Coffee in a Can, Pt. 1
Chock full o' Nuts: A True New York Native
I'm not going to style myself as something I'm not, so right at the front let me say that I am by no means a coffee expert. In terms of coffee as a topic, I don't even know if I qualify as a novice. Even as a coffee drinker, I am new to the game, having consumed cheap gallons of the stuff in college (mostly while sitting at the Mr. Donut or Waffle House at 2am) and then, with rare exception, not really touching it for the next twenty years. It wasn't until the pandemic that I started dabbling again. As is my way, I dove in deeper than casual, but I'm still a neophyte.
These days, I drink coffee with roughly the same degree of sophistication that I drink wine, meaning that I can tell a terrible wine (or coffee) from a good wine, but a good wine from a great wine is a degree of nuance most likely lost on me. So too is it with coffee. If you really mess it up, I can tell, but beyond that, I exist in a semi-ignorant state of being able to enjoy just about anything without too much concern. I also enjoy variety, experimentation, and plain old messing about, so haven't formed a strong bond with a particular brand, coffee shop, or preparation style.
I grew up around drinkers of coffee that was as instant as possible. It was to be consumed out of a large metal thermos either on break at a factory job or while sitting in the woods while hunting. I also come, as mentioned, from the rough and tumble world of late-night diner coffee, so my tolerance not only for rolling with something that might be rough around the edges but genuinely enjoying it, is considerable.
So, while I appreciate and respect and very much enjoy a properly fresh bean, freshly ground, I am also perfectly pleased with and even have an emotional attachment to canned and vacuum-packed pre-ground coffee from around the world. Is it quality? Is it sophisticated? Do I care? I only have an answer to one of those three questions. No experience exists in a vacuum, so the experience of a certain type of coffee matters. Canned coffees represent things to me that can't fully be quantified, from seeing Paul Newman scoop it into his Chemex in Harper (1966) to grabbing a can off the shelf at my local bodega to simply identifying with a certain lifestyle aspect or, full admission, even a good vintage marketing campaign. It has a lot to do with Italians and my forever quest to inject a little continental panache into my day-to-day.
I want to pay tribute to a few of the canned coffees that find themselves in regular rotation in my life (not the morning, though, because my "morning" if I'm given a choice starts after 11am or, you know, noon…noonish, at the latest) starting, this issue, with the most New York of them all.
Chock full o' Nuts
"The Heavenly Coffee."
Watch any movie from the 1960s-1980s that was shot on location in New York, and you are almost certainly going to see a Chock full o' Nuts storefront. They are to those movies what a bottle of J&B and Punt e Mes is to Italian films of the same era. Entrepreneur and Brooklyn, native William Black, still known by his original name William Schwarz at the time, opened the first Chock full o' Nuts stand in 1926, On New York's Broadway and 43rd. As one can guess by the name, he was selling roasted nuts. He did well, and within had expanded to 18 locations. The business suffered during the Great Depression, so Black expanded his offerings, first adding low-price lunch counters and, starting in 1932, a bakery where he also started roasting and selling coffee. The coffee took off. By 1960, it was Chock full o' Nuts' primary business.
Black hired predominantly Black staff and made a point of providing them not only a decent wage, but also medical insurance, pension plans, and bonuses. He hired Jackie Robinson as a vice president. By the 1950s, Chock full o' Nuts coffee was the best-selling coffee in New York and Black started selling it in grocery stores. The lunch counters were eventually phased out, as the popularity of such establishments waned in the 1970s. Black passed away in 1983, and the company changed hands a number of times, including being owned for a while by prepackaged baked goods giant Sara Le before landing at its current home, the Massimo Zanetti Beverage Group. One by one, the formerly ubiquitous locations across the city closed. There was an attempt to relaunch and revive the stores and the lunch counters in the 2000s, but it didn't quite work. Today, only a handful of Chock full o' Nuts cafés remain in business, two of which are in Brooklyn—and one of which is down the street from me in Midwood.
Despite the disappearance of the cafes and the proliferation of high-quality coffee shops and roasters (as well as the juggernaut, Starbucks), Chock full o' Nuts remains a popular New York coffee brand. You can find cans of it (and, these days, K-Cups) in just about every grocery store, corner store, and bodega, often nestled alongside specialty brands like Stumptown. They offer several varieties, but I of course reach for the medium roast Original. As befits New York's native coffee brand, it packs a wallop. After all, it has to get you through your morning commute, and there's a good chance the signal at DeKalb Avenue is malfunctioning again.
It's bold, not subtle, and it tastes like what people think American coffee tastes like when they think of American coffee. It's burly and blue collar and it wishes you would walk faster. Like a New Yorker, though, its gruff exterior hides a kind heart that is more than happy to give you directions to where you need to go or otherwise help you out with the complexity of our city. After all, there are few things that please a New Yorker more than being able to show off how much they know about the city.
I make it either in a Moka Pot or Chemex pour-over pitcher (more about both of those in an upcoming issue). It works great in both. Also, because it's bold, it plays well with frothy steamed milk. Black, it can be a little harsh unless you’re in the right setting (the right setting being hustle and bustle). It’s nutty, with a slight hint of burnt and an earthy undertone. And by the way, to answer the question they get asked so much that they put a disclaimer on the can: no. It doesn’t contain nuts.