"It's 'Sunday Morning,' and once again, here's Charles Osgood."
Yes, indeed, pour me that first cup! Charles is on the air. It's time for a cup of joe and my favorite television program, "CBS Sunday Morning."
Coffee and Charles combine every Sunday for a long-established ritual in my house, a decades-old tradition that started with the late Charles Kuralt and continues with Mr. Osgood.
But my topic today is coffee, not Charles and Charles of CBS fame. It just so happens that the 90 minutes of "Sunday Morning" are my favorite moments for savoring that deep, dark drink made from coffee beans.
I never drank the brew until I was 20. My first coffee came in powdered form in little packets inside our combat rations. I was a young Marine in the middle of the Vietnam War, long ago, yet I still recall the taste of c-ration instant coffee. I won't say that a GI had to either love it or hate it, because I felt neither way about the unique taste. However, while many Marines called it varnish remover or battery acid or worse, I rather enjoyed it.
I started drinking c-ration coffee to help warm me up when I got a bit chilly during monsoon season in the Vietnam mountains. The monsoon rains would keep us soaked, and staying continually wet in those high elevations of the Annamite Mountains could get quite uncomfortable. Powdered cocoa mix came in only some of the c-ration meals, but every c-rat meal came with instant coffee. And if we weren't too close to the enemy, we could heat a tin cup of water with a small, burning chunk of C4 plastic explosive; adding a packet of powdered c-rat coffee to the hot water produced a stout cup of joe.
I used to make a coffee cup out of a used tin can that once contained such delicious combat-ration entrées as beanies and weenies or beef and rocks. I think those particular cans actually were labeled as beans with frankfurters in tomato sauce and beef slices and potatoes with gravy. Anyway, I would cut the lid with a little opener, but not all the way around, so I could bend it back and make a handle of sorts. I would keep it for a month or so until it got beat up, and then I'd fashion a new one. I'm sure millions of GIs since at least World War II did the same thing. Incidentally, if I wanted a café au lait, each c-rat meal also contained a packet of powdered creamer, labeled cream substitute. Take it with sugar? No sweat. A packet of sugar was included, too.
Introducing coffee into my system had one drawback. My yearn to urinate increased exponentially. First, being constantly soaking wet during monsoon season made me pee more than usual. Then, drinking coffee to warm me up only made me pee more. I'm sure I watered and fertilized every tree and bush in the montane rain forests of the Annamites.
The Vietnamese concoct a mean coffee brew made from beans that have been picked out of civit cat feces. I would drink 10,000 packets of c-rat coffee before I'd touch a cup of that cat-crap concoction. However, regular Vietnamese coffee – it's strong, too – is delicious. I think they got their penchant for java from the colonial French. Today, the coffee shops rival noodle shops in popularity in Vietnam, and that's saying something.
Regardless of such a saturation of coffee establishments, Starbucks entered the market just two days ago. The big chain jumped into the coffee-competition fray in Vietnam on Friday, when it opened its first store in Ho Chi Minh City, the southern municipality once known as Saigon. The reaction was not overwhelming, according to Agence France-Presse, the worldwide French news agency.
"I prefer Vietnamese coffee, which is stronger than Starbucks," Nguyen Tien Tam, 35, told AFP. "As a Vietnamese, I love local coffee."
Visiting Vietnam again now ranks high on my to-do list, and I look forward to drinking some good, strong joe in the second largest coffee-producing country in the world. Of course, getting pack to Paris, France, is on my list, too, and we all know the French make some très très bon café. The best cup of coffee in my life, though, was made for me in Beirut, Lebanon.
Deployed to Beirut in the summer of 1983, I often drove to the British Embassy annex to process film and print photographs. The U.S. Embassy had been bombed and destroyed by a terrorist in April, and the Brits opened their doors to share some of their offices with the Americans. Every time I was there, a Lebanese woman employed by the British would brew me a couple of cups of the strongest coffee on planet Earth. It was more than delicious. It was phenomenal. However, visiting Beirut is not currently on my to-do list. Don't get me wrong. I like the people and love the coffee. It's those occasional explosions and the perchance kidnapping.
After all this coffee talk, I must go and brew some joe. By the way, the term "joe" has its origins in the U.S. Navy, in the early 20th century, when Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels abolished wine in the officer mess aboard each and every Navy vessel. With the wine gone, coffee was the strongest stuff aboard ship, and the hot drink was nicknamed "joe" after Josephus. Or so the story goes.
Now, which coffee cup shall I use today? Marines? Los Angeles Times? Cal State San Bernardino? St. Louis Cardinals? The coffee-bean flavor will taste just as good in any one of them, as long as my wife hasn't secretly slipped some civit cat beans into the mix.