Uncle Dock was a real talker, and what he didn't know he made up. Once you got him talking he could fill your head full of rather interesting educational material, like the hound dog that lost his tail, and which one of the fishing worms caught the best fish out of the creek. And the ghost water dog that lived down in his well and didn't come out except on Sunday morning when the sun glinted off the water. Where Aunt Bett was dead serious, Uncle Dock was a hoot. And they both drank chicory whenever they could go out and dig up the roots. Me, too as long as my mother didn't know.
Chicory, Cichorium intybus, is a native of Europe. It is a plant that has been around for a very long time, its name could come from the Latin succurrere, which means to run under, because of the depths to which the root grows. It could come from the word ctchorium, which is of Egyptian origin. Arabian physicians called it Chicourey. The Romans ate it as a vegetable or in salads, as mentioned by Horace, Virgil, Ovid and Pliny. It is a very old plant. So it came to our country, brought by explorers no doubt, and during WWII when shipping was disrupted, most US folks drank chicory to replace the coffee they did not have.
Which brings us full circle back to Aunt Bett and Uncle Dock. The war was over of course, but once you become attached to a particular flavor, it is hard to let go of it. Under cultivation the root of chicory becomes large and fleshy with a thick rind. It is used exclusively when roasted and ground for blending with coffee. Aunt Bett never had the convenience of cultivated chicory, and wild chicory has a root that grows all the way to China and beyond. Tough stuff, and very hard to get out of the ground, believe me, I know. But Aunt Bett had a patch growing way back in her garden, and Uncle Dock had a patch growing in his garden, so between the two of them they were kept pretty well supplied in chicory. The problem was, Uncle Dock didn't know what to do with it once he grew it and Aunt Bett did.
I wandered around a lot between my house and Aunt Bett's, and between Aunt Bett's and Uncle Dock's. I didn't have to travel along a main road since paths well traveled connected all the places I frequented in the mountains. And I was the only little girl who lived for miles around so everybody watched out for me. Not that I needed any watching out for, not with that stinking asphidity bag hanging from a string around my neck. "L'il Sis, woncha go talk yore Aunt Bett outta a little ov her ground chic'ry," Uncle Dock would say when his stock got low. "You got any peppermint sticks, Unca Dock?" I could drive a hard bargain. Sure enough, peppermint stick in mouth, I would trudge back to Aunt Bett's. "Aunt Bett, Unca Dock run outta his chic'ry, and needs some more."
"Durn fool, he ain't run out, he's just too lazy to grind up his own. You go back an tell him to send me his own chic'ry and I'll be grindin it up, but tell him I'll just take my pay outten his chic'ry. He ain't fool nuff to think I'd part with any ov my own."
"Uncle Dock, Aunt Bett don't got no more chic'ry, but she says she'll grind up somma yours and you can give her half. I'll take it back to her if you got any more o' them peppermint sticks." So he did, and I did, and Aunt Bett ground up his stash of dried chicory roots, and kept some of it for her own. And every time I was the messenger and the deliverer, I got to test it when it got back to Uncle Dock. He brewed up a potfull and always had a bowl of sugar on the table to sweeten the chicory, and I even took to stirring my cup of chicory with a peppermint stick. Truth be told, Aunt Bett never did have to dig up much of her own chicory, because she could talk Uncle Dock out of it every time. It worked, I got to hear Uncle Dock's stories, and eat peppermint sticks. And Aunt Bett replenished her stash of chicory pretty often. Aunt Bett and Uncle Dock hardly ever spoke to each other, they had me and I could always manage to strike a good bargain with both of them. And my mother never did know.
I grew up and went away to school and found that most people out of the mountains didn't know about chicory, so I had to learn to drink plain coffee which didn't have a kick to it at all. Didn't even taste good with a peppermint stick to stir with. But not so long after college, I met up with a long tall Texan and we got married and traveled back and forth between Kentucky and east Texas pretty often. And I found chicory coffee again. Oh my! New Orleans is just full of it, and Lake Charles, even on into Orange County Texas. Now that is a sure sign that my marriage was just meant to be. He led me right straight back to my chicory coffee. I wasn't about to let go of him.
As much fun as it is to remember Aunt Bett and Uncle Dock, I really need to tell you a little about chicory. It is a wonderful little plant, with a lovely blue flower that blooms from sometime in May all the way through till October. Some people call it succory, some call it coffeeweed, but I only knew it as chicory. When I was very small there was a little catchy tune that my Aunt Ruby taught me to play on her piano. I recently found that little song on a piece of sheet music at a yard sale and just had to have it. I wonder how many of you will remember it. It goes like this: "Chicory chick, cha la cha la, Chica la roma in a bananica, Bolica wolica can't you see, Chicory chick is me?" Credits on the sheet music say: Copyright 1945 by Santly-Joy, Inc. Lyrics by Sylvia Dee. Music by Sidney Lippman. Another sign, it told me I had to tell you all about chicory. I am a firm believer in signs.
Aunt Bett told me that others before us had used chicory for different things, the fresh root is bitter and has a milky juice which is lightly sedative. It was at one time used against pulmonary consumption. Some folks made a decoction of it and used it to cure jaundice, enlarged liver, gout and rheumatism. She said that her grandmother used it also as a laxative for children. Aunt Bett used it for none of these things to my knowledge, and definitely not as a laxative for children. She only used it in her coffee and even alone when she had no coffee. It is bitter, it is rather harsh, and it makes coffee just that much darker, but oh my.....all the memories that come rushing back with that first taste of chicory coffee!
Uncle Dock and Aunt Bett are no longer with us, but I will forever be grateful for the things they taught me. I even got to see the ghost waterdog in Uncle Dock's well one sunny Sunday morning in July. But that's going to have to be another story, another time.
And in case you might be interested, the chicory plant makes a great blue dye. And Aunt Ruby still plays a mean piano!
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Knifobia, PoppySue, Ursula, and daryl for the excellent photography; the photo of my Aunt Ruby and me was taken in the early 40's.