Recently, I was reading “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” by Rebecca West. I picked it up because it’s about Yugoslavia amid the days just before WW2 (yes we Poles remained fascinated), when the author traveled back there for her second time and because its a huuuge book to take along for my many travels. Keeps me off the alcohol wagon going' by in the 3rd or 4th flight hour...
In the book, Yugoslavia (or the land of the Southern Slavs) is shown by West to be so rich in culture and in paradox that it requires storytelling in the extreme to gather and keep its history alive. Hmmmmm....
She does just that by showing the Slav people’s anger at what has been done to their land and to them, by recording their belief of their importance to the world’s history, and by soundly tabulating the sweep of imperialism that washes over these people, one that is so pervasive over the last 700 years that these Slavs are lucky if they have time or the energy to duck before the latest wave of intruders breaks and washes over them.
In doing so, she unleashes a story that Tolstoy might have thrown down in frustration before finishing. Many, many examples are brought forth of the loss of life and culture, none so chilling as the story of the Uskoks and their utter disappearance at the end of the tale. I bow my head.
I saw the parallels to my small, struggling city of New Orleans, and I actually notated the comparisons at every few pages in my book while reading (obsessive multi-tasker that I am), so when West used chicory in coffee as an analogy for the intrusion of unasked for bitterness in life, my mind skipped a beat or two, then circled back and examined that idea.
Because, while balancing the book on my arm, I was having a cup of chicory coffee at that moment (multi-tasking is more than 2 things happening in my definition) while sitting in my torn city with National Guard passing by the window.
Bitterness combined with aromatic morning ritual, yes, why would one do that?
For certainly (putting the pen down, therefore having only 2 things to balance now) there must have been specific reasons that New Orleanians kept to chicory after the shortages of the Civil War passed, why they kept to it even as massive coffee supplies resumed in our port city- and even now, why many residents glorify its use as an authentic experience to this day. Chicory coffee is picked over regular coffee, in coffeehouses, at the markets, in fine restaurants.
Add to that the probable news to you that chicory is a root that grows easily in our subtropical climate, yet in the early 21st century is rarely found growing on farms or in backyards. So, it’s not about necessity or ease of inclusion any longer, and as for strength, well it does crank up a bit, but so would just making the coffee stronger-so why bitterness as a staple ingredient?
I oddly saw a parallel in this choice to maintain a odd regional taste being similar with what the Croats underwent in their refusal to see Belgrade as their capital (as Yugoslavia was born) but instead to insist they were a colonized people under the Serbs and cling fiercely to Zagreb, their “beautiful old city capital”. The tension is highlighted in West's book where an exchange between a Serb who has embraced the Yugoslavian cause (home rule, rather than letting Austrian or Hungarian build their empire on them any longer but (BIIGG But) with Serbs as the leaders) and a moody Croat (one of the Roman Catholic smaller subset, another parallel) who has most decidedly not, accepted the new way, both friends of the author:
“How,” asked Valetta (the Croat) white to the lips, “can we be expected to be loyal if you always treat us like this?”
‘But I am telling you,” grieved Constantine,’ how can we treat you differently until you are loyal?”
So, Rebecca, are you saying that loyalty to a new idea is hard to accept, it seems, without reason to do so?
Chicory in our coffee could be seen as a statement against imperialism sweeping over our land at intervals, with the addition of it seen necessary as a talisman against capitulation. Or, as a way that war-weary but alert post-antebellum citizens lived daily with the realization that keeping the “make do” attitude alive as long as the city was a colony under some far-off rule would be sensible. It seems that with the ensuing years blurring the line between a political statement and plain chosen tradition makes it impossible to know the difference, so chicory has become one of our Zagrebs.
Anyway, we'd better see it as a statement and a choice that gives us uniquenes and therefore should remember to embrace it as our dowry and as part of our (yet) unwritten saga. And the beignets are just lagniappe.