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How to Make Quick and Easy Coffee Bean Substitutes from the Civil War. Okra Seed Coffee and more, with pictures.

Updated on June 19, 2013

"I hear, I know. I see, I remember. I do, I understand."

–Confucius, Chinese philosopher, and political theorist, 551-479 BC

Cast your vote for Okra Seed Coffee

Hands-on activities are one of the best ways for students of all ages to acquire knowledge.

Experiential learning isn't just a valuable tool for learning modern-day trades like civil engineering, carpentry or fashion design. It's also a great way to teach students about social studies and history.

Social studies and history are usually lecture-based courses, and for students with short attention spans or little interest, information can flow in one ear and out the other. Hands-on activities engage students physically in the learning experience, thereby ensuring some level of attention and helping ensure better information retention.

Experiential learning can be especially effective for lesson plans focused on American history, the Civil War period. Students in the Untied States learn (and re-learn) about the Civil War each school year from kindergarten through high school.

After almost a decade of coverage, many students still have a difficult time describing why the war occurred, the mechanics of war operations or the long-term socioeconomic and political impact of the war between the states.

If asked about the Civil War, most students can call out three historical ideas: the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation or the freeing of the slaves. That's the extent of their knowledge. Even after years of reiterative lectures, they have not internalized the historical context and sociopolitical nuances of important Civil War events.

The activities described below are a great way to get students interested in Civil War studies. Part science experiment, part culinary creation, these hands-on learning exercises will give students a taste of life in the Confederacy during the Civil War period.

Components of Hands-on Activities

These hands-on activities have three main components:

  1. Students researching primary sources on life in the Confederacy during the Civil War
  2. Students recreating primary source recipes for Civil War survival
  3. Traditional teaching modules on Civil War history that build on student interest.

Research is a fundamental skill for any learning program. Today's students of the Digital Age have a hard time looking beyond Wikipedia and generated content to find peer-reviewed and scholarly sources for academic research.

Each of these activities relies on primary sources of information, not watered-down information cited and re-cited in less-than-authoritative online content. These primary source materials are widely available. Most educational institutions can access them through their own library databases, or through public library resources.

Tisn't he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is--'tis he who has endured."

-- John Little, fugitive slave, 1855, quoted in Norman Yetman's intro to the WPA Slave Narratives on the Library of Congress website

The Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers' Project

During the 1930s, the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) embarked on an ambitious project to interview thousands of former slaves and capture their first-hand auto-biographies for historical record.

The resulting Slave Narrative Collection provides great insight into the Civil War period, and a great tool for understanding the benefits and constraints of dealing with primary sources.

Best of all, it's an affordable resource.

  • The scanned, typewritten pages of the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writer's Project are available for free through the Library of Congress website.
  • Completely digitized online versions are available through the American Mosaic: the African American Experience, a library database available through educational institutions or public libraries.
  • Free or inexpensive paperback and e-book versions are also available through the Amazon website.
  • For more advanced students (high-school or college level), there are also somewhat more expensive textbooks that build on the slave narrative collection.

The Library of Congress website provides a series of 20 learning modules that give readers a thorough understanding of the narratives' historical context, value and shortcomings. The modules are written in clear, simple language suitable for students of all ages, and answer questions students may have regarding the project planners, participants and biases on both sides.

Recipes from the Slave Narrative Collection

The Slave Narrative Colllection, in general, is a fascinating glimpse into slave life before and during the Civil War.

Recipes listed in the narratives are particularly interesting. They convey the hardships experienced during the Civil War period, and are easy to recreate in modern kitchens and classrooms.

It warn't nigh as good as sho ‘nough coffee.

‘Daddy said dey had a powerful hard time gittin' things lak soda, salt, sugar, and coffee during' de war times. He said dat sometimes corn and okra seeds was parched right brown and ground up to be used for coffee, but it warn't nigh as good as sho ‘nough coffee.

--Georgia: Bill Heard Narrative, Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers Project

Activity #1- Okra Coffee from the Slave Narratives Collection

One of the most common recipes in the Slave Narratives Collection is a recollection of making coffee from a variety of substances only distantly related to coffee beans.

Coffee had been a quintessential American drink since a group of rowdies filled a Boston Harbor with crates of British tea. In the North, soldiers and civilians alike enjoyed a relatively steady supply even during wartime. In the South, Lincoln's blockades created shortages of the most basic wartime essentials like clothing and ammunition. Blockade runners risked their lives to maintain commerce of essential items, and coffee became an almost unheard-of luxury.

The slave narratives contain numerous accounts of slaves parching okra seeds, rye, wheat, corn... whatever they could get their hands on - to produce a palatable coffee substitute.

Everybody had to do the best they could...

Coffee giv' out an none could be bought so they took okra seeds an' parched ‘em good an' brown an' ground ‘em an' made coffee out'n ‘em. Some folks made coffee out'n parched ground wheat too. Everybody had to do the best they could in them times.

-- Georgia: Emma Hurley Narrative, Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers Project

How to Make Okra Coffee

  1. Start with raw okra on a clean plate.
  2. Cut pod lengthwise with a sharp knife.
  3. Run thumb along line of seeds, and they will pop out.
  4. Heat a pan on the stovetop until a drop of water sizzles.
  5. Add okra seeds (all at once) to pan.
  6. Toast or "parch" okra seeds, until they dry out and turn brown. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
  7. Remove parched seeds from pan.
  8. Grind seeds lightly in a coffee grinder, or with a mortar and pestle (optional).
  9. Brew in a coffee pot, French press or teapot.

