In New Orleans You Drink it Au Lait
It is a plant that is native to western Asia, North Africa, and Europe. A small, slightly woody herblike plant with leaves like dandelions with little blue flowers that only stay on for a day. The Egyptians cultivated it, the poet Horace ate it, and at least one poetically inclined german has termed it “Blauwarte”, or the ‘blue watch-keeper by-the-sea’. But the destiny of this little herb—the cousin of raddichio and endive—was not to be the peaceful one imagined by the giver of that name.
It comes to us from France, or more accurately, from far-from-home French soldiers. Camped endless days in Napoleonic campaigns, this basic plant was easier to forage or cultivate as a pot-herb than coffee. So rather than do without, these men would drink a brew made from the root of the chicory plant roasted on mornings before trampling half of the world. When they returned, they brought with them this practice, and the plant’s rich flavor was merged with real coffee to create a signature French preparation style. When they came to the Americas, it came too.
The Egyptians cultivated it, the poet Horace ate it, and at least one poetically inclined german has termed it “Blauwarte".
Once here, the use of roasted chicory root to flavor coffee was lolling around on the margins, and would not be called on again en masse until more blood occasioned a shortage. America went to war with itself. The port of New Orleans was sewn tightly into blockade. The coffee did not flow in, and people once again turned to the little blue flower.
Thankfully, wars end. What has stayed since is the chicory in coffee in the port city of New Orleans. There it is served au lait, preferably enjoyed under sky and in heat that is coarsely humid. There are other ways but this is the best one.
Adding this strange bitter and spicy herb to your coffee is not quite going to highlight its subtler characteristics. The ‘notes of tamarind and stewed pear’ that you’re probably seeking are not going to feature here. This drink is a drink of excess in the face of famine. The location of the aesthetic moment is cultural-historical, and the connection is very real. This is coffee drinking that is born from very hard times, very near the giving and receiving end of death, but arced by reflection (and access to good milk and sugar), into a rare and beautiful experience all its own. Yes, I said milk and sugar. I know I don’t usually say that.
American Rapper and writer James Jolliff tells the story of French inspiration with artist and illustrator Ariel Roman
James "Jams" Jolliff is a New York-based songwriter, word writer, rapper and DJ whose upcoming solo debut "Bourbon Legend" is coming soon. Ariel Roman, well you should know her as our radical artist-in-residence.