Tasteful Inventions: Fortunes by the Coffee Grinds

Friday, June 20, 2008

Fortunes by the Coffee Grinds

Black as the Devil;
Hot as Hell;
Pure as an Angel!
Note these well.
Then- "Sweet as Love!"

I never gave much thought to the invention of the coffee filter until I did a post on the invention of the coffee percolator back in December of 2007. That is the day I learned about Melitta Bentz. If the name has a grain of familiarity to you that is because, Melitta (the company) is famous for its coffee filters, coffee and coffee makers. So, the question is, when was the first coffee filter invented by Melitta Bentz? Well, according to the Melitta website, Melitta Bentz "received a patented registration on her invention on June 20, 1908." That's 100 years ago today!

"At a trade fair in Leipzig, Germany, in 1909, Melitta Bentz caused a stir with coffee filters made from blotting paper taken from her son's school supplies. Prior to Bentz's innovation, "most people simply boiled their coffee, which overextracts and turns the brew bitter," explains the coffee historian Mark Prendergrast. Not only that, but removing the grit from the coffee proved difficult. In Bentz's solution, brewed coffee passed through the filter from a grounds-catching brass cup into a porcelain pot, drop by drop, and the filters produced a mellow, smooth brew. Drip coffee was born." (source)

I thought it might be interesting to go back to an issue of American Cookery Magazine published in the same year and lucky for me, the same month to see if there was anything written about coffee. Although there were no articles pertaining to coffee, I did find this query on page 55 of the June-July issue of 1908 for Turkish Coffee. The subscriber to the magazine from Cleveland Ohio requested a recipe for Turkish Coffee. Here is the reply.

To make Turkish coffee pound the freshly roasted coffee beans in a mortar. Turkish coffee pots are small coffee pots without a cover, and with a handle like that of a saucepan. Use rather more coffee than in making black or filtered coffee. Pour the water over the crushed berries; let boil up once, remove from the fire, stir, and return to the fire, to boil again; repeat a third time, when the coffee is ready to serve. This coffee is not clear, but rather thick and muddy. It is served in tiny cups much smaller than the ordinary after-dinner coffee cup. The cups are thimble-shaped and rest in a copper or silver frame made with a handle. Cream is not used. The coffee is partaken with a tiny spoon.

Now, of course, the above was the method used for preparing Turkish coffee but how was breakfast coffee prepared prior to 1908? Once again, I refer to another magazine. This one titled The Cooking Club was published in 1902. Page 27 describes the Coffee Making Methods of the day. I was going to scan it but it takes up two pages so, here goes;

Coffee stands first in the list of beverages for the coffee table. To make it to perfection one requires a coffee pot with a double base. A French filter pot is the best. Never boil it if you wish to preserve the aroma. Buy two thirds Java and one third Mocha; the first is required for strength and the latter for the flavor. Always allow two heaping tablespoonfuls of ground coffee to a pint of water. Cover lightly after pouring on the boiling water; let it boil half a minute and set it back to settle. In this way coffee will be clear without the aid of eggs or shells. If it is not possible to procure cream, always boil the milk and use loaf sugar. To make it with common coffee pot; One tablespoonful to each cup and one for the coffee pot. Boil ten minutes and allow time to settle. Fill the cup with three parts of coffee and the balance with cream or scalded milk. Here are some experiments with coffee that are worth trying. when short of cream put a piece of butter in the coffee. Some people prefer this to cream. Of course, good, sweet butter must be used. A pinch of salt added to a cup of clear coffee is preferred by many people, and some add salt to coffee with cream. The addition makes quite a change in flavor.

Melitta's Coffee Filters

I must note, there is also an explanation of the ritual of serving coffee which is quite interesting but will have to wait until a later date. Back to Melitta. It seems that Melitta, a housewife from Dresden, Germany, had a bit of help inventing her coffee filters. By inserting blotting paper from her sons school books into a brass coffee pot filled with tiny holes, she prevented the coffee grounds from getting into the coffee. The principle of the first coffee filter was born and as the saying goes, "revolutionized the coffee industry."

