.

This post came about because of my western research for one of my manuscripts. And while writing it, I realized how blessed I truly am to be able to open a cupboard and have a fresh cup of coffee in under 2 minutes.

Question for the day: What kind of coffee do you favour: belly-wash or six-shooter?

Resources used in this post include:

Western Words by Ramon Adams, University of Oklahoma Press, 1968
Wagon Wheel Kitchens: Food on the Oregon Trail by Jacqueline Williams, University Press of Kansas, 1993


  1. Sounds like a good way to ruin a six-shooter OR maybe it kept it from kgetting rusty?

    I do like strong coffee (even though it has to be decaf) and what a lot of fun this post is, Anita!

  2. I love the smell of coffee, but I don't like the taste. I drink tea, instead. I suppose those cowboys would call that belly wash.

    Anita, the depth of your research always amazes me. Great post, with fun info.

  3. I can't even imagine what they'd have to say about my fru fru girly belly wash. Arabic coffee is very thick and unfiltered, and I do on rare occasion drink that to be socialable. But they drink little demi-tasse cups like espresso.

  4. Happy, happy times! When I saw this was about coffee, I got myself a cup BEFORE continuing with the post! The power of suggestion...

    Love the vintage coffee info- I actually have one of those wooden box grinders- it's a family heirloom... I'll be nicer to it now...

    Thanks Anita, you are amazing!!!

  5. Morning, everyone. Although I hate to say it, I'm having a cup of belly-wash at the moment.

    Some guy named Peter has a photo of cowboy coffee over at Picasa but he hasn't given permission for anyone to use it. Too bad, because that stuff is sludge!

    Deb, you never know about the rust inhibitor factor especially since they didn't use additives back then... well, except for the egg white and sugar. I wonder if it would work? It's not really that farfetched because coffee grounds are a natural filter. :D

    Anita Mae.

  6. Suzie, it's funny that you would say that because according to the book, Come and Get It, also by Ramon Adams, 'The cowboy had no use for tea or the men who drank it.'

    The comment was made in respect to those Canadian and British outfits who preferred tea to coffee.

    American cowboys are very patriotic and even though they're landlubbers, they would've joined in the Boston Tea Party if they'd been around back then.

    And Suzie, I needed the research for Emma's Outlaw as well an upcoming project. But thanks for the compliment. :)

    Anita Mae.

  7. Adge, thanks for dropping in and telling me. I appreciate it.

    Anita Mae.

  8. Oh Dina, I know what you mean. When I was working in Ottawa, an Italian came in to paint the commcen walls. He saw me drinking my coffee and asked if I'd ever tasted espresso. I said no, I hadn't as I didn't like strong coffee. He said he'd bring me some and waved off my objections. Can I add that I was 5 months into a high-risk pregnancy?

    The next day he was back and insisted on making a pot of this espresso. I tell you, I almost gagged on the stuff. It smelled like bolognie. And the baby started doing somersaults! When the painter was leaving, I reminded him he'd left his pkg of coffee but again he waved me off saying to keep it. Not likely. Some other soldier took it home, thank goodness.

    A week or so later I was put to complete bed rest for the remainder of my pregnancy. No, I don't contribute it to the espresso, but the one cup sure woke up my baby. LOL

    Anita Mae.

  9. Hey, Cheryl. You didn't say if you knew it was about coffee from the title or after I gave the hint...

    I received my own coffee grinder for Christmas a couple years ago, but it's a noisy electric thing made from plastic. I'd much rather have one like yours sitting on my counter. :)

    Thank you.

    Anita Mae.

  10. Well, Anita, if you don't think a cowboy hero would have much use for a tea-drinker, then I'll just have to do something about that next time I have a coffee-drinking hero out on the trail. (Not that I write cowboy heroes, but you just never know.)

  11. Love the post, Anita. It's so clear when you write that you're not just knowledgable, but that you enjoy learning about all these details. So do I!

