Way down yonder in New Orleans, the people are known nationwide for the delicious and soulful cuisine that puts smiles on faces and happiness in bellies. New Orleans is a melting pot of cultures that has contributed to the rich and illustrious culinary traditions of the city. What comes along with the delicious meals that the city is known for is an intriguing history that further explains the culture and social traditions of New Orleans. The city may be known for its gumbos, jambalaya, etouffee’s and po-boys but if there is one dish that truly speaks to the heart and soul of New Orleans it would have to be red beans and rice.
Dare I say it but, red beans to New Orleans cuisine is what jazz is to New Orleans music. Ironically one of the most simple and subtle dishes speaks to both the heart and soul of a city that is otherwise slightly difficult to explain to outsiders. New Orleans might be known as the big easy but life for many is anything but easy. Red beans are a dish that everyone eats, and one of the few foods that you will see prepared both at residents’ homes and at the fanciest white tablecloth restaurants in New Orleans. Its ubiquitousness and how it resonates with New Orleanians of all social spheres speaks to a shameful past. The reason why red beans and rice is commonly shared amongst all people is that the roots of the dish go back to the late 18th century. It is believed by scholars that the food was brought into common consciousness from the enslaved blacks that worked in the urban center of New Orleans. During the Haitian revolution, many slave owning whites fled San Domingue (now Haiti) for New Orleans bringing in tow many enslaved peoples with them. The population of New Orleans boomed in the late 18th century with a large influx of both whites and blacks that found a new home in New Orleans. Beans and rice was a dish commonly eaten among the enslaved people but, as domestic and urban slavery was more common in New Orleans, the dish would make its way on to the table of the white slaveholders becoming a common favorite. Food often cuts across and, in some cases, breaks social barriers, red beans being just one dish in a city that has both a beautiful and ugly history.
It is a New Orleans tradition to cook red beans on Monday, this also goes back to the Haitian roots of the dish. Red beans are commonly prepared on Mondays due to the practice of Monday being laundry day. Enslaved workers needed a meal that could be prepared with minimal attention and effort while domestic chores were being carried out, and this tradition would remain a part of the cultural fabric of New Orleans. Even today, restaurants, cafes and even bars serve red beans and rice on Mondays. Another fact about red beans that many people that are not from New Orleans may not be aware of is that music lounges and dive bars will often serve free red beans and rice on Mondays. This tradition came from a marketing ploy to get patrons to listen to the music and buy drinks, but it was also a way to feed the musicians. In a city where quality music is in abundance, not everyone can make a solid living, bar owners would often cook the beans themselves and pay musicians with a meal if they could not afford to pay the whole band.
Red beans have always been a cheap staple food and with a little bit of seasoning, meat such as ham hocks, smoked sausages and pickled or cured ham, a humble plate of beans could feel like a meal fit for a king. It should come as no surprise why red beans and rice are enjoyed by pretty much everyone in New Orleans and the state of Louisiana in general. It is one of my personal favorite foods and the absolute favorite food of New Orleans prodigal son, Louis Armstrong.
Although Louis Armstrong would make New York his permanent home, he always brought New Orleans with him. The spirit of this is exemplified in his love of red beans and rice, a cherished dish of Louis Armstrong. He loved red beans so much he often signed letters “Red Beans and Ricely Yours”. Louis’ connection to red beans most likely goes back to his childhood. He grew up in extreme poverty yet, his mother was able to afford a pound of red beans and like many mothers in New Orleans, cooked a delicious meal that fed the soul. Louis would often delight at the idea of wrapping up a stretch of touring by returning home to a big plate of red beans prepared by his wife Lucille, to whom he gave his recipe for the dish so that she could perfect it to his liking. Louis and Lucille even shared their recipe for red beans with Freda Deknight; food editor for Ebony magazine. Deknight promoted and elevated African American cuisine and was considered a pioneer for introducing a cookbook to the general public that was geared to a Black audience. Deknight named the Ebony cookbook after a quote from Louis Armstrong speaking on his love of red beans and rice. Louis is quoted “My favorite of all dishes is just plain ham hocks and red beans, Ol’ man season them well! Add the right spices at the right time, and man, you have a date with a dish”. In 1948 Deknight would publish “A Date with a Dish” the Ebony magazine cookbook.
As we are all doing our best to stay safe during the Covid-19 pandemic, I would implore you all to put on a big pot of red beans while you quarantine at home. It is quite easy to make and requires very few ingredients, maybe if you’re feeling inspired, cook Louis and Lucille’s recipe which can be found in the LAHM digital archives. Stay safe, red beans and ricely yours!