Plus de café s’il vous plaît

I still haven’t finished with the coffee.

Why do they drink chicory coffee in Louisiana? They don’t drink it in most other places in the US. Turns out there’s some history, the same kind of history that makes New Orleans seem more like a European city than a US city. Chicory is native to Western Europe, but naturalized in the U.S. It was grown around the Mediterranian Sea.* I read all about chicory, but mostly what I got out of it is that it’s related to endive, and both the part of the plant that grows above grown and the root is used for food. It’s the root that’s roasted and ground up and added to coffee. Although adding it to coffee is more commonplace in the countries north of the Mediterranian, where they developed a taste for it, the Dutch developed the best blend. According to Wikipedia, “Medieval monks raised the plants and when coffee was introduced to Europe, the Dutch thought that chicory made a lively addition to the bean drink.”

Anyway, the Spanish, Italians, French, and French Canadians all came to New Orleans, apparently with an established taste for chicory coffee, and it was easily naturalized into the multinational port culture there, where the French and Spanish settled early on, and Italians came soon enough. Cafe au lait and beignets is a staple of late night partyers, people-watchers, tourists in buses and a pied. What has been served there for more than a century is cafe au lait. You can get it black, and no one will act as if that’s odd, but not many pallettes can tolerate the bitter, sweet, strong stuff that is brewed to stand up to what in A Confederacy of Dunces is called in the urban patois of New Orleans, “berled milk.” My brother, who used to design the drills for offshore oil-wells, and visited them during that career, thought the brew is to the taste of the wildcatter Cajuns who operated the off-shore rigs, but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of Cajuns who drink it black.

I took my elderly parents to Morning Call for coffee and donuts in the 1990s. Both of them normally drank standard American brewed black coffee. I persuaded my mother to get the cafe au lait, but my dad insisted on having it black. He could hardly stand it. It just became something to suffer, but my mother drank her cafe au lait, but I don’t remember that she liked it. Neither would touch the beignets. At Morning Call, you dust the beignets yourself at the table from shakers that are always clogged with confectioners sugar. You can burn enough in calories just getting a good portion of powdered sugar on your donuts to make up for what you eat. The sugar gets all over the table, the Jefferson Parish ballroom dancer’s finery, the coffee, the chairs, the floors. Mopping up sugar is a constant process at Morning Call and at Cafe du Monde. It gets all over everyone except Mr. Hennessey. The best is to get a bag of beignets to go. The server puts about a cup and a half of powdered sugar in a lunch-sized brown paper bag, 3 hot beignets, gives it a shake and puts it in your hands, where the bag is too hot and greasy to touch. But it’s wonderful. If Morning Call were operated like a streamlined Bain operation with a gimlet-eyed fixation on the bottom line, the sugar bill would be cut by 95%. It’s harder to estimate how many customers would be lost. It’s an excess and a staple of New Orleans to have way too much powdered sugar.

This is an old photo of Cafe du Monde. Both restaurants, for awhile, had parking right in front of the establishments.

I’ve heard New Orleanians say that Morning Call was the original Cafe du Monde, but that’s not true. Two great coffee sellers established coffee stands in the French Quarter in the area of the French Market in The coffee stands in the late 1800s. Cafe du Monde, established in 1862, was the first. The second, Morning Call, was established in 1870 by Joseph Jurisch, a Czech immigrant. Morning Call had a better location at the opening to French Market, and Cafe was always in the place it is now, a little further west on Decatur Street. Both establishments were always open 24 hours, and every day of the week except Christmas. I like to imagine the navvies of old, come or consigned to dig the canals, stopping for coffee before work. Or the sailors from far away lands come to shore, drinking all night, and showing up for coffee at one of these stands before going back to ship, docked just out of sight, except for the stacks, over the levy right behind Cafe du Monde and the French Market.

Although Cafe du Monde was first in 1862, Morning Call had the better location, and it stayed there for over a hundred years, pouring chicory coffee, berled milk, and dishing out heavily dusted donuts until 1974. French Quarter real estate had been cheap for centuries, but in the 1970s a more lively tourist trade picked up in the French Quarter, and the French Market was a popular destination. The owners of Morning Call refused to pay the hiked-up rent, and after 104 years in the same place, they picked up their marble counters and mahogany arch and put it inside a hole-in-the wall strip mall across from Lakeside Mall in the suburb of Metairie. It remains busy and well run and in the same family as the original owner, Joe Jurisch.

* Mediterranean is an interesting word. It’s Latin etymology from medius and terra means in the middle of the earth. Imagine the land mass of Europe and Africa, and of course, the Mediterranean Sea seems to be in the middle of the earth. New Orleans is a middle earth sort of place, where chicory coffee would easily become the coffee concotion of choice.