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Chicory Coffee: New Orleans in a Cup

Photo by Paul Broussard, courtesy of the New Orleans Company

In the coffee aisle, squeezed between Starbucks coffee grounds and Dunkin Donut K-Cups, is an easily missed slice of Southern culture. You’ll find different brands advertising New Orleans-style chicory coffee on the shelves. But what exactly is chicory coffee and how did it come to be synonymous with New Orleans?

Sit back, sip a roast and stay awhile. We’re going to run you through chicory coffee’s significance to the Big Easy from past to present.

What is Chicory?

Chicory from La Botanique de J. J. Rousseau by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840). Original from the Library of Congress. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Before we explain how chicory ended up in coffee, we’ll catch you up to speed on what exactly chicory is. Chicory is a plant that produces blue flowers and finds a home across the world though it originated in Asia, North Africa and Europe. 

There are various types of chicory plants. Some are grown for their leaves to be used in salads but what we, and New Orleans, are interested in are those cultivated for their roots. The root of chicory is what is used to create chicory coffee.

Chicory root is grounded in a similar way to coffee beans to create New Orleans’ famous twist on a cup of joe. Typically, you’ll find chicory coffee served as a café au lait, where the drink is combined with hot milk.

New Orleans and Chicory Then

The tradition of chicory coffee was brewed, like many things, from war. 

Before the Civil War, New Orleans had become famous for its coffee output. But the city’s port was cut off from supplies during a union blockade and, among other goods, coffee became scarce.

After coffee became a rarity, members of New Orleans drew from the past for a solution. In France, Napoleon Bonaparte had also created a blockade that caused coffee to become incredibly scarce. The French overcame their lack of coffee by placing the roasted root of the chicory plant in their brews to make their coffee reserve last longer—and so did the Confederate army and New Orleans. While chicory has no caffeine, the add-in tasted just like ground coffee beans.

Chicory coffee wasn’t just a lifesaver for Southerners who couldn’t live without their afternoon coffee break; the method of mixing chicory into coffee became a commonplace solution in the United States to further a low coffee stock. Chicory root coffee was one of many options for coffee lovers to make due to the Great Depression and World War II, but never found a permanent home in the states’ daily brews outside of times of hardship.

Except, of course, in one.

New Orleans and Chicory Now

In New Orleans, what began as a necessary adjustment to war became the locals’ favorite coffee add-in. Chicory coffee did not disappear from the cups of New Orleans natives but became a staple of a city strongly rooted in its past.

So much so that the most famous coffee spots in the city serve tourists and locals alike brews of chicory root and coffee bean. Café Du Monde is the prime example of New Orleans’ chicory coffee heritage.

Undoubtedly, the most recognizable coffee serving institution in New Orleans, Café Du Monde’s menu is filled to the brim with chicory coffee delights to order alongside a set of beignets. Though the most famous, they are far from the only coffee shop in New Orleans carrying on the chicory coffee legacy. Many coffee shops spotted along New Orleans’ streets serve the unmistakable tasting beverage, and the ritual of drinking chicory coffee has even expanded past New Orleans’ borders.  

Now you can experience New Orleans every morning without leaving the comfort of your recliner. All of the ingredients you need to make chicory coffee at home are available to purchase at your local grocery store.

As a city looks to the future while never forgetting its past, chicory coffee is just one of the many parts of New Orleans that builds onto its incredible culture. So the next time you find yourself touring the French Quarter or wandering through the streets of Jackson Square with the craving for a cup of coffee to get you through the rest of the day, be sure to check for the chicory flavor and savor an authentic taste of New Orleans.

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