Chicory Cafe au Lait and the Irish

The first principle of understanding Ignatius’ New Orleans is that New Orleans is the Center of the World. The rest of the world knows that it isn’t, but that doesn’t change reality. New Orleans is the Center of the World, and Ignatius is the center of New Orleans–like the nucleus of an atom, or the God particle or something. Ignatius is a metonymy  for all New Orleanians and all people who understand New Orleans. The world Ignatius inhabits is a medieval, carnivalesque, utopian place–not utopian in the way the word is usually used–to mean ideal–but utopian in the more original sense of not being a fixed place–and utopian in its inclusion of everyone.

Pouring coffee and milk

When Ignatius and his mother duck into the Night of Joy bar on Bourbon Street in their dash to evade Patrolman Mancuso, Ignatius pugnaciously orders the bartender to serve him a chicory coffee with boiled milk, opting for the educated elocution of “boiled” as opposed to the white ethnic, to use Walker Percy’s term, locution “berled” that Irene Reilly uses. We don’t know that until later in the book. A careful reader would realize that Toole had cleverly glossed  the native Yat accent through Ignatius, so that even a reader who’d never heard the accent–and most outsiders who do hear the accent don’t know what a Yat says when he says “berled”–would be able to figure out that “berled” is boiled. Like berled in earl.

It’s outrageous for Ignatius to order coffee at a Bourbon Street hole-in-the wall bar, but if the bar would have had coffee, it would be as likely that it had chicory coffee as coffee. Ignatius’ demand is ridiculously out of place, but at the same time, it is peculiarly correct culturally. He settles for a Dixie 45 beer, like his Momma is having. Ignatius is a pure product of New Orleans culture, which he doesn’t question, resist, or criticize. Ignatius embodies the possibility that the pure product can only exist a little uncomfortably with the world outside of New Orleans. He accepts the peculiarities of being a New Orleanian–eating different food, drinking different coffee, thinking differently, and being in the world differently from its other inhabitants–completely. New Orleans doesn’t need to change, no more than Ignatius thinks he has to change. The world has to change around both of them. Anyway, New Orleans doesn’t really have to change itself because change is periodically imposed on New Orleans through the upheavals of wars, political systems and scandals, corrupt businesses, reformers, and various acts of God, such as the Hubig’s Pie Factory fire. (Read “Nothing Left But a Grease Spot” in the archives.)

The ratio of chicory coffee to boiled milk is 50:50, but I think it must take a lot more milk than that to stand up to the coffee that comes out of their traditional 19th Century French drip coffee makers. Pouring the coffee is part of the waiter’s job.

Before sitting down to write today, I made a cup of chicory coffee with nearly boiled soy milk, an adaptation I spent months perfecting for my digestion’s sake.  It’s as close to the chicory cafe au lait people drink in Louisiana as it’s possible to make, without using actual whole cow’s milk. This is important. This is the only coffee I drink at home anymore. I buy 20 or 40 pounds of it from Rouse’s every time I go to New Orleans. A pound lasts three weeks if I have only one cup a day. I became acculturated to the coffee in New Orleans, where I only had it a few times a week. It took years to transition from the black coffee I used to drink daily to the chicory cafe au lait and soy milk concoction I now drink every day. It is stout enough with soy protein to substitute for meals.

The original Morning Call arch, counter, and counter-stools that stood at the entrance to the French Market from 1870 to 1974.

Tourists nearly always go to the Cafe du Monde across from Jackson Square for cafe au lait and beignets served on tables sticky from powdered sugar being swirled around between seatings by waiters wearing uniforms they wore in the early part of the 20th Century. But, the locals say that the real coffee place is the Morning Call coffee stand, which stood at the entrance to the French Market for over 100 years. In 1974, when the city’s terms for renewing the license for the site didn’t meet with the owner’s requirements, the family-owned business moved the antique marble and walnut appointments from their century-long moorings in the French Quarter, giving up the lion’s share of the tourist coffee and beignet business to the rival Cafe du Monde, and moving to a little hole in a strip mall in Metairie near the Causeway.

Clearing ancient cups and saucers.