...On December 15th, 1908, Melitta Bentz and her husband Hugo started the Melitta Bentz Company. The response they got was overwhelming and they sold 1200 coffee filters at the Leipziger fair in Germany the next year. Seeing the increasing demand the Melitta Bentz Company also patented the filter bag in 1937 and vacuum packing in 1962. source
"If you want to improve your understanding, drink coffee." Sydney Smith

Spilling the Beans

While some people find coffee drinking rather appealing, me me me, there are those who practice the "art" of coffee cup reading. Yes, coffee grounds can be highly revealing, so they say. I personally have never had my grounds read. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to discover that there are websites (links below) which provide a "reading" online. I hadn't planned on exploring this method of predicting the future but, I just couldn't help myself when I came across this little booklet in my cookbook collection. Simply titled The Oracle it has a copyright date of 1897 and was given "compliments of Chase & Sanborn" Tea & Coffee Importers. (the cover is at the top of the page) Unlike many of the cookbooks in my collection, this little gem is not a cookbook at all. Instead, it is filled to the brim with fortune telling methods. Only an 8 page booklet, it contains Fortune Telling by the Cards, Reading Character from Date of Birth, Signs and Superstitions in Common Use, two beautifully illustrated gems of the months and the language of flower charts, Dreams and their meanings, Palmistry or fortune telling by the palm of the hand, and Fortune Telling by the Grounds in a Tea or Coffee Cup. I would have liked to scan the entire booklet instead, I did scan the two pages for the Fortune Telling by the Grounds section. Intrigued, I had to delve deeper into the grounds at the bottom of a coffee cup that held the clues.

Tasseography (Tasseomancy) or the ancient art of overturning a coffee cup and looking for answers in the patterns left behind by the grounds, wouldn't have much use for coffee filters. The idea is to not filter the grinds. This is what I uncovered @ wikipedia.

Traditionally, coffee readers use Turkish coffee, or any coffee that has grinds that sit at the bottom of the cup. Most of the liquid in the coffee is drunk, but the sediment at the bottom is left behind. It is often believed that the drinker of the coffee should not read their own cup. There are at least two forms of coffee reading. Both require that the cup be covered with the saucer and turned upside-down. Some traditions, such as in Romania, require that the sediments in the cup be swirled around the inside of the cup until they cover the majority of the cup's inside surface. Other traditions, such as Turkish and Middle Eastern, do not require this swirling but do require that the cup be turned towards yourself for showing your own fortune. The coffee grounds are given time to settle and dry against the cup before a reading begins. Many interpretations for symbols exist, but one common thread is the color of the symbols. Since most cups used are white or ivory and the grounds are dark, strong contrast exists for the symbols. White is considered a "good" symbol foretelling of generally positive things for the drinker, while the grounds themselves are considered to form "bad" symbols. Symbols can be many things, including people, animals, and inanimate objects. Usually, the fortune teller will group nearby symbols together for a prediction. After a reading, the drinker will be asked to "open the heart". This is done by placing the right thumb at the inside bottom of the cup and twisting clockwise slightly. This will leave an impression behind that the fortune teller will interpret as the drinker's inner thoughts or emotions.

Aki's website has simple yet detailed instructions on the preparation of Greek coffee which she says is actually Turkish coffee.

"Greek" coffee is really Turkish coffee. It's usually made from Brazilian coffee beans, which are ground into a fine powder. Greek coffee powder, as with all types of coffee grinds, does not dissolve in water. The grinds release their flavour and colour in water when made properly and the grinds (powder) remain behind in the cup. Some folks like to read their future, or fortune, with the accumulated coffee grinds. source

Tasseography is a fortune telling oracle. Usually the coffee fortune telling is composed of poetic imagery that rarely includes a precise statement. For example, this is what The Oracle booklet says.

Into a white cup or other white vessel, pour the grounds of the coffee or tea. Move the vessel briskly to spread the grounds over the surface. Drain off superfluous moisture, and in the lines and figures those of the omens may be found.

You should be able to see the list if you enlarge the scanned image. Here are a few of the revelations possible.

  1. Straight lines foretell long life, peace and tranquility.
  2. Long and wavy lines, losses and great vexations.
  3. Human figures, marriage and a forecast of love.
  4. A crown indicates honor...

