As the summer winds towards a close the landscape begins to change a bit. The first hints of drying of the leaves of the corn and soybeans begin to show, and the chicory begins to bloom along the roadsides. The picture here was taken a few miles from home on one of my Sunday rides.
Many years ago, when I first started driving through the countryside to commute to work, I became fascinated with learning what the variety of things I was seeing growing in the ditches were. In this quest I came across the UofI Weed Identification Site - which is honestly the sort of thing that one wouldn't even consider would possibly exist unless one were looking specifically for it.
I've learned a lot about what is around us by using that reference, but discovering that the multitudinous pretty blue flowers coloring the roadsides in the late summer were, in fact, chicory, was one of the most surprising. In most cases my searches would simply involve looking through the pictures and seeing that the items I was pulling had a name - "Oh - so you are lambsquarter. Nice to meet you - now get the hell out of my garden..."
But chicory is different. Here was a discovery that a thing I'd heard the name of for years was actually a thing right nearby, indeed, perhaps under foot. Anyone who is a fan of westerns, or civil war-era fiction, will have heard of chicory. Soldiers or traveling cowboys will be found to be brewing and sharing it while they camp by the roadside. It's one of those tiny references to historical fiction that gives the era being described a different feel and helps put one in the place of the story.
In those stories chicory is being brewed like, and in the place of, coffee. The implication, often, is that the characters in the story are living rough, and so chicory is what they have to work with. This has apparently been a common usage, as the Wikipedia entry illustrates, using chicory in place of coffee, or at least blending it in with coffee to make it go further, in times of scarcity. The Wikipedia entry on the plant illustrates this quite nicely.
That practice of mixing it into coffee still stands, though now by choice and for flavor, something we learned when friends from Louisiana shared coffee with us a few years ago.
The can, sadly, is empty now, but it made for a delightful change of pace, and felt a little like drinking history with each cup.