The coffee stands were longtime French Quarter rivals, both serving the same limited menu of chicory coffee and beignets, orange juice, and white and chocolate milk. Both have extended their menus in the past couple of decades to include iced coffee and soft drinks. Morning Call also serves gumbo and jambalaya. Cafe du Monde, with the slightly less desirable Decatur Street location, opened in 1862. Morning Call opened in 1870. Cafe du Monde has been more aggressive at marketing. It now even has a gift shop. These places are coffee stands–not coffee shops, and they appeal to both local and tourist trade. The experience of sitting at either one to read the paper and have a cup of coffee is nothing like the experience of going to a coffee shop. You need to wake up to where you are when you go to one of these coffee stands after a night of drinking and walking around the French Quarter or dancing at the Jefferson Ballroom, for those of a certain age. At the Cafe du Monde, you could be sitting in the very chair where Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, or Walker Percy sat, and doing the same thing–observing the fluid stream of humans between peeks at the Living Section, and sips of rich, thick coffee. The very same thing in the very same place Ken Toole must have watched people countless times, you are invited to do. To have wifi would be a travesty of a proportion that would betray the “lack of theology and geometry,” to say nothing of a “sense of taste and decency.”

The Morning Call neon sign

The Morning Call neon sign

Beignets about to come out of the deep fryer.

At the Morning Call in July, I never even wondered whether there was wifi. It never crossed my mind until this moment. When I lived in New Orleans in the early 1990s, I drove to Morning Call at midnight every Saturday night, picking up the Sunday Times Picayune before going in to order cafe au lait and beignets from one of the waiters I still saw there last month. At the entrance to the kitchen, a man sits on a backless counter stool by the cash register, making tick marks in a little notebook. If you wanted a take out order, you could tell him, and he’d call a waiter over to take your order, who would bring the coffee in a covered styrofoam cup, and the beignets in a paper bag with about half a pound of powdered sugar in it. If I had my coffee in, I would lift out the Living Section, sip coffee, and watch the aging merrymakers in their dancing clothes fresh from the Jefferson Ballroom struggle to keep dustings of confectioner’s sugar off their finery. It’s okay to drink cafe au lait in the middle of the night in Louisiana. It won’t keep you awake when you get the chance later to drop into a cool bed.

Bob Hennessey, manning the cash register

The man sitting at the counter making tick marks was one of the pretty much interchangeable Hennessey Brothers. The Morning Call is still in the same family that started the business in 1870. That was Joseph Jurisech, and the business has been run by succeeding generations, or those married to them, from the day he went into business. The Hennesseys are the current generation running the place, probably in exactly the same way Joe did in 1870. Only the cash registers seem to have changed. Except for what’s replaced because of breakage, they’re probably still using the same dishes.

Even though the Cafe du Monde has had the dominant market position for forty years, another one of those cultural dislocations is about to take place in the market stand coffee business in New Orleans. The City of New Orleans, with FEMA financing, approached Morning Call to open a coffee stand in City Park in the old Casino Building across from the Museum of Art. City Park itself was a WPA project, and still bears the markers of public projects of the era. The aesthetic of the park includes some distinctly socialist-looking signposts, but the Casino building is all old New Orleans, with floor to ceiling paned windows, shutters, a black and whtie tile floor, and roof shape reminiscent of the old Morning Call market stand.

I’d stopped in late in the afternoon after spending the day in the Toole archives at Tulane, and Bob Hennessey was sitting at the cash register making ticks in his book. He is friendly, or happy to leave you in peace. Whatever you want. That day I wanted to poke and prod, and find out what I could about his business. He obliged generously, and let me take pictures. The employees, familiar faces all, were perfect subjects, ignoring the camera or posing for it like pros. Their images are already part of a history of images of people and coffee in New Orleans that has yet to be written, and they seem aware of it.

Hennessey, a tidy, fit, and appropriately reserved man, showed me the photos of the new place on his iPhone, the only sign of technology in the place, although I suspect there’s a computer in an office in the back. Tehy’re building replicas of the marble counter and arch, and copying the interior details for the new place, which they believe will open in late September. He hopes they do well there, and it seems like a good idea, but it means they will have to adapt to a new way of doing business–aggressive marketing, computerized record-keeping, taking credit cards, and offering an extended, but still limited, menu. I remember that he mentioned popcorn, but forgot what else he said would be on the menu. This is a 24-hour a day business, manned by a family member all the time, keeping tick marks in a black book, that they reconcile to cash register receipts. They have prospered for 40 years in this little place, doing things the way they always have, with a trusted family member overseeing operations all the time. I wondered if he will be happy with the new work, with expansion, with being competitive when they’ve gotten along so well for so long knowing exactly who they are and what they are doing. I would like to know who came up with the idea? Who from the City thought this up, put the proposal together, and brought it to them? How did they make it attractive to the Hennesseys?