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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?