There are some things that you find out about New Orleans only once you live here … you don’t go grocery shopping, you make groceries; a hickey is a bump on the head; the median in the street, any street, is called the neutral ground; you will be called baby by just about everyone, from the cashier at the grocery story, to your cab driver, to the older lady waiting with you at the bus stop … and you’ll begin to like it; it’s crawfish, not crayfish; Cajun and Creole are not the same thing; it’s new OR-linz, not new Or-leens; though it might seem that Summer reigns supreme, there are indeed four seasons; Mardi Gras is a marathon not a race; and red beans and rice is the traditional Monday supper, and there’s a reason why that is.
A couple of months ago, I was introduced to “red beans,” as it is simply called, by a Thursday night text from a friend asking, “Hey, do you want to be my plus one at red beans next week?” She assumed that I knew what she meant. I didn’t, but I said yes anyway. On the following Monday evening we drove to my inaugural red beans, and walked up the steps of a brightly colored yellow shotgun house at a few minutes before 7pm. Our host welcomed us with a smile, a hug, and an invitation to serve ourselves from the bar and the fridge. Turns out that red beans started at 7:30pm not 7pm, and in New Orleans that meant we were an hour early and had caught him mid prep, but it also meant that we were starting our evening in my favorite room of any home, the kitchen. We poured ourselves each a glass of wine and firmly got in his way as he expertly maneuvered around us, creating a meal in the perfected dance of someone who had done this many times before … filling up the rice cooker with brown rice, pouring buttermilk to make his grandfather's cornbread in his grandmother's cast iron skillets, chopping up green onions, and putting the finishing touches on a simmering mixture of red beans into which Andouille sausage, and the holy trinity of celery, bell pepper, and onions had been added along with some other seasonings … and all the while chatting, laughing, drinking, and schooling me on the red beans tradition.
Red beans was originally just a matter of convenience. In the days before washing machines, Monday was traditionally wash day, and it became necessary to create a wash day supper that wouldn’t require much attention while the women were busy scrubbing clothes, which then had to be wrung and rinsed by hand then hung to dry. Red beans and rice fit the bill. The leftover ham bone from Sunday’s elaborate dinner was added to flavor the red beans, which fulfilled the need for an easy dish that could simmer slowly all day then be served over rice. Nowadays, though Mondays may no longer be wash days, and hams may not be served every Sunday night, the tradition is still deeply embedded in New Orleans lore.
At about 7:40pm the guests began to stream in. Not too many. His dining room table only seats twelve . Some people knew each other, some didn’t. Introductions were made, hugs and hellos were exchanged, wine bottles were opened, cocktails were created, cell phones were put away, questions were asked, conversations were started, and friends were made. The meal itself was simple. There were none of the extraneous frills of a dinner party, or the usual suspects like chips and dips, or cheeses with a variety of crackers. No olives or nuts. And none of those were missed. There was simply, as it should be, a pot of red beans, a pot of rice, and a couple skillets of cornbread. And it was perfect.
When dinner ended, I left red beans with the aroma of the main event still wrapped around me. It had settled in, as if to say, “you’re here now, you’re one of us and this will be your tradition too, so get yourself a bowl, pile it up high, grab the Crystal hot sauce, and sit down with us. You’re family.” A wonderful evening, with amazing people, in a magical city, filled with timeless traditions. No requirements, no agenda. That is red beans.
Red Beans and Rice
- 1 1/2 pound dried red beans (preferably New Olreans Camelia brand)
- 1 pound Andouille sausage, sliced 1/2-inch thick and cut into quarters (smoked sausage can also be used)
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 medium onions, finely diced
- 1 large rib celery, finely diced
- 1 medium green bell pepper, chopped
- 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 teaspoons dried basil
- 3/4 teaspoon rubbed sage
- 1 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1 bunch green onions, chopped
- Cooked white long grain rice for serving
- In a large bowl, cover beans in water and soak for at least 4 hours or overnight. (Water should cover beans by at least an inch.)
- In a large, heavy pot, brown sausage in 1 tablespoon of oil until slightly crisp. Add remaining oil, then the garlic and onions. Sauté over medium heat until onions become transparent and limp. Add celery and bell pepper and sauté for 5 minutes.
- Pour soaked beans and water into the pot and bring to a simmer. Add black pepper, cayenne, salt and all herbs except parsley.
- Cook until beans are softened, about 11/2 to 2 hours. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Fifteen minutes before serving, remove 1 cup of beans to a bowl and, using a fork, mash them and stir back into the pot to enhance the creamy texture of the dish. Add parsley and green onions. Simmer about 15 minutes, taste and adjust seasoning, and add up to 1 cup more water if beans seem too thick. Then serve over white long-grain rice.
Adapted from Pableaux Johnson