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Commentary: The day America stopped drinking coffee

The day America stopped drinking coffee was one of the biggest national disasters since The Day the World Ran Out of Denim which I told you about in this column and in a book by that name years ago. The denim panic accelerated when denim was faded, denim outfits had to have little patches and dresses and suits of denim hit the markets. Suddenly, denim disappeared except what the hoarders had hidden away and what little could be found on the what was called the "blue market." It was ugly and I won't repeat it now. Obviously, we survived and came out of it.

But it all came back to me when I had a sudden and scary insight into the year 2018 that came about to me in a vision of clarity that was terrifying.

But first, a brief glance backward, and this was no vision, it's history. On Nov. 29, 1942, because of the various pressures and shortages of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt imposed coffee rationing on the nation. There was plenty of coffee being raised in South and Central America, and sugar rationing was already in effect, but more coffee was needed for our troops and shipping was needed for military purposes. Coffee stamps were issued and it became impossible by law for one person to purchase more than one pound of coffee in a designated five-week period. That amounted to less than one cup a day. The panic was immediate. People started recycling coffee grounds which produced a watery beverage they called "Roosevelt coffee." Coffee substitutes developed, like chicory and Postum (wheat bran, molasses and maltodextrin). People didn't drink coffee in 1942 like they do today — no gourmet shops — but they needed it immensely. But it was a time of war, and there were other rationings as well — gas, butter, milk — and the citizens sucked it up and cooperated, although there was light hearted mention that purple hearts should be awarded to the civilians for their sacrifices.

More about the vision of the day America stopped drinking coffee. Coffee is our number one food import — over four billion dollars worth each year. Americans consume 22.1 gallons of coffee on average annually. We really didn't run out of coffee — plenty was still being produced in Brazil, Colombia, Peru and the other coffee producing nations of South and Central America as well as Asian nations like Vietnam and African nations like Ethiopia and Uganda that we never hear about. What happened is that our president realized we were importing all of the coffee and exporting nothing in return to the coffee producing nations. Unfair. Very little agricultural machinery is needed to raise and harvest coffee beans and none of it was being manufactured in America.

So, the president did what he said he would do to make America great again — he slapped a 20 percent import duty on all incoming coffee. But the coffee producers of Brazil, Colombia, Peru and the poor folks in Vietnam and all the other coffee producing countries said no. "He's not going to push us around and we're not going to absorb the 20 percent tax, so we're not shipping." They sold their surplus coffee to Canada and the coffee drinkers of Europe, Russia and China and the rest of the world. Everybody drinks coffee.

There was about a one month supply on hand in America and when that was gone, it was gone. Tea time. Or would you care for a cup of cocoa? What followed was a trade war the press called "The De-Caf War." The president called the coffee crises "fake news" and attacked the media for their reporting. He was especially thin skinned when they called his decision a "choke" and referred to his "coffee clutch." Not Funny tweeted the president.

Meanwhile, coffee drinkers were done — cold turkey. Neighborhood coffee groups broke up. Church fellowship groups that met for coffee between services found that coffee is the fuel of fellowship and with lemonade, fellowship turned snarky. And the folks who went in daily to Starbucks, Caribou, Dunn Brothers, Seattle's Finest, Duncan Donuts, Luna and even White Castle and McDonalds for their regular fix of caffeine stimulation or just plain coffee of the day, espresso or other expensive double dynamite weren't laughing. Gourmet coffee houses all shut down overnight and instead of creating new American jobs, we ended up with increased unemployment. There was a national rage. The talk wasn't about purple hearts but about impeachment.

Unfortunately, the vision faded and disappeared before the end. We don't know how it all turned out. But, hey, we're all optimistic Americans. We won World War II in spite of a coffee shortage and we can survive a De-Caf War. Coffee is nothing but a habit. Right?

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