By Sandra Elisa Loofbourow
Lately, I’ve been writing about how people dress up their coffee in various parts of the world, as well as how people consumed caffeine before the advent of roasting (spoiler alert: it was kind of gross). But what about when there is no coffee to be had? When people are pushed to the desperate edge of little-to-no caffeine, they’ll turn to just about anything that looks and tastes vaguel like the brown brew they’re hankering for. Here follows an account of the chicory root’s long relationship with coffee.
If you live in North America, chances are you’ve heard of New Orleans style coffee. Whether you’re from Louisiana or you’ve seen Blue Bottle’s New Orleans Style Iced Coffee spread across the nation, this style of coffee has earned a place in the pantheon of North American traditional foods. Among a number of other delicious delicacies, this unique style of coffee is one of the recipes recognized as an important part of New Orleans food traditions. While many believe that adding chicory dates back only to the days of the US Civil War, the truth is that people had been adding chicory to their coffee for at least a century before the practice arrived to the southern ports of the United States, and consuming it in one form or another for millennia before that.
Part 1: Chicory’s Roots
Chicory, or Chicorium intybus, was cultivated in ancient Egypt, and our modern word for this plant comes from the Egyptian “ctichorium”. Its exact origins are unclear, but it makes appearances in the writings of Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Pliny, who all consumed it as a regular part of their diet. Galen, a Greek physician from the second century, called it “friend of the liver”, and it is still used in some traditional medicine as a prebiotic, to aid with digestive issues, and even to treat jaundice.
Most chicory plants have a distinctive white flower, but occasionally there are red or white flowering chicories. The roots seem to do best in loamy soils with a clay subsoil, but are a hardy weed that can pop up in soils that won’t support much other plant life. It has a hardy tap root that can reach for water and nutrients that other plants might not be able to access. The leaves can be very bitter, but are often used in salads or can be blanched to remove some of the astringency.
When discussing chicory, it’s the root that’s generally the topic of conversation. Ranging from 2 to 4 inches thick and 3 to 7 inches long, a robust chicory plant can produce a 3 pound root in 6 or so weeks. These roots are pulled from the ground and cut into small pieces before kilning, to remove excess moisture. During this process, the chicory can lose up to 20% of its original mass. Although chicory is sometimes made into a tea at this stage, most recipes call for it to be roasted, much like coffee. This causes the root to lose another 25- 30% of its weight, which means that by the time it’s ready to brew, chicory has lost nearly half of its original mass.
Chicory has a high concentration of inulin, a polysaccharide that is sometimes used as a sugar replacement. As a result of the maillard reaction during roasting, some of this inulin breaks down into fructose, or fruit sugar, making the root taste much sweeter than when raw while also creating melanoidins that give it the characteristic brown color.
The use of chicory as an adulterant in coffee seems to date back to Northern Europe, where it was the “universal substitute for coffee”. The first mention of chicory as a coffee replacement was in the Prussian Empire. Germans were having difficulty adjusting “…from a state of permanent inebriation [to] permanent caffeination”, struggling with the reality that if the vast quantities of beer they were accustomed to drinking were replaced with energizing coffee, they would suffer the crippling effects of over-caffeination. Additionally, Frederick the Great was vehemently opposed the consumption of coffee, and instituted a state monopoly on all coffee imports in 1766. Frederick was sure that drinking imported coffee instead of german-brewed beer would be the economic downfall of his kingdom, but his more passionate arguments centered around the fact that beer was an important symbol of German identity. He banned the sale of coffee, and suggested that his subjects enjoy beer soup instead. Germans were forced to search out various substitutes for their coffee with items like wheat, barley, dried figs, and of course, chicory. Truly committed to the cause, Frederick hired a squad of “coffee smellers” who were tasked with sniffing out the unmistakable aroma of roasting coffee, and fine violators.
A few years later in 1806, Napoleon instituted the Continental System, creating a large scale embargo against British trade and promoting consumption of French national products. In a similar frame of mind as Frederick, Napoleon believed that consuming imported goods would weaken the economy of his growing empire. Although the Continental System didn’t last long (it collapsed in 1812 after Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow), the return of imported goods did nothing to abate the French people’s new-found fondness of chicory. Even after the ban on imported coffee was lifted, they continued to include the bitter root in their brews.
Napoleon had lofty ideas of what he wanted to accomplish in Europe, and firmly believed that he was offering true freedom to the people of continental Europe at the reasonable cost of just a few luxuries. Unfortunately, he underestimated how much his subjects already relied on their daily dose of caffeine. The Continental System never succeeded in removing imported products from the market, and years later, while imprisoned on St. Helena, Napoleon would lament: “To think that for one cup of coffee with more or less sugar, they checked the hand that would have friend the world!”
Part II: Chicory and the US Civil War
The story of how chicory became entrenched in the American South involves another economic power struggle – this one known as the Union blockade, a naval strategy introduced by Lincoln and the Northern states to prevent the Confederacy from trading. This tactic involved monitoring about 3500 miles of coastline, including 180 ports of entry, making it the largest blockade ever attempted. The strategy was effective in that it stifled the Southern economy, with cotton exports falling a staggering 95% and suffocating the Confederacy’s access to hard currency. North Americans, whether Union or Confederate, already relied heavily on coffee as a daily staple, and the lack of caffeination weighed heavily on the blockaded confederates: “…if it cannot be said that coffee helped Billy Yank win the war, it at least made his participation in the conflict more tolerable.”
In absence of the precious caffeinated bean, soldiers were forced tro try rather unpleasant innovations. Chicory was far from the only alternative used to imitate or stretch coffee rations: acorns, corn, parsnips, really anything that could be roasted and ground was used as a substitute in desperate times.
After the blockade was lifted and the Union restored, most places went back to using pure coffee in their morning cup. One notable exception is of course New Orleans in Louisiana, where people continued to doctor their coffee with chicory along with cream and sugar. Coffee drinking became embedded in the culture of that city, and the coffee break an essential part of all business affairs. Nowadays, there is a fair rivalry between the few remaining institutions, all well over a century old, with locals staunchly defending their favorite vendors.
Part III: Chicory in Modern times
The Civil War not the last time people were forced to use chicory with or in place of coffee; references to this beverage come up again during the trying times of the Great Depression in the US and during the extreme scarcity of WWI in Great Britain. It resurfaced in a lesser-known event called the “East German coffee crisis” in 1976, when a confluence of black frost in Brazil and global oil shortages came together to nearly quadruple the cost of coffee in East Germany. Germans had a strong tradition of drinking coffee, and several substitutes entered the market in the face of such extreme shortages. One common option was a brew that included 51% real coffee, 49% various fillers, notably chicory, rye, and sugar beet which was given the unfortunate name of Mischkaffee.
Like the other recipes and ingredients I’ve written about in this series, chicory allows us a window into a unique history of how people have incorporated coffee into their lives, and how it has participated in their culture throughout the centuries.