Cracker pie, Kresge and Comet: A History of Coffee in Washtenaw County
Jessica Levine I Contributor
Few things transcend cuisines, cultures and centuries like coffee. What began in Arabia as a broth of dried seeds — the drink of Muslims in North Africa, India and the Mediterranean — today exists as another empire, one that has changed our entire social experience.
Coffee no longer is solely the province of Islamic worshippers: It is the thing we nervously (and blessedly) clasp on first dates, the Grande vessel we use to steer through packed herds on crosswalks and the bean we crystallize for alien desserts.
Coffee in our community is likewise full-bodied. The crimson berries plucked from cloudy rainforest canopies make their way here by way of burlap sacks and traders’ tastes for the exotic. From Istanbul to London, from Paris to America’s first coffee house opened in 1678, featuring drinks called “Coffee Chocolatta” and “Syder,” the Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor area has successfully made the drink of the world into something uniquely Midwestern.
Ypsilanti, 1883: Cooking
As recorded by the Ypsilanti Historical Museum, the ladies of Chapel Guild (St. Luke’s Episcopal Church) created a cookbook that included a British dessert recipe for cracker pie, with coffee as an essential ingredient.
With the additions of raisins, currants, apples, sugar, molasses, nutmeg and cinnamon to the recipe, it can be reasonably surmised that coffee was added to counteract these ingredients’ sweetness. Esther Sung of “Epicurious” confirms this strategy and writes, “Coffee's roasted quality, bitterness, and acidity make it a perfect complement to sweet, bold, earthy, or nutty ingredients, ultimately yielding a taste combination that is surprisingly complex.”
Coffee jelly, coffee cake, coffee cream, and doughnut recipes were also commonplace at the time.
Ypsilanti, 1924: Conviviality
Today, the guys meet at Tim Horton’s. Back in 1924, however, it is believed that the Ypsilanti Men’s Morning Coffee Group convened at the now-closed Huron Hotel. A band of nearly 40 individuals, the Coffee Group still meets regularly for good conversation, laughs and wagers.
During the past 87 years, other meeting spots have included the Dupuis Bakery, the Tower Inn Restaurant, the Riverside Restaurant, Miller’s Ice Cream in Depot Town and the Oasis Restaurant. Present-day members include Ellis Freatman, James Mann (noted Ypsilanti historian and author), Ron Guidebeck, Bob Willoughby, and Barney Hughes, 89, who is quoted by the Ypsilanti Historical Society as saying, “The only requirement for membership is that you are breathing, and some current members are suspect.”
Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor District Library
Ann Arbor, 1950s-1970s: Crullers
Nothing goes better with coffee than a good doughnut. Paul Mullins, author of “Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut,” explains the reasons spurring the boom of this Dutch pastry in America.
“In the 50s, all these mass-producing doughnut shops began springing up along commuter routes. The doughnut is a perfect commuter food: Cheap, filling and delicious.”
Washtenaw County was no exception. Both formerly located on West Stadium Boulevard in Ann Arbor, Donut-Time USA and Amy Joy Donuts (currently the site of Dimo’s Deli and Donuts) were 24-hour doughnut and coffee shops offering sweet, cakey and caffeinated respite to cooks, hospital employees, factory workers and late night bar-hoppers. Dunkin’ Donuts, now an international chain and coffee retailer, then sold their namesake with specially-designed doughy handles for coffee dipping.
Ann Arbor, circa 1975: Caffeine
If you were a student craving coffee on the way to class in the 1970s, you had few choices: Frank’s Restaurant or S.S. Kresge, a five-and-dime located on the corner of State and North University. My mom, then a University of Michigan undergrad, was a regular at the Kresge coffee counter. She recalls it tasting like diner joe: A source of bitter caffeine in desperate need of cream and sugar.
Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor District Library
There were no baristas in 1975 Ann Arbor. Wilco didn’t play in the background. You couldn’t add whip, you couldn’t ask for your caramel macchiato upside down in a Trenta-sized, eco-friendly cup. No, mom says, middle-aged matrons in hairnets and turquoise uniforms poured your drink. And that damned cap — a flimsy plastic thing — never fit the Styrofoam just right.
The coffee was awkwardly but frankly delivered. But it was still appreciated.
“The hot bitter coffee scalded our throats,” John Steinbeck once wrote. “We threw the last little bit with the grounds in it on the earth and refilled our cups.”
Washtenaw County, now: Contemplation
Coffee today is ubiquitous, served in steamed, iced, creamed, sugared, berried and frapped forms. In its versatility, coffee and coffee shops allow us to be contemplative despite the caffeine jolt and overhead indie music — momentarily, even, like Steinbeck, hunched over our writing or homework, our tablets or smartphones, and struggling for a witty repartee while sipping espresso.
Washtenaw County, a collegiate, cosmopolitan community to the core, offers many places to do this: Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea, Foggy Bottom Coffee House, RoosRoast Coffee, Beezy’s Coffee and Cafe, MoonWinks Cafe, Lab Cafe and Comet Coffee, to name a few. Everyone has his or her favorite.
Margaret Petersen of Ann Arbor prefers Zingerman’s Coffee Bar.
“I only drink decaf, and their decaf blend of Americano is really wonderful,” she said. “Heaven on earth is to get a baguette from the Bakehouse and a cup of Americano, and then to dip hunks of the bread in the coffee — close your eyes, and you're in Paris.”
Unlike most other foods, coffee is, and has always been, an excuse: It’s a reason to meet, to bake, to talk, to think, to dawdle, to just be anywhere else. To be in Paris.
Cracker pies, coffee diners, doughnuts and drips: We’re lucky that we have so many excuses right here to choose from.
Jessica Levine profiles the culture, history and personalities of Washtenaw County restaurants for AnnArbor.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.