cafe du monde

Culture in a Cup: An Ode to Coffee

Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter, New Orleans. Circa 2003. I took this picture at dawn with my flashy 35mm camera. This establishment is dear to the hearts of both tourists and locals.

My father-in-law has never drank a solitary drop of coffee in his whole life. It wasn’t because of any dietary restriction or doctor’s advice. It was a personal decision concerning self-reliance, based on the observation that so many people become dependent on it for simply functioning. I would say that sheer will kept him abstinent from coffee, but it is not. He’s never felt the slightest desire or even curiosity to even try it. He still gets up early in the morning without being grouchy. He’s still motivated and productive. He has a successful career as a lawyer and is very involved in his community.

Perhaps, he’s an anomaly. Perhaps there are only a select few who are born without the insatiable need for that “click” between the temples. The rest of us seem to be born without our own spark plug for ignition, needing a hard pull or two to fire the engines. At times, I am envious of him, especially when there’s no coffee available. However, other times I am not. To him, coffee is just a liquid that he has to work around. For the rest of us, it’s sublime.

Coffee was one of the first things that I equated with adulthood. My parents drank coffee in the mornings and at cafes. Family and friends would drink it before Mardi Gras morning parades. My father and an old farmer, Mr. Veltin, would have coffee just before we would go hunting on his 90 forested acres in Folsom, Louisiana. Once my parents began allowing me to have coffee once I was older, I usually embraced the opportunity to sit at the table among adults. Of course, I say that now. Back then, it was probably all about the sugar. I’d dump so much that it never fully dissolved: brown and grainy like a sandy river bed in my cup.

I later scaled back on the sugar, eventually switching to honey at the recommendation of a friend, and then gradually eliminating it all together. Full disclosure: I did sweeten it sometimes with spiced rum (Old New Orleans Rum or Bayou Rum preferably) as any self-respecting New Orleans bartender would do. The milk or cream still remains a mainstay for me, though. I can drink it black when needed, but I didn’t enjoy it as much. I used to justify my cream addition to hardcore purists and say it was because the milk helped cut the acid. But, in the end, I just liked it better that way. The powdered creamer; however, is no viable substitute for me. Not after I read the first ingredient of the coffee “creamer:” Corn Syrup Solids. Since then, I have not allowed that chemical powder to corrupt my joe.

One thing my dad always told me is that I am a “doer,” as opposed to people that talk about accomplishing or experiencing things but never do so. I’m just now realizing how right he was because I continue to find myself overwhelmed with projects and responsibilities. And it’s not letting up, even if I have the power to stop it. I published Sinking Dixie in November and on the second round of prints (available for sale here!), and I plan on start actively promoting it this year. I just started writing for LA Metro Magazine to add to my freelancing hustle at Maine Brew & Beverage Guide and Activities of Maine Magazine. I taught an adult-ed virtual creative writing class. That was on top of swim coaching, teaching high school English, and raising a toddler during the pandemic, and I still am looking for more things to do.

So, I guess I never really needed coffee in the first place either. I was always an early riser, except for the periods when I worked late hours as a bartender and brewer, of course. I did actually need coffee to function in the daytime in those days. I do not miss that. Coffee was also necessary to stay awake when I worked nights at the Abita and Shipyard breweries. Drinking coffee at midnight can be discombobulating at best. 

For most self-proclaimed coffee drinkers that I’ve met, the brewed beverage is like a lifelong companion to encourage you when you’re tired, hungover, or listless. It is also there among friends when you gather for brunch or when you’re a house guest. It can be a mutual friend that crossovers effortlessly the social roadblocks and boundaries we arbitrarily set for ourselves. It’s a common denominator among economic, racial, regional, or whatever boundaries. Coffee also can be there to help rekindle a friendship and even help atone or apologize to save a friendship.

Granted, it is a drug. Anything with an addictive nature is. Don’t most “drugs” start as medicines? Like any medicine, too much can be harsh one the body, if not detrimental. Regardless, it has a healing effect, which might be completely mental or socially constructed. But, hell, what isn’t for us at this point?

Coffee is a staple in many places as a cultural commodity. Sure, I’ve been to places where people view coffee as a mode to get here or there, but a community’s coffee culture can tell a lot about its identity and what it values. For New Orleanians, it’s not just a cup to get them up after a fun night. It’s a representation of local pride. New Orleans has always been inherently resistent to being fully “Americanized.” It even has its own style that is unique to the city such as chicory coffee, which is much more rich and strong (flavorwise) then most coffee. Most folks eventually get their grinds-water ratio down to a science. Well, as with just about everything, New Orleans marches (or should I say second lines) to the beat of their own tune. Once when I returned home from New Mexico, I made a pot at my parents’ house with the ratio I would do with whatever generic coffee a poor grad student could afford. What resulted was a potion so potent and acril that it could have been born from the alchemist mania in days of yore, not in a small kitchen in Metairie. 