    Just perfect for a touch of authenticity! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Suzie, I didn't say I didn't like my cowboy heroes drinking tea. I said 'cowboys say' that. And yes, alas, even Cdn cowboys guzzle down the black java.

    On the topic of heroes, when I married Nelson, we were both in the habit of switching to tea as our beverage of choice once noon hour passed. Even now throughout our cold winter, we drink tea in the evenings. And although my teen would rather have pop, my tween likes his tea. The only difference is that we drink more of the herbal and green tea as opposed to the black.

    But to get back to my earlier comments about cowboys, there I was eating my breakfast and looking through my chocolate cookbooks planning for Friday night and instead of seeing cheesecakes with pecans and drizzled chocolate topped with chocolate butterflies, I kept thinking of the comment I said to you.

    I want to make clear that if you drink tea you're not considered unpatriotic. It's just the cowbody code that says men have to drink strong brew or their muscles won't expand or some such nonsense. They use the coffee as a crutch to shore up their manliness. As if they need help in that area. LOL

    Tea on the other hand, is for civilized society. China instead of tin plates. Chairs instead of haunches. Chintz instead of oilcloth. Peace instead of violence.

    And finally, 2 wks ago I needed a quirk for the hero in my current wip and guess what I wrote in... that he prefers tea to coffee. Now maybe the fact that he's a Cdn won't make any difference, but I'd like to think it does.

    Phew, this is long. I need to relax... where's my tea?

    Anita Mae.

  13. You're welcome, Lisa. I actually had several more tidbits of info but decided to include the photos instead.

    Like the fact cowboys don't use dairy products in their coffee because they shy away from 'footwork'. And to get the milk or cream, they had to walk to a cow and milk it first. The only way you're gonna get a cowboy under a cow is if he's dead.

    Sorry, rambling again.

    Anita Mae.

  14. Oh, gosh, Anita, I was doing great resisting the urge for coffee . . . until I read your post. Hmm. I wonder how much milk is left in the refrigerator.

    Great post!

  15. Anita, I LOVE the photos! You find the best stuff!

    I went through a coffee binge when I was dieting. (You know you've had too much espresso when you start to smell like a coffee bean while exercising.) These days it's just a cup, then I move on to tea.

    The modern equivalent of cowboy coffee, in my opinion, is convenience store coffee between the hours of 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.

  16. Gina, why on earth would you be resisting coffee?

    And who needs milk? Go on, suck back the brew the hard way - take it like a man!

    Hmmm... perchance there's a reason you write medieval and victorian historicals and I write gut-clenching, shoot-em-up westerns? LOL

    About the milk though... the cows the cowboys drove herd for were wild and wouldn't have put up with no man ticklin' their teats if you know what I mean.

    And another tidbit... Even after canned milk came available in the form of condensed milk, cowboys had no use for the 'canned cow'.
    Speaking of the Eagle brand, Charlie Russell said, "I think it came from that bird. It's a cinch it never flowed from any animal with horns." (from Come and Get It)

    Anita Mae.

  17. Hey Niki, I went on a coffee restriction myself when I started to eat healthier. We'd make a pot in the morning and Nels would fill his travel mug. I'd get the equivalent of 2.5 cups. Then about noon, I'd put a pot of green tea with acai berries and that would last the afternoon.

    But since Jan when I've been writing like crazy, I've been drinking coffee to match. At least I don't use milk and only a minimal amt of sugar.

    And whereas some writers drink copious amounts of Coke and other soft drinks, I don't drink any. I'd rather have my coffee, tea and water.

    And speaking of late night coffee... I've also cut down my cappuccinos and only have 1 on my way back from the city now. And it's only 2/3 full because I top it off with the 'modern equivalent of cowboy coffee' as you called it. Somthing's gotta keep me awake for the long drive home and then I get to write until 4 am because I can't sleep. :D

    And thanks. I appreciate the vote of confidence.

    Anita Mae.

  18. Anita Mae, I loved this post! What fabulous information! I was recently looking for info on coffee brands of the 1800s and didn't do very well. Your skill at uncovering fun and fascinating facts is supreme!

