Forgotten herb: chicory

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Imagine it is April 24, 1862.

You live in New Orleans, Louisiana, and set out on a beautiful Thursday morning to go pick up a copy of the local newspaper.

If you are a lover of fine hot beverages, you were about to have a really disappointing day. In fact, the day’s headlines likely made you think, “Oh darlin, we may never taste coffee again.” (You have to read it with a Southern accent.)

Oh well, you knew this day would come. There were Union blockades of the shores all around the south. You heard the bombs and gunfire, but on that day in April, the boys in blue were more than near your shoreline. They had captured the city, and no more coffee was getting through those lines.

If you’re an optimist, your second thought would be, “I’m going to find an alternative.”

Allow me to reintroduce you to chicory.

Unlike some of the less-invasive forgotten herbs, you’ve probably been around chicory your whole life without really noticing it. Do these little blue flowers look familiar?

ChicFull.JPG

Chicory is not native to the US. If you lived in Europe or with someone who did, you might already know all about using chicory in coffee. One of my French roommates absolutely craved it. It was in her blood as the French have a long history with chicory coffee, too. They also experienced a war-time blockade that pushed them toward the need for an alternative hot beverage.

To be fair, there are other varieties of chicory, most of which you might have know as different types of endive or Italian dandelions. Their roots can be roasted into coffee alternatives as well.

Even though Europeans introduced chicory seeds to the US during colonial times, the nation-wide spreading of the wildflower is a direct result of the American Civil War negatively affecting the availability of tea and coffee in the divided country.

Back in the day, the plant was widely cultivated in private gardens. When it was mature, the root was dug up, roasted and ground into a brewed hot drink, an alternative to coffee. It’s not really a thing of the past. Some Americans still prefer the flavor of coffee blended with roasted chicory root. Je te regard…I’m looking at you, Café du Monde.

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Chicory is not a wildflower at all. It’s an escaped prisoner. Much like my experience cultivating chives, chicory was just not well-behaved. It busted out of our ancestors’ garden centuries ago and now stretches its roots along highways and roadsides in pretty much every city in the US.

One more thing, that might just split the audience here…chicory is caffeine free.

Chicory wildflower blue flower blooms

I hope you enjoy these articles.

You can read about more forgotten herbs in the on-going series.

5 thoughts on “Forgotten herb: chicory

    1. Oh that’s pretty cool though. A real connection to what life was like for our ancestors. There must be a lot of pressure to get the roasting just right…10 minutes overdone and your whole effort could be wasted!

      1. I followed instructions that were in a book that I’ve long since forgotten the title of, but the roots were forgiving if I remember correctly and didn’t burn easily.
        The hardest part was grinding them by hand. This was before food processors so it was done by mortar and pestle. We could have used a meat grinder but we didn’t have one.

  1. You have just identified a plant I didn’t recognise on my holiday in France this year! Thank you! I remember drinking chicory coffee years ago and finding it quite pleasant.

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