IT IS SAID that coffee is the universal friend of the cold, the creative, the captured and the conscripted, of cops and late-night carousers alike. But sometimes coffee can become a dear thing, embargoed and expensive and imported, and those who need it can barely scrape together a handful of beans. For those people, in those moments, there is chicory.
Chicory (also, chickory), a lettuce-like plant related to the dandelion and to curly endive (also, confusingly, sometimes called “chicory”), produces a humble, blue, forgettable flower and a root that tastes enough like coffee that it can be dried; roasted; and added to, or substituted for, coffee, when the need arises. First cultivated in ancient Egypt as an herb and a vegetable, chicory has been walking in lock step with coffee since the 18th century in Europe, humbly filling in like an understudy when coffee, that precious-yet-ubiquitous princess of commodities, is scarce or too expensive.
Enthusiasts, or people who like their brew second-wave, roasted black and strong as oil, claim chicory has a nutty, earthy flavor. Others might suggest that it just tastes like someone put their cigarette out in an otherwise fine cup of coffee. But maybe it’s wartime, and real coffee has been embargoed for months, but you’ve been up and up to your ankles in mud for days and you’re happy to see it, so you’ll fill your tin canteen cup with hot liquid, black and bitter and hot as the battle around you. Or perhaps you’re a prisoner, and the man swaps out coffee for chicory in a move equal parts cheap and punitive. Still, the comforting miasma of steam rising from your cup makes you feel a bit like a free person for the few minutes that it lasts, and you have nowhere to go, so you don’t care that what you’re drinking has no caffeine.
But there are places where chicory is not an also-ran, but rather an essential element to a real cup of joe. Enlightenment-era French nobility drank it on purpose, and in New Orleans, a Civil War blockade made the chicory-coffee blend a tradition to be savored, even lauded. A beignet in New Orleans is best enjoyed at Cafe du Monde, and at Cafe du Monde, your beignets will arrive hot and dusted with sugar, and your coffee will be served au lait and spiked with chicory, whether you request it or not. It’s the slight bitter tang after the happy debauchery, the bite of reality after the dreamy, jazz-filled, booze-soaked revels of the night before. The coffee is roasted dark, so you’re getting a two-for-one deal on the bitterness front, which is why you need the milk.
You can experience this for yourself by purchasing a tin of original Cafe Du Monde (preground and vacuum-sealed, and I bought mine at World Market for $9.99) and brewing it at home. For the beignets, you can stop by Toulouse Petit in Queen Anne, or chase down the Where Ya At Matt food truck. You also can purchase all-chicory “herbal coffee” at health food stores (some even claim it is a digestive aid) and perhaps sip it in the shelter of a makeshift plywood fort in your yard on a rainy day for a little Civil War re-enacting on the fly.