Coffee and New Orleans: a 400 Year Affair

A New Orleans tradition.

A New Orleans tradition.

NEW ORLEANS – The Cafe du Monde is a time capsule and one of America’s monuments to coffee. It’s always crowded, always open, and the floor and tables are perpetually sticky or wet. No one comes here for white-cloth table service. The menu is basic green and white, printed on stickers affixed to the battered chrome napkin dispensers:

Beignets

Coffee (au lait or black)

Orange Juice (fresh squeezed)

Cold Milk (white or chocolate)

Your order comes with a spoon and a 6-oz. water in an old-school diner glass. Your waiter appears to be from Vietnam or maybe the Philippines, and the warmed evening air is alarmingly close for early April.

The busker on the nearby sidewalk launches into “The Sunny Side of the Street” for the fourth time, his saxophone gleaming in the lingering dusk. A river of people flow by in both directions, mostly tourists or conventioneers.

Beignets come in threes, covered in powdered sugar. These squares of fried dough do not have a shelf life and should be eaten hot, but be careful not to inhale as you bite into one. Although inhaling powdered sugar is physically harmless, your cool will be forever forgotten by your companions.

The coffee you are served is thick and hot, cut with chicory and boiled milks that gives it the color of the river swirling on the other side of the levee just a few yards away. Chicory is the root of the endive plant and devilishly compliments dark roasted coffee so well a lot of people once thought of it as a substitute.

Napoleon, for one, wanted to ween the French from hard-to-get Turkish coffee by giving them chicory instead. Like many of the Emperor’s schemes, it didn’t work. But for most of the 19th century, American coffee was cut with chicory, so much so that finding pure coffee in North America was a tall order of buffalo chips.

At Cafe du Monde here in the French Quarter, coffee and chicory served au lait is the norm since 1862. But North America really met coffee for the first time in New Orleans, where for more than a century, the aroma of dark roast coffee coming from numerous commercial roasters along the riverfront permeated the French Quarter every morning.

The little cafe today is always packed with tourists. But to us, the definition of an institution is a place where even locals go.

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