“It has been said that the best barometer of the destiny of the Port of New Orleans is coffee,” wrote T.J. Conroy in the New Orleans Port Record, in 1943.
The city of New Orleans was in her youth when thousands of Haitian refugees poured into the city in the early 1800s. Spain had set about the business of occupying Cuba and their first order of concern was to expel people from Haiti who’d migrated to the island to seek their fortune.
The resulting diaspora doubled the population of New Orleans and led to the Crescent City being declared the USA’s “Creole Capital”.
If you were growing up in New Orleans in that long-ago era the smell of roasting coffee and chicory wafted above the stone flagon streets creating a pleasant haze for merchants, tradesmen and passersby. The young boulevardiers of the day found that amusements were plenty: “dancing, music, art, and fencing,” not the least among them.
Today, the term trading is associated with crypto on Cointree. However, trading is a lot more than that. Coffee has played a vital role in New Orleans since Napoleon Bonaparte transferred Louisiana to the United States on a sunny December day back in 1803. According to François Xavier Martin’s crucial History of Louisiana, New Orleans imported 1,438 bags of coffee weighing 132 pounds each that year. Just over a century later that number had skyrocketed to more than one million bags.
For the individual consumer, coffee consumption in the United States increased from one pound per drinker in 1790 to nine pounds per person in 1882.
If you were leaned back at a bustling cafe on Decatur Street with a fresh brewed mug of coffee while reading the much-treasured newspaper L’Abeille de la Nouvelle Orleans chances are that that coffee had a fair amount of chicory in it. The gratification of that beverage can be traced back to Napoleon, and his determination to cripple British trade via his so-called Continental System.
Napoleon used chicory as a culinary battering ram of sorts. The emperor figured a blockade of British coffee shipments would bring the empire to its knees. But his French subjects demanded a hot morning beverage
The French being the French, they soon came up with what would be called falsifications du café-chicorée, a technique borrowed from the Dutch wherein chicory root is roasted, and ground before being magically transformed into a substitute for coffee. Certain writers of the day claimed that the juice of the chicory plant could cure “hysterical females;” the same writers swore that the elixir could stave off the “melancholia of hypochondriacs.”
The early 1800s must have been a wild ride.
Chicory was both loved and vilified in the papers of the day. One ad trumpeted “Chicory For The Improvement Of Coffee,” while others referred to it as a base and crude adulterant. In an outraged letter to the editor in the Caledonian Mercury newspaper the author signed off as “An Enemy To Chicory,” after lambasting the root as “Death In The Pot.”
In New Orleans in 1832, coffee was enjoying a tidal shift in popularity due to President Andrew Jackson’s Army General Order No. 100 wherein he ordered it to replace rum and brandy in his soldier’s rations. This sudden sobriety was met by coffee imports tripling from 12 million pounds per year to over 38 million pounds.
But trouble was coming to New Orleans.
In April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring what would become known as the Union Blockade. Stretching from South Carolina to Texas the purpose of this endeavor was to choke off supply routes into and out of the South. Surely the French residents of New Orleans issued a cri de coeur over this rude cessation of ingress and egress.
Overnight, coffee became a precious commodity. Ever resourceful soldiers on both sides began swapping tobacco, coffee and whiskey before picking their Springfield muskets back up and resuming attempts to kill one another.
They had their priorities.
For their part, the captains of Lincoln’s ships were deadly serious. 1,504 sea-going vessels would be burned, sunk, driven ashore, or simply destroyed .
And chicory enjoyed a sustained moment in the sun. As the Civil War commenced the United States imported over 182 million pounds of coffee. That figure shrank dramatically as the war continued, and trade that had traditionally easily flowed up and down the Mississippi ground to a halt.
As coffee grew more and more precious the locals adapted by blending the precious beans with ground chicory.
In 1862-1863 some 80 million pounds of coffee were imported into the US while chicory saw 10 million pounds landed. The thrifty drinkers of the day would replace 20 to 50 percent of the coffee in their morning kettles with chicory to extend their prized coffee beans.
On May 13th, 1865, the Battle of Palmito Ranch in Louisiana’s western neighbor of Texas marked the end of the Civil War. Once news trickled back to New Orleans the old coffeehouses of the French Quarter were filled with celebrants many of whom foresaw a future of drinking pure coffee with nary a trace of chicory. But a funny thing happened. Chicory, as it’s wont to do, had taken root in the customs of the cafes, restaurants, and households, and folks continued blending a little into their morning coffee pots.
In 1866 New Orleans saw a modest 55,000 bags of coffee imported. The return to normalcy for the once vigorous industry was sluggish.
In December of 1871, the New Orleans Times-Democrat reported a 16 percent increase in coffee consumption while the worried journalist noted that production had fallen off in the coffee-producing territories of Brazil, Java and Ceylon.
The coffee deficit was reportedly 104,000 tons. Chicory, for its part, had risen in value by 80 percent.
At Victor’s Restaurant on Bourbon street in 1893, chicory made an appearance in both the salad, and beverage courses, eight of which would run the diner a single dollar. And the restaurant, which would one day evolve into Galatoire’s, was happy to throw in a half-bottle of St. Julien to sweeten the deal.
But the prim maiden aunts of the day began voicing concern at New Orleanians’ epic intake of coffee. Their cries were not met without resistance however. In a March 1897 editorial, Dr. W.H Meyers voiced a full-throated response saying “…as a producer of dynamic force a cup of good coffee is unexcelled and no food known to man will sustain strength longer.”
As the 19th century drew to a close, the French Market Coffee brand marked its 10th year in business, and New Orleans grocers found such brands as Batavia, Morning Glory, Opti-Mo-Jav, and Pea Berry clamoring for shelf space.
