One of the most beloved items on the menu of the Oakland-based coffee company Blue Bottle is “New Orleans-Style Iced Coffee.” It’s a concoction that comes with milk already added, as sweet as it’s caramel color suggests. And the key ingredient that defines this drink as authentically “New Orleans-Style” is that it contains chicory. Blue Bottle’s website defines it like this: "Two hundred years before we started selling our coffee in San Francisco, the French brought coffee infused with stout, caramelized flavors of chicory root to the shores of New Orleans. Blended with creamy whole milk and organic cane sugar, our ready-to-drink, cold-brewed version pays homage to that tradition in a sweet, nostalgic carton."
That sure sounds romantic. For some people, “chicory” might conjure up memories of hot beignets buried beneath powdered sugar at Café du Monde in the French Quarter. That image of New Orleans is undoubtedly what Blue Bottle is banking on, but the history of chicory goes deeper than a novel regional tradition. Like many things “New Orleans,” its origins are the result of the city’s growing pains.
As far back as Ancient Egypt, chicory root was cultivated and eaten as a homeopathic remedy to purify the blood and liver. It’s still used today as an herbal remedy for gout, jaundice, and rheumatism, among other ailments. And crucially, when baked, roasted, and ground, it makes a decent coffee substitute.
Europeans have used chicory as a coffee additive since the 1800s, and it became especially popular in France. New Orleans embraced chicory during the Civil War when the Union Army overtook the city’s ports and blocked shipments of goods and foods, including coffee. In contrast to the other atrocities involved with war, a coffee shortage seems trivial, but it was enough of a concern that it inspired some creativity on the part of residents to get their caffeine fix.
New Orleanians used all sorts of things to stretch their coffee out, including acorns. Some New Orleanians cut their coffee with beets, a practice referred to as café de betterave, preferred because the beets gave a natural sweetness to the coffee. But it was chicory root that became the favorite way to stretch out a meager coffee supply, and ultimately, a hallmark of the city’s coffee. Long after the war, local roasters continued to use it, ultimately making it a desired flavor and a cheaper cup of coffee to boot.
As a child in Mississippi, I spent many afternoons with my grandfather and my great-aunt drinking Community Coffee, a New Orleans chicory-infused coffee that started in the 1920s. They would pour creamer or milk into it, followed by a healthy spoonful of sugar. Where I grew up, kids drank “coffee milk,” a drink consisting of more milk than coffee. There was never a question about what chicory was. I just assumed it was another word for coffee.
As an adult, I put a few years in working at different coffee shops in New Orleans, where orders of a chicory au lait were commonplace. Chicory is the New Orleanian’s cheap cup of coffee, loaded with milk and sugar, the grown-up version of coffee milk. Which is why it’s so odd to see “New Orleanian-style” chicory coffee in hip coffee shops. It would be like if someone sold New York City’s bodega coffee in Atlanta as “New York-Style Coffee,” and charged a 300% mark-up. Chicory coffee is the caffeinated world’s equivalent of avocado toast. You can gussy it up in a “nostalgic carton” and sell at an upscale shop all you want, but in the end, New Orleanians know it’s still just coffee milk.