Cajun Coffee

My Rouses Everyday, May/June 2017

Every morning of my childhood, I awoke to the aroma of coffee brewing. More often than not, it was my mother who heated up the kettle and spooned dark roast, pure coffee into her white enamelware French drip coffeepot.

When the kettle whistled, announcing that the water was boiling, she patiently spooned the hot water into the top of the pot, waiting as the water slowly seeped through the coffee grounds. It required the patience of Job.

The first pot was consumed in a plain white demitasse (a small coffee cup) by Mama and Papa in the quiet of the kitchen, then the procedure was repeated before my siblings and I were roused from our beds. Our demitasse of coffee had a demitasse coffee spoonful of raw sugar (from a nearby sugar mill) and a drizzle of warmed, canned Carnation® brand evaporated milk.

There were times when coffee milk (café au lait) was consumed. Again, only pure dark roast coffee (no chicory) was combined with hot milk or cream to pour over a bowl of couche-couche (fried cornmeal). Of course, it was always a treat to indulge in beignets and café au lait at Café de Monde when we visited New Orleans, although I found the coffee with chicory a bit bitter for my taste.

We eventually did graduate to a larger coffeepot, which allowed Mama to brew only one pot per day, but we continued to have demitasse portions. There was nary a coffee mug to be found in Mama’s cabinets. The coffee was strong (almost akin to espresso), and Mama alleged that no one could have an entire mug of the syrupy brew, else their hair would stand on end. We never had any kind of electric coffeepot in the house.

According to the authors (of which I am one) of Stir the Pot: the History of Cajun Cuisine, “Coffee is one of the foundations of traditional Cajun foodways.” Anyone who came for a visit was offered a demitasse of coffee. In fact, I remember Mama having a small tray on the counter that was always set with two or three of the plain white demitasse cups, a small sugar bowl and a creamer ready for service at any time.

Of course, Mama also had a cabinet filled with her prized collection of dainty porcelain demitasse cups and saucers, crystal sugar bowls, creamers and a collection of demitasse spoons she had amassed from her travels. These were put to use when the occasion arose to serve “high coffee” to company (not for the immediate family). For such an event, coffee was made in the kitchen but served to the guests in the living room. A tray set with the best demitasse cups and saucers was brought to the guests, sometimes by a daughter thrust into service. (I had to learn how to balance these trays before I was 10 years old.) Sometimes, a piece of cake or a slice of sweet dough pie was offered as well.

Mama and her circle of friends had coffee parties (sometimes referred to as tea parties, although I never saw any kind of tea being served) to honor a bride-to-be, a debutante or a Carnival queen. For these, they really put on a show. Aunt Eva’s sterling silver coffee service (coffeepot, creamer, sugar bowl and tray) would be put into use. Dainty finger sandwiches, small sugar cookies (ti gateau sec) and tassies (miniature pecan pies) were passed around on small trays by “tea girls,” who usually were the “tweenage” children of the hostesses. (I was pressed into this service too many times to count.)

Once or twice a week, these ladies gathered for informal, mid-afternoon coffee chitchats in the kitchen. I often helped Mama with this service and loved hearing the local gossip. Conversation was usually about recent events, family and the weather. Many times, coffee time lingered into the cocktail hour, when Papa arrived home and the ladies’ husbands came to join their spouses for highballs.

In the book Stir the Pot, it is noted that “During the early twentieth century, several coffee companies offered prepackaged processed coffee to the Cajun community in south Louisiana. Baton Rouge-based Community Coffee, founded in 1919, served the eastern fringes of Cajun country until the company expanded its distribution network across the Atchafalaya Basin.” Other coffee brands such as Creole Belle and Mello Joy also offered pre-roasted coffee grounds to customers in what is now the Acadiana region. Mello Joy was founded in 1936 by brothers Louis and Will Begnaud, who worked for the Grimmer Coffee Company, makers of Creole Belle. It was brewed for years before a hiatus in 1976, then revived in 2000.

Of course, now there are Community Coffee’s CC’s, New Orleans-based PJ’s, Starbucks and independent coffeehouses just about everywhere!

Coffee drinking has continued to be a very social occurrence, but I cringe when I see customers ordering all sorts of flavored coffees in cups as big as Mama’s coffeepot (which I still have). There are times when I have an envie (a strong desire) for a cup of coffee with friends. When that happens, I pull out Mama’s precious demitasses and saucers, and a few of her silver demitasse spoons, as well as her crystal creamer and sugar bowl, and make some sugar cookies before calling my girl pals to join me “for coffee.”