Red Beans & Rice - The Lifeblood of New Orleans by Debra Ann Butler
“This is a one-ass kitchen,” emphasized food writer Pableaux Johnson. “If I need you to move, I’ll tell you to move.” As the narrow galley kitchen began to swelter, Johnson opened the side door, expecting the heat to escape through the screen, but the heat rebelled. After all, the heat is a basic component of the weekly Monday night red beans and rice experience at Johnson’s house. In fact, walk down any street in New Orleans on a Monday night, and you will likely encounter the drifting aromas of sautéing andouille sausage and simmering red beans emerging from most homes and restaurants.
The New Orleans tradition of eating red beans and rice on Monday dates to the days soon after Haitians and African Americans, both slaves and slave owners, arrived in Louisiana. Experts in culture studies believe that red beans and rice entered the Americas as cargo aboard slave ships. Others will tell you that even though red beans and rice are plated together, the way they are served from separate vessels in New Orleans indicates a Cuban background instead. No matter how the ingredients were introduced to Louisiana, the lore surrounding the beginnings of the Monday night ritual remains the same. Mondays were reserved for laundry. Wash day was an arduous process, all done by hand. Dinner was still expected, of course, so cooking a large pot of beans all day allowed the women of the house to focus on washing and hanging laundry up to dry. Typically, a more abundant Sunday feast had been enjoyed the day before, which meant there was a hambone and scraps of meat left over that could be added to the beans and rice meal.
Not only was a red beans and rice supper easily prepared on wash day, but it also provided a substantial amount of nutrition for hardworking families. Because its protein content is derived from plants, the leaner protein helps to build muscle mass while maintaining a healthy weight. The high selenium content in rice helps to protect the body against infections. An added benefit to the beans and rice meal is its high fiber content which aids in digestive health and blood sugar regulation. These fiber levels leave people feeling full and satisfied, and the antioxidants in the food aid in the protection against disease. Considering the physical labor required of slaves and farmworkers, a meal of red beans and rice was a filling and healthy choice.
As time passed, the Creole-style dinner became more than just a meal out of necessity. The dish transitioned into a cherished comfort food among all New Orleanians. In the early 1900s, “Papa” Jack Laine, dubbed the ‘father of white jazz,’ entertained and housed musicians in his three-story home on Chartres Street. While Laine’s band rehearsed and hosted parties on the first floor, Laine’s wife, fondly known as “Mama” Laine, almost always had a large pot of red beans and rice on the stove for the guests whom she referred to as “her boys.”
Another musician, world-renowned Louis Armstrong, was born and raised in New Orleans, and his most loved meal was red beans and rice. When Louis and his wife Lucille were dating, Louis requested that she prepare his favorite supper. Being from up north, Lucille needed to learn how to make the recipe and asked Louis to give her some time to figure it out. A few days later, Lucille invited Louis to meet her parents for dinner. She served them red beans and rice, and Louis decided it was the best he had ever had. The two married in 1942 and were together until Louis died in 1971. You might say Lucille’s red beans and rice sealed the deal and brought the two together. So fond of red beans and rice was Louis that he often signed his personal letters, “Red Beans and Ricely Yours, Louis Armstrong.”
Today’s red beans and rice variation often contains pork, the most common being Andouille sausage, Tasso, ham hocks, or chopped ham. Other versions might use chicken or beef. Typical aromatic ingredients are onions, green pepper, and celery - the Holy Trinity of New Orleans and the base for most creole dishes. Seasonings such as garlic, bay leaves, basil, and red pepper give it a kick. Most cooks will agree that long-grain white rice is the rice of choice and best suited for complimenting the beloved red beans.
As much as New Orleans is known for its gumbos and étouffée, red beans and rice remain the Crescent City classic. While ardent New Orleanians holding tight to tradition will serve red beans and rice at home on Mondays, numerous restaurants all over town offer their own variations of the dish all week long. Some restaurants opt to serve fried chicken alongside their legume and starch creations.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated most of New Orleans in August 2005, homes were lost, and businesses were forced to close. Several well-known New Orleans chefs, unable to serve customers in their shuttered restaurants, began cooking red beans and rice outside their storefronts. Grateful recipients of those hearty meals included first responders, journalists, and the handful of remaining locals as thousands had evacuated the city ahead of the storm.
In keeping with the culture and belief of community in New Orleans, the Krewe of Red Beans was formed in 2009. Starting with only 25 members, the group of creative friends eventually expanded to 450. After painstakingly decorating their clothing and costumes by hand with red beans and rice, krewe members then parade through the streets during Lundi Gras, which falls on Fat Monday, appropriately symbolic of the day of the week most red beans and rice are consumed. But the Krewe of Red Beans do much more than hold a parade. The Krewe raised over three million dollars during COVID. Those funds helped 104 musicians, 23 artists, 33 Mardi Gras Indians, and 67 Second Line and Baby Doll members.
The family-owned Camellia company has been in the New Orleans area for four generations and is the largest supplier of red beans for most of Louisiana. In many New Orleans grocery stores you will likely find only the Camellia brand of Red Kidneys offered for sale. Most New Orleanians swear by the brand as having the best bean quality. Camellia also donates all the beans necessary for the Krewe of Red Beans to decorate their fantastical costumes and accessories, including the outside of a car driven in the parade. This is just another example of the people and businesses of New Orleans supporting one another through their cornerstone food.
And it isn’t just the commercial kitchens, organizations, and local businesses uniting the citizenry of New Orleans. Inside his humble home and from his grandmother’s Formica kitchen table, Pableaux Johnson has been hosting groups of friends on Monday nights for twenty years. Supper is never anything more than red beans and rice and buttery cornbread. Guests are discouraged from bringing anything other than what they want to drink. Seven guests were expected to appear within a half hour of my arrival and Pableaux was running behind in his food preparation. Satisfied with the amount of oil he poured into the pan, Pableaux chopped the onions, green pepper, and celery. “You’re going to see this from start to finish,” he said.
Meticulously slicing the sausage Pableaux expounded, “Most everyone coming tonight has never been here before. There’s never been the same group of people at the table twice.” Johnson believes that Monday nights are the perfect evenings for his gathering of friends. “People aren’t often doing things on Monday nights, so it tends to be free and a good break during the early workweek. It’s something to look forward to,” he said. As guests gathered in the living room, introductions were made, and wine was poured. When the meal was ready, Pableaux announced, “The pot on the left contains sausage, and the pot on the right is meatless for vegetarians.” A single line was formed in the kitchen; everyone casually served themselves, and then headed for the infamous table that Pableaux says “needs to be fed once a week.”
Hours later, as conversations among guests began to wind down, I reached for my phone to check the time. I would soon need to call an Uber for the twenty-minute ride back to my Airbnb. “Deb,” boomed Pableaux. Nearly jumping from my seat at the sound of his stern voice, I saw Pableaux shaking his finger, with a disgruntled look on his face. “We don’t do phones here,” he said. At that moment, I realized that not a single person had glanced at their phone all night – a phenomenon during these days of constant techno-driven distraction. Face-to-face discussions had gone uninterrupted; dinner, drinks, and laughter were savored, and people who started as strangers were now friends – all thanks to a simple culinary tradition.
What began as the solution for an easily prepared meal on wash day during the days of slavery grew into the perfect inexpensive comfort food for feeding gatherings of small and large groups of people. From there red beans and rice found their way onto restaurant menus throughout the city, and today are beautifully symbolic of the Creole culture that defines the foundation of New Orleans. As the infamous New Orleans’ son and musician Louis Armstrong once said, “As for red beans and rice, well, I don’t have to say anything about that. It is my birthmark.”