New Orleans received its first shipment of coffee beans from the Caribbean sometime during the 1700’s. Coffee was publicly served in coffeehouses, or “exchanges,” which were really taverns. Here, local businessmen could meet and do business over a cup of java, often spiked with brandy or some other liquor. The popularity of these establishments grew until, by the late 1850s, the city directory of New Orleans listed over 500 coffeehouses.
Coffee was crucial in the city’s economic growth. By the 1840s, the port was the fourth largest in the world and the second largest importer of coffee in the United States . In 1846, J.S. Duke noted in DeBows Commercial Review “New Orleans is destined, unquestionably to become the great coffee mart of the United States.” Due to European trade policies, New Orleans initially had difficulty breaking into the coffee trade. However, at the outbreak of World War I, while Europe’s ships were busy at battle, the Delta Steamboat Company was formed. Known as “The Coffee Line,” it eventually became one of the largest shippers of coffee in the world.
The coffee-drinking habits of Louisianans have always set them apart from the rest of the nation “In the early 1800’s,” author Joe Taylor notes “in Louisiana the beans were roasted longer than elsewhere, and dark roast coffee astounded outsiders.” New Orleanians drink three to four cups of coffee daily, twice the national average.
Louisianians often mix their coffee with chicory. Chicory is the root of the Belgian endive. The root is chopped, dried, roasted and then ground. Although it has the reputation of being bitter, when chicory is prepared properly, it is actually sweet. As a coffee substitute it was used in France after Napoleon initiated the 'Continental Blockade' in 1808, which deprived the French of most of their coffee. Even after the blockade was lifted, the French continued to add it to their coffee, believing in its health benefits. This tradition apparently carried over into the French settlers here in New Orleans, even though the climate is not conducive to its growing here. The use of chicory as a means of stretching the scarce supply of coffee or replacing it altogether occurred throughout the South, especially during the Civil War. But it was only New Orleanians that continued its use, even when the price of chicory exceeds that of coffee. This habit of cutting coffee with chicory proved useful when coffee was once again rationed during World War II.