The New Orleans Tradition Behind Red Beans And Rice

From an ancient belief in a connection between red beans and fertility to mythological assertions that red beans will keep evil spirits at bay to myriad interpretations of the symbolism in the 19th-century fairy tale "Jack and the Beanstalk," humans the world over have long held beans in high, bordering on sacred, regard. The New Orleans tradition of eating red beans and rice on Mondays, though, is a bit more mundane. Turns out the custom stems more from down-to-earth practicality than otherworldly influence. It all comes down to this: The bone and any leftovers from the traditional Sunday ham dinner became the flavor base for Monday night red beans and rice. With the ham bone doing double duty, homemakers were free to turn their attention to other household chores — and Monday was laundry day.

There were other practical considerations, too. For instance, the ham bone wasn't the only element working overtime. Remember, this tradition started long before electricity was a widespread convenience. The hot coals homemakers used to heat the wash water were also just right for simmering a slow-cooked meal like red beans and rice, so at the end of the day, the laundry was done and dinner was ready. Those once-practical concerns may no longer be relevant, but the tradition endures.

Red beans or bust

The tradition of eating red beans and rice on Mondays is so rooted in New Orleans culinary culture that singer and songwriter Johnette Downing immortalized the dish in a 1998 children's song titled, "Today is Monday in Louisianna," singing, "Today is Monday, today is Monday, Monday red beans." Downing's folk song suggests the nostalgic connection between Mondays and the iconic dish is a statewide tradition. That wasn't always the case. Acclaimed chef, restaurateur, and author Paul Prudhomme grew up in Opelousas, Louisiana just 30 miles northwest of New Orleans, but the late chef so indelibly associated with the Crescent City food scene wasn't even aware of the local significance of red beans and rice until he moved to the Big Easy in the 