Chicory was cultivated as early as 5000 years ago by Egyptians as a medicinal plant. Ancient Greeks and Romans used chicory as a vegetable and in salads believing it had benefits for the liver. There are references to it in the writings of Horace, Virgil, Ovid, and Pliny. The wild root may have been used for food, but it is likely that it was a last resort, since it is woody and incredibly bitter. Cultivated roots, (when young and tender) on the other hand, are consumed to this day, particularly in Belgium.
Exactly when the root was first roasted to be used as a coffee substitute is unclear. There are references to the use of wild chicory root as a coffee additive in colonial America like Louisiana. It is known that its use in this form was widespread in France after Napoleon initiated the ‘Continental Blockade’ in 1808, which deprived the French of most of their coffee.
When the blockade was lifted the French continued to use chicory as an additive because they believed it was good for one’s health and improved the flavour of coffee. Chicory use grew with the advent of the Civil war when trade disruptions and blockades disrupted deliveries of coffee. But this was a substitution of necessity, not choice, so when the war ended, chicory use decreased as prosperity improved and coffee became more readily available. Except in New Orleans and parts of Louisiana where its use was a matter of preference not necessity. Of course, chicory use, as an economical additive in coffee is widespread throughout the world. But, in New Orleans, this economic rationale ignores the influence of 19th century French culture on the cuisine, and does nothing to explain the continued preference for coffee and chicory, even when chicory becomes more expensive than many coffees.