A Vile Type of Coffee

The slaves made coffee by parching cornmeal, okra seed or Irish potatoes. When sufficiently parched any one of the above named would make a vile type of coffee.

-- Second-person interview; recorded as the Georgia: George Eason Narrative, Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers Project

A Note on the Slave Narratives

When using the Slave Narrative Collection for any type of academic or educational activities, it's important to note how the records were obtained.

The Library of Congress modules deal with the issue of bias and historical perspective in depth. A few of the issues raised are:

  • Memory accuracy. The former slaves interviewed in the 1930s described events from the Civil War. In almost all cases, they recounted childhood memories, which reflect a child's perspective somewhat more than adult understanding and accurate historical context.
  • Interviewer perspective. The interviewer's manner and demeanor may have influenced responses from interviewees. Natural disgust (or interest) at some of the events described may have changed interview questions enough to impact interview content.
  • Interviewee perspective. Faced with a willing audience, interviewees may have, to some extent, told interviewers what they wanted to hear.

Activity #2 -Beet Coffee from Confederate Newspaper

Slaves were not the only Southerners suffering from coffee deprivation. The effects of the blockade effected all rungs of Southern society. Professor Vicki Betts at the University of Texas at Tyler compiled a list of Civil War newspaper articles on coffee substitutes.

These newspaper articles provide a fascinating alternate perspective on Civil War recipes.

The article below (copied from Professor Betts' website) provides a detailed recipe for coffee made from beets.

Ingredients and Materials

  • 1-2 Common Garden Beets
  • 1 Knife
  • 1 Coffee Grinder (or mortar and pestle)

Confederate Newspaper Article

(Question marks indicate illegible text. Paragraph marks added for clarity and readability)

DAILY CHRONICLE & SENTINEL [AUGUSTA, GA], August 25, 1861, p. 3, c. 2
Greensboro', Ga., August 23, 1861.
To the Editor of the Chronicle & Sentinel:
Having heard you were great coffee drinkers, and always relished a good cup, and knowing that you desired to run Lincoln's blockade into nonentity, to obtain a good cup, (such as you have no doubt often tasted at the French Market, New Orleans,) I enclose to you the receipt--the very latest--for making the very best domestic coffee.

This coffee, when made by the receipt, is of excellent flavor, and very nutritious. It is of sufficient strength, and not excitable in its action. It is mild, healthy, persuasive, and sufficiently exhilarating for any epicure.

When you smell it, you will say "I believe it's Java;" when you taste it, you will say, "I think it is Java;" when you drink it, you exclaim (foreignly,), "I'll pe tamn [sic??] if it isn't Java coffee!" It is true, it has not that foreign accent; but by adding a little rich milk or cream, it speaks almost the foreign tongue. Try it, as an antidote for the blockade.


Take the common garden beet, wash it clean, cut it up into small pieces, twice the size of a grain of coffee; put into the coffee toaster or oven, and roast as you do your coffee--perfectly brown. Take care not to burn while toasting it.

When sufficiently dry and hard, grind it in a clean mill, and take half a common sized coffee cup of the grounds, and boil with one gallon water. Then settle with an egg, and send to the table, hot. Sweeten with very little sugar, and add good cream or milk.

This coffee can be drank by children, with impunity, and will not (in my judgment,) either impair sight or nerves. Col. Wm. W. D. Weaver and myself have tried it, and find it almost equal, when properly made, to either the Java, Brazilian or Mocha coffee. I am indebted to the Colonel for this excellent substitute; and as every man has his beet orchard, so has he his coffee.

And like Cuffee, we exclaim, "bress God for dis blockade. [Derogatory term] now get him plenty of kophphee, and Mr. Lincoln am nowhere."

R. J. Dawson.

P.S. There is a percentage of water in the beet which is extracted as you toast the coffee particles to a nice brown.


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    • toomuchmint profile image

      toomuchmint 5 years ago

      Wild, isn't it? They also had vegetable ash as a sub for baking powder in biscuits. Necessity is the mother of invention. :) thanks, highvoltagefor reading and commenting!

    • Highvoltagewriter profile image

      William Benner 5 years ago from Savannah GA.

      Okra, really? Who would know?

    • toomuchmint profile image

      toomuchmint 5 years ago

      Thanks Red! I really got caught in the research on this one ;). I could never get grounded in history classes, but somehow I ended up reading biographiesand ship excavations- with interest! It's amazing how centering history of the war and blockade on an interest-catching idea makes a difference.

      How can you live without coffee? And a new world opens up :)

      Thanks for reading and for such a great comment!

    • Redberry Sky profile image

      Redberry Sky 5 years ago

      Amazing information and absolutely fascinating. I took some history modules in Uni, and what you've said at the beginning of your article rang so many bells - most students just weren't interested beyond remembering dates and key figures and events; there was very little interaction with cause, effect or socio-economic factors, which made the few opinions that students held very black-and-white. Digging down into seemingly everyday things like coffee substitutes is at the heart of understanding history - looking at how the majority of people lived their lives, and why. Brilliant ideas, toomuchmint, you are an awesome teacher and writer