By this time, New Orleans was a coffee import destination second only to New York City. In 1901, she saw a big jump in growth from 44 million to 72 million pounds. In 1902 she marked 115 million pounds. By 1910 stevedores were offloading 301 million pounds of green coffee beans per annum. There was no shortage of labor as thousands of Irishmen had flooded into the city over the previous decades and took to dock work with a vigor.
There was a need for hundreds of dockhands, draymen, and mechanics to accommodate the burgeoning coffee import trade.
In 1902, a north Louisiana businessman, William B. Reily, moved his wholesale grocery business from Monroe to New Orleans. Just a year later grocery store ads for Reily’s Luzianne brand began to appear in regional newspapers. The following year advertisements for the young brand had increased seven fold.
Admen of the day worked themselves into a tizzy over the new brand. And the New Orleans coffee trade was poised to become an international powerhouse.
In December 1919, the steam merchant ship Campos, with its ability to hold nearly 5,000 tons, set sail from the port of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil with its sights set on New Orleans. Nine days later the vessel arrived and marked a new chapter in the Crescent City’s coffee industry. Just a year later the Poydras Wharf would be renamed the Coffee Wharf, with the Dock Board allotting $200,000 for improvements and expansion. Eventually all 700 feet of the Mississippi River-facing work area was devoted to coffee. No other single trade was accorded this honor.
A coffee trading district centered around Gravier Street quickly sprang up.
Over a dozen green-coffee firms set up shop in this area near what is now Front Street while the Green Coffee Association of New Orleans moved into the Board of Trade Annex on nearby Natchez Street. When these men met for trade banquets, newsletters of the day promised “jollification and good food.”
Plans were made to commercially develop some 96,000 acres of land within New Orleans that were viable for wharves. The coffee trade in New Orleans was electric and a palpable sense of energy was felt by men devoted to the industry. Fortunes were being made.
Nowadays if you stroll across Jackson Square heading towards the Mississippi one of the first businesses you encounter is Cafe du Monde but their prime location was then occupied by French Market Coffee, a property of New Orleans Coffee Company.
The row of shops had once been called Les Halles des Boucheries but by the early 20th century the butchers had nearly all departed, and the more prosaic French Market name had been adapted.
March 1923 marked French Market Coffee’s first shipment to Jerusalem even as the eponymous cafe on Decatur was doing land office business. The following year the company’s scientific blender was in the news when he published a pamphlet trumpeting the virtues of chicory in coffee.
Chicory was still a theme years later when Edna Laporte Sprangley of Luzianne penned a worksheet touting the good effects of the root; she went on to mention that every man, woman and child in the US consumed an average 12 pounds of coffee per year.
With the advent of WWII the dread specter of coffee rationing returned to the good people of New Orleans. Beginning in November 1942 each American citizen over the age of 15 was rationed one pound of coffee every five weeks. Life magazine published an article advising drinkers to seek out chicory.
New Orleanians, long accustomed to the root, just added a little more to their kettles til the dread Germans could be beaten. One doubts the grandees having their morning cup in their Garden District mansions suffered such privations.
As America recovered from the post WWII blues, chicory slowly slipped out of favor nationally but sales remained strong across Louisiana and particularly in New Orleans where the locals favored a morning brew strong enough to take the enamel off the kitchen sink.
Out in Acadiana local farmer Francis Bertinot hatched a plan to cultivate chicory on his farm near Church Point but the hoped for riches never arrived. In spite of post-war rising prices New Orleanians continued taking their 10am and 4pm coffee breaks. A United Press article from the day stated that work in downtown came to a halt for these prized respites.
When John F. Kennedy came to power he famously hosted “coffee breakfasts” but Congressman Hale Boggs (D-La) was having none of it. “Sort of weak coffee, no chicory in it, no Tabasco, no grits.” Kennedy read about the grousing and, the following week servers presented Boggs with a big bottle of Tabasco, a bowl of grits, and coffee and chicory.
Thus fortified, Boggs went on to become House Majority Leader.
An International Chicory Institute was formed in Orchies, France in the mid-sixties and migrated to New Orleans where it served as a promotional arm for the industry. The concern would fold in the seventies just as Louisiana politician Edwin Edwards was elected governor on a platform that promised to serve gumbo and chicory coffee in the governor’s mansion if the voters were wise enough to choose him.
By the late seventies coffee supply lines were strained and chicory demand began to grow across the US. Karl Sooder, marketing manager for Luzianne, began trekking to faraway locales like Boston and Philadelphia where he exulted that his brand was being placed “smack in the middles of the coffee section!”
When Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans in the late eighties, Antoine’s Restaurant planned a special menu for the pontiff capped off with rich cups of cafe noir shot through with chicory. When John Paul II died in 2005 local wags were still speaking with reverence of how the Holy Father loved New Orleans’ rich cafe noir.
The health conscious trends of the eighties tilted favorably in the direction of chicory coffee with the New York Times recommending you slowly wean yourself off caffeine by drinking “Sunrise, Mellow Roast or Luzianne, which has much less caffeine than regular coffee.”
Of course the regulars of the old coffee shops in New Orleans still drank their cafe au laits with little thought to the healthfulness of the coffee.
To this day we drink it because we love it and often as not because we have been weaned from our mother’s milk with it. If you walked across the French Quarter today you could step to the counter of dozens of cafes and restaurants and ask for a chicory coffee with nary an eye batted by the server or barista.
And like as not the brew you’ll be served will come from a French Market Coffee and Chicory tin. Just like it has since 1890.
The magic of chicory is not to be discounted with soothsayers promising that carrying a sprig on your person as you hurry forth into the world will allow you to forget lost loves. Doors into unseen worlds may fling themselves open unbidden if you take the powers of chicory to heart.