I am certainly not an expert on the art of reading coffee grinds, I did find a few clues along my travels. The way it works is, you prepare a pot of pure coffee, no instant coffee or coffee with milk. Some say it is best to do this with a group of friends. Sort of a coffee klatch for the future. Go ahead, have a piece of coffee cake or another desirable sweet. While everyone is chatting and drinking their coffee, relax and enjoy the company. Try to concentrate on a question you would like answered. "In order for a fortune reading to be accurate, you need to be in a contemplative mood." When you're done, and gulp before you drink the coffee grinds, put the saucer on top of the coffee cup. Then, make three horizontal circles with your cup, and with a quick movement turn the coffee cup with the cup saucer upside down. Let it cool slightly. Observe what symbols or images you can see. In very basic terms, the symbols close to the border are associated with the future. The pictures which you can see on the walls of the cup are the present. The grounds on the bottom of the cup are events from the past and also significant sentimental matters. A wide variety of subjects may be seen, such as finance, travel, politics, love, and matrimony. An expert coffee cup reader is suppose to be able to interpret the shapes for you and give you a more accurate reading.

Traditionally the handle of the cup is the person being read, provided the cup you are using has a handle. The deeper into the cup you go the further away into the future is the event/or situation. The symbols closer to the handle would represent the now or current time frame. 1/2 way down the sides of the cup would be probably 6 six months or so. Now this will change if you read the cup every day. For example if the coffee grounds/tea leaves look like a ring and is very close to the handle -the person will get married. It doesn’t mean they will get married over and over to different people if you keep seeing the ring. What surrounds the ring will tell you the circumstances around this pending marriage. source

Friendship in a Cup

The day wouldn't be complete without at least a few recipes to celebrate the invention of the coffee filter. Once again, I must make reference to an issue of American Cookery Magazine. When I found this recipe for Coffee Parfait, in the Friendship in Cup booklet published in 1941, it looked so familiar I had to find out why. I remembered I had just seen a recipe for Cafe Parfait in the March 1903 issue of American Cookery. Gee, I thought to myself, has the recipe changed in 38 years? Surprisingly, it didn't change much. I've scanned them both. See if you notice any difference. The Cafe Parfait recipe is from 1903 and the Coffee Parfait recipe is from 1941. The following recipe is not exactly a Semifreddo as it is chilled rather than partially frozen. It is so easy to prepare I thought I would include it as a treat for the first day of summer. Oh, okay, the first full day of summer isn't until tomorrow. It's called Coffee Marshmallow Dessert and it is from a small booklet also published by Chase & Sanborn in 1941. Of course, you can use any strong coffee. Think of the possibilities of this simple dessert. A quick grating of cinnamon or nutmeg. Any of the flavored coffees would probably add an interesting depth. What about almond toasted marshmallows?

Coffee Marshmallow Dessert
1 cup hot strong Chase & Sanborn Coffee 24 marshmallows, cut in quarters 1/2 cup cream, whipped
Pour hot coffee over marshmallows; stir well until marshmallows are melted. Chill until mixture begins to thicken; fold in whipped cream. Pour into sherbet glasses and chill about 3 hours. Serves 5

Another "forgotten" recipe seems to be ice box cake. Someday, I would like to post a whole day of ice box cake recipes but today is not the day. I often wonder whether there is a person associated with the first ice box cake but that too will have to be another endeavor. The recipe for Coffee ice Box Cake is enhanced by the use of lady fingers. I always prefer lady fingers as opposed to Angel food cake but, either will do. Since this post is getting much longer than I intended, I have scanned a few more recipes for your enjoyment.


  • 1. Melitta Bentz (very brief bio)
  • 2.Melitta Website good info
  • 3. Coffee: Before It Was Good to the Last Drop
  • 4. History of the Coffee and Espresso machines
  • 5.10 Fantastic Uses for Paper Coffee Filters
  • 6. Smart Uses for Coffee Filters
  • 7. Coffee Tasseography - Fortune Telling with Coffee
  • 8. Victorian Fortune Telling with Coffee Grounds
  • 9. Ancient Art of Reading Coffee Cups
  • 10. Online Coffee Reading
  • 11. Personal coffee cup Reading Story
  • 12. Read the coffee signs!
  • 13. Coffee Ground Reading Oracle
  • 14. Behold the Oracle of Starbucks
  • 15. Interactive Coffee Factory
  • 16. Growing Coffee Arabica at Home
  • 17. Notable Coffee Quotations

    The following links are from my other blog:

    • December James Mason & the Percolator
    • April National Coffee Cake Day
    • January (Gaelic) Irish Coffee Day

    Dennis Villegas said...

    What an interesting read. I always wondered how Turkish Coffee tasted, I never tried one...but now I know how to do it and will do it soon ;)

    ~~louise~~ said...

    Let me know how you like it Dennis. It take a bit getting use to and, Make sure it is HOT!