Coffee Soup

Photo of me around the age of eight, dancing with my grandpa and wearing his hat

When I was growing up, butter was a staple ingredient to my grandma’s cooking. Of course I didn’t realize until much later, when I asked Grandma to share some of her recipes, that entire sticks of butter, or what Grandma referred to as “oleo,” had been melted into the saucepan to ensure sufficient lubrication and flavor-infusion for the rigatoni sauce or the oven-roasted chicken or the succulent meat stuffing she always made for Thanksgiving dinner.

Upon spending the night at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I’d awake to the sounds and smells of a well-used kitchen—the gentle scrape of a fork against the bottom of a cast-iron skillet as Grandma swirled a thick pat of butter in preparation for the eggs; the whistle of the aluminum tea kettle and subsequent waft of coffee (Grandma always used instant); and the nutty aroma of the butter as it sizzled to a golden-brown hue.

By the time I got downstairs, Grandpa would already be sitting at the red-trimmed aluminum kitchen table reading his morning newspaper, coffee steaming in the cup in front of him. In the middle of the table would be a stick of butter and a tube of saltine crackers. Since I was too young to enter the refrigerator by myself (something to this day I hesitate to do in that house, as a result of those childhood rules), Grandma would get me a small glass of apricot juice.

Sometimes Grandpa would acknowledge my presence with a “Hullo Susie.” I never knew if he was teasing or if he simply didn’t know my name. Most times, his attention remained focused on the newspaper. One thing I was permitted to do was butter my own saltine crackers. At the time it didn’t occur to me to wonder why, for every other meal, there was fresh Italian bread from Joey’s bakery when, for breakfast, we ate only saltine crackers. The buttered crackers were my favorite part—well, the butter itself was my favorite part—and I would have been much more generous with it had Grandma and Grandpa not been there to covertly supervise from the corners of their respective eyes.

As I commenced buttering, Grandma would crack an egg directly into the skillet, stir it with the fork, and flavor it generously with salt as it flash fried in about thirty seconds. The number of crackers you got to eat with your egg was the number you were able to butter in the amount of time it took Grandma to cook the egg. Sometimes though, you’d make it to the kitchen table early enough to butter more crackers than could reasonably be eaten with the egg. Those days resulted in coffee soup.

After Grandma would slide the egg onto my plate, she’d fix me my own cup of coffee, rich with milk and plenty of sugar, the way children drank it, I supposed. By the time I finished my egg, the coffee would be cool enough to sip. At that point Grandpa would fold up his newspaper, prepare some crackers of his own, glance at my plate, and proceed to crumble his stack of buttered saltine crackers into his mug of instant coffee. I did the same.

I’m not sure it’s possible to describe the taste of coffee soup—rich with butter, savory with saltine crackers, and sweet with sugared coffee that, in my case, had been diluted with milk. As the butter melted, the oil would rise to the top of the mug. The crackers, saturated by the hot liquid, softened immediately, and if you didn’t eat the concoction quickly enough, they would form a sludgepile at the bottom of your mug. But you always ate it quickly, while the coffee was still warm and the crackers retained a measure of texture.

The passing of Grandpa saw an end to my coffee soup days, but the memory remains. Somewhere in time, a little girl sits at a table with her grandpa. In the last few moments of the early morning, they sit in silence spooning sweet, buttery coffee soup, while the grandma bustles around the kitchen preparing all for whatever the day may bring.

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9 Responses to “Coffee Soup”

  1. dave says:

    This is a wonderful remembrance, Tara! A real sensory treat. Vivid images for my eyes, ears and nose; maybe the best so far.

  2. Meg says:

    Beautiful!

    • tmcaimi says:

      Thanks Meg, I did a brief search and learned that coffee soup is a depression era-inspired concoction. Not surprising, but I guess I wondered if it was an Italian thing. Still don’t really know – maybe someday I’ll actually look into it!

  3. angela harding says:

    Tara,
    I finally found you! I enjoyed your memory. Look forward to reading more of your work.
    Ang

    • tmcaimi says:

      Hey Ang, I should have sent you the link! Thanks for the comment. You are, by my estimation, the approximate fourth reader of my blog. Now I’ll have to write more in attempt to retain my readership :-)

  4. Karen Yeomans says:

    Thanks for sharing your memory! I just posted on Facebook today that I had a hankering for coffee soup. The major response from others was, “What is coffee soup.” I then, of course, took the time to write down our way of making coffee soup. It was always a fun treat for me when we had it. Most people are grossed out by it, but just thinking about it makes my mouth water.

    • tmcaimi says:

      Hi Karen, thanks for the comment. After I wrote this essay, I did a little searching on the history of coffee soup and found that it was often made with stale bread. That probably makes more sense than saltine crackers (I should have mentioned in the essay that we used unsalted tops), but I suppose each family recipe is a bit different.

  5. Chuck says:

    Hi, today I got home and started craving what my grandpa used to make when I was a kid… saltine crackers, butter, sugar, with boiling water poured over the top. I did a search and found this! (The coffee addition is brilliant) I had it today and couldn’t be happier. :) Thankful for stuff like this, little gems from the depression era that they can pass on.

    • Tara says:

      Hi Chuck, I’m so glad you tried (and enjoyed!) coffee soup! Admittedly, I have not had it since I was a child. By now, the reality of it would likely not live up to my glorified memory. It is nice to know that these small (strange) traditions live on. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience. It’s so nice to hear people relate – makes me happy I shared the memory!

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