    This post makes me grateful for my coffee maker. I think I'll give it a little bit of polishing tonight :-)

    Hubby wouldn't be caught dead with milk in his coffee. But sometimes (gasp!) I really like flavored coffee. It's a treat, because I have it so rarely.

  19. Well, there ya go, Susie. Great minds think alike. :D

    If you're wondering about 19th century coffee, here's another tidbit... Chase and Sanborn was the first coffee company to put their ground coffee in a can back in 1878. But the vacuumed cans weren't introduced until 1898.

    Flavoured coffee is great! We usually only buy it in Dec - it helps make the holiday season special - except I bought one last week because we were having a pot luck at church and I need creamer to add to their cowboy coffee. Our pastor is a rancher and although the church coffee isn't quite six shooter style, it's too strong for me to drink black. Let's see... the one in my fridge is the Southern Butter Pecan flavour. Yum. :)

    Love the image of you cradling your coffee pot while giving it a swipe. Haha

    Anita Mae.

  20. hi anita
    loved the post! i LOVE the smell of coffee, but am not a fan of the taste. i have to violate my coffee with cream and sugar - or perhaps i should say i add coffee to my cream and sugar.
    i say "violate" because that is what my hubby says i do to it. being a good ol' Navy man - he drank it black and six shooter strong for most of his career. he's mumbled something about mid-watch sludge once or twice.
    now that hubby is retired, he tends to lean toward tea and he's actually put flavoring in his coffee *gasp* he complains that he must be getting old and soft *heh*

    i love how you are such a wealth of uber interesting information. sorry i'm a day late.

    great post!

  21. We make cowboy coffee when we rendezvous (18th Century camping). Ours is closer to six shooter than belly wash, and there is nothing like it. Dad has tried to make it at home on the stove, but he says it tastes different than when we make it over a fire.

  22. DebH - you don't like the taste of coffee? Well perhaps you haven't tried Arbuckles. LOL They should pay me. Seriously, I don't like some of it, either if it's too strong.

    Take tea for instance, I drink my green and herbal tea plain. Nothing added. But I can't stand black tea unless I add milk and sugar. My mom is the exact opposite. She needs milk in her coffee and she drinks her tea black regardless how long that old tea bag's been seeping.

    Boats reminds me my night shifts. It was the off-going shift's job to ensure a fresh pot of coffee for the next shift. So when I worked a midnight shfit, I'd report in for handover around 1145 which meant they'd make the coffee at 1130. Those pots held 8 cups of coffee - one for every hour. Man, that last cup of coffee was thick! And yet I needed it to stay awake and I couldn't put a fresh pot on until around 0700.

    Don't let Boats complain about getting old - tell him he's just developing good taste by drinking tea. :D

    Thanks for visiting, Deb. No such thing as late here at the Inkwell. Not as long as I tell google to email me when there's a new comment anyway. LOL

    Anita Mae.

  23. Oh EJ, I know exactly what you and your dad mean. I can sit by the campfire and drink six shooter coffee without milk and never even blink (but that could be the caffeine keeping my lids open). And if a fly tries to take a drink I just dish him out and send him flyin'. Leaves and twigs - unless they impede the path of the brew from the cup to my gullet - I leave 'em in. Just adds to the ambiance.

    But if I'm at home and a speck of anything appears in my coffee, I scoop it out. A fly takes a swim and I dump the whole mess in the sink and even get a clean cup from the cupboard. At home, I've even poked bubbles in my coffee to ensure they were only bubbles.

    What can I say... everything's different in the great outdoors. It all seems so God-given whereas in the house it seems man-made. Is that crazy or what.

    And back to your 18th century rendevouz camping... what's that all about? You can't leave me hanging like this. I want details. Where? When? Why? Who? Either come on back and fill me in or email me. I'd really like to know.
    anitamaedraper (at) hotmail (dot) com

    Thank you, EJ for dropping by and sharing with us. I enjoyed your visit and hope you'll come again.

    Anita Mae.


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