Coffee became engrained into the city’s culture, being one of the first ports to receive coffee beans from the Carribean or South America. Chicory coffee took hold out of necessity, however. According to K. Annabelle Smith of Smithsonian Magazine, “During the American Civil War, Louisianians looked to adding chicory root to their coffee when Union naval blockades cut off the port of New Orleans. With shipments coming to a halt, desperate New Orleanians looking for their coffee fix began mixing things with coffee to stretch out the supply.” In Sinking Dixie, coffee is very limited too for locals returning to the blighted areas. Huey tries to stretch the supply by mixing tree bark in the grounds just as New Orleanians turned to chicory in the first place. I don’t imagine that the characters would voluntarily drink tree-bark coffee, much less make it a tradition. I did want to show the creative flexibility that the city’s residents possess to continue enjoying the finer things in life.

Cafe au lait which is half chicory coffee and half piping HOT milk. When you think coffee couldn’t get any hotter, cafe au lait is like java lava. I remember once scolding my tongue and the roof of my mouth so that I couldn’t taste anything until the next morning. But, cafe au lait is not just a drink, it’s an experience. Anyone who’s been to New Orleans knows that beignets are the thing to get, especially at the iconic Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter where patrons sit in a covered patio catty corner from Jackson Square, viewing the city bustling along N. Peters and Decatur. Well at least, they should. In reality, the line gets so long by midmorning, the eating patrons see a wall of impatient, aspiring patrons. It wasn’t always like that. When I was much younger, a table was usually available with little wait, if at all. It never fails to amaze me that a place, which has (well, at least it did then) only one food item (beignets) and four beverages (cafe au lait, water, orange juice, and milk) on the menu, could draw such a large crowd willing to wait in the hot sun for quite possibly the most limited menu in a city that prides itself on diverse cuisine. It is an authentic New Orleans experience; however, I can’t help but think it is ironic.

Morning Call, when it was in City Park, was one of my favorite spots for beignets. Spacious outside seating, live oaks and the Peristyle nearby, and much easier parking options. It is actually a Cafe Du Monde now, and it is still on my list when we travel back to the city.

The coffee culture in New Orleans goes deeper than just chicory, since not every coffee shop exclusively sells chicory coffee or cafe au lait. Regardless, the coffee scene there is a representation of how much the city wants to remain local and funky. There are a few of the big national chains scattered about the cityscape, but eclectic local shops make up the caffeinated bloodstream fueling that beat on the street: Cafe Envie, Rue De La Course, Cafe Rose Nicaud, Mojo, Neutral Ground Coffee House, Fair Grinds, and Lakeview Brew to name a few. Even the local chains such as PJ’s and CC’s may not be as funky, but still exude a homey, local feel. Other notable shops just outside of the city limits include Royal Blend (Old Metairie, though sadly the one in the French Quarter closed down), Common Grounds (Gretna, where actually the character of Huey was created), Kona Coffee (Mandeville), Abita Roasting Company (Madisonville and Covington), and St. John’s Coffeehouse (Downtown Covington).

