3.03.2010

Chocolate City: rediscovering coffee and chicory.

My dad is a coffee purist, or at least he thinks he is – you should never keep beans in the freezer like that. But my mama, at home she drinks Union Coffee and Chicory. It’s a flavor I’ve known for my whole life, of course, since I was yea high and I’d get a coffee milk after being woken up too early in the morning at my grandpa’s house. And then there’s the cafe au lait at Morning Call – when I was real young I always opted for the chocolate milk instead, but by the time I hit double digits I was ordering “coffee and an order of donuts,” craving that caramel colored drink served up in heavy ceramic.

Once I became an “adult”, though, chicory coffee was just never something I adopted as my own. Hard to say why; frequently it was just a result of being too lazy to even brew coffee at home, opting instead for a medium sized medium roast from PJ’s or Rue de la Course, or the little coffee shop on Harrison that has now, seemingly inevitably, become a Starbucks. Chicory was something I knew about: a root, strong in flavor but lacking in caffeine, a creole classic, bla bla bla; just not something I imbibed. That it was conspicuously lacking in the city’s coffehouses seemed to reinforce my decision to drink “real” coffee.

Funny how leaving a place can make you nostalgic for things you never knew were important to you. On the third anniversary of Katrina, I released a zine called Anywhere I Lay My Head. I had a bit of a release event whereat refreshments were served. Alongside Brocato’s seed cookies, of course I served coffee. And what else would I serve but coffee and chicory? I had my mom send me up a few pounds of Union.

The event didn’t have the largest turnout, and my mom had sent far more than we needed anyway, so a year and a half later there was still a pound hanging around my house. Come this past Saturday, we ran out of coffee – for my fiance, this is a crisis akin to being without electricity or water. And so, on a whim, I offered up the Union.

Of course, at my mama’s house coffee and chicory is drunk with Pet evaporated milk. Jonathan and I do not drink milk. So how to approach the molasses-like brew? He prepared his like he would his regular coffee and got on with his day. For me though, it had begun to become an epiphanous experience, so I decided to go cafe au lait style.

What I’m going to describe next will strike some old school New Orleanians as something approaching sacrilegious, but just bear with me. I took down my oversized Cafe du Monde mug – also sent down by mom – and filled it not quite halfway with my omnipresent almond milk, which I then heated until a bit too hot to put your finger in comfortably. To that I added a small spoonful of agave nectar (I know, I know! I’m just avoiding refined sugars right now). And finally I topped my mug with the coffee.

The substance that filled my cup was a rich, incredibly dark brown color – Jonathan had used as much ground coffee as he would normally, not realizing that coffee and chicory is a different beast. It looked something like chocolate, and tasted something like chocolate too – though of course it has a flavor all its own. I spent the next half hour happily sipping as I prepared a huge pot of butterbeans and set them to simmer for the afternoon, giving myself a warmup every now and then. Late February snowstorm be damned – holding that cup, beans on the stove, my kitchen felt like home.

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