This coffee identity was worth capturing in Sinking Dixie. How could I not? Heck, I spent time writing the book in all of the places that I listed above at some point. The focus on coffee as cultural identity is emphasized, however, in Mira’s narrative, as it shows the vicious competition in where big corporations have tried (and are always trying) to squash the local folks. In the book, a Boston-based corporate giant, Greylock’s, seeks to capitalize on the city’s “Refounding” and establish dominance early in the recovery. Mira eventually learns that Greylock’s buys out her favorite quirky coffeehouse, Toddy’s BuzzBar, and plan to bulldoze the building to establish an employee parking lot. Mira even meets with the regional manager in hopes to circumnavigate the infuriatingly bureaucratic  city permitting process for her St. Joseph’s Altar event. As she waits for her meeting with the executive, she buys a coffee, but the menu is confusing because the word “coffee” is only in the item “coffee cake.” Furthermore, she must pay extra for black coffee since everything is already pre-made and flavored. Mira overhears a conversation between two men talking about the importance of the local community. One man says, “I mean, the only way to save this city is to buy local, support local businesses. If we don’t we lose everything” (249). Thinking it ironic that they would say that in a corporate chain coffee house and not a local one, she interjects and suggests that they go to Toddy’s BuzzBar instead of Greylock’s. The men seem annoyed and mildly offended at her request, saying that his oddly orange cup of joe is still his “ol’ standby.” I had a very similar interaction with two men at a Starbucks in Santa Fe, NM. At this particular location, you can see two other Starbuck’s in the distance. I recommended my “ol’ standby” local coffee shop, Tribes, and they dismissed me immediately. How dare I suggest keeping it local, when they, in fact, weren’t. To be clear, the times when I find myself in a corporate coffee chain, I don’t give unsolicited advice about going to a local competitor. However, I thought that maybe they didn’t know about it, and they repaid me not in kind. That’s fair, I guess. I don’t take unsolicited advice kindly either, especially for something mundane like coffee choices. To be further clear, I’m not saying patronage to large corporate chains should be avoided at all costs, but maybe don’t gush publicly about how you “keep it local” when you’re not sitting in a locally-owned cafe. Chances are, there’s probably a more local option up the street.This development in the novel was also born from many failed attempts by corporations to change the coffee paradigm. I remember at some point in the late 90s or early 2000s that businesses attempted to establish themselves in prominent spaces like Jackson Square, presumably to starve out the iconic Cafe Du Monde. This, I thought, could mark the beginning of the end of New Orleans culture if that happened. I said to myself that I would protest outside with a sign saying, “drink local.” They never really established themselves, but you now see the fumes of the fire that led me to write the novel in the first place. 

If coffee is a feature that marks the end of a culture, it can also mark the beginning. As Ridge writes in the prologue of Sinking Dixie, “There is little difference between the ‘beginning’ and the ‘end’ of anything. It’s just perspective. You can tell a lot about people by whether they think something has either begun or ended” (3). I think that’s true with coffee culture as well. Granted, coffee is everywhere, so a new eclectic coffee shop doesn’t introduce coffee to a town. But, it does provide an excellent place for conversation, for productivity, for growth. I find one of the first things that edges a struggling historic district toward revitalization is a quality coffee shop. A quality coffee shop exudes an organic experience and connection within the town. The coffeehouse can almost be the initial draw. Forage Market (Lewiston, ME), Cafe Nomad (Norway, ME), The Little Dog (Brunswick, ME), St. John’s Coffeehouse (Covington, LA), and Traveler’s Cafe (Las Vegas, NM—yes, New Mexico. It existed long before Las Vegas, Nevada, y’all). For smaller towns or neighborhoods, these places are more than just a place to buy a cup of joe. They are symbols of who they are or who they want to be. Symbols of what they value, from the pictures on the wall to the source of their ingredients. Symbols of how discourse can change the course of history. Modern-day Saxon mead halls if you will, minus the mead (and the blood and guts) of course. Humans since have concocted other elixirs like coffee to fuel our “dream state,” resulting in someone writing a chapter of a novel or creating a business plan or collaborating on a community initiative as opposed to swinging swords and exchanging appendages for honor.  Hyperbole? Absolutely. Maybe the caffeine is kicking in. But, what better place to help people make sense of themselves and who they are, then a neighborhood coffee house. 

But, why spend so much time writing a blog about coffee? It’s because, to my dismay, drinking coffee is not agreeing with my body anymore. It’s not an allergy, but perhaps an intolerance. I can probably drink one or two cups per week without discomfort, but dear god not daily anymore. As a result I am embracing the tea culture that seems to be under the radar for many red-blooded Americans. Luckily, the world of tea is endless and eternal, and I am enjoying it immensely. So, perhaps this is the time when my heavenly affliction to the roasted bean ends and when my embrace of the fermented leaf begins? If so, then I’ll be weaning myself off of the sublime enhancement of coffee. In grad school at New Mexico Highlands University, I realized that my excessive coffee consumption might have a correlation with my increasing blood pressure. I hadn’t yet developed stomach discomfort, but I understood that my coffee days were limited. I wrote in a class that “a world without coffee is cold and sleepy.” I stand by that. Even hot tea doesn’t give me that “click” between the temples sometimes.

So, I must reside myself to writing this blog post as if a lifelong friend has either passed away or become estranged. The next time you sit down and savor a hot cup of coffee, regardless of where you do it, say hello for me.

Works Cited:

Breerwood, J.G. Sinking Dixie. Maine Authors Publishing: Thomaston, ME. 2020.

Smith, K. Annabelle. “The History of the Chicory Coffee Mix that New Orleans Made Its Own.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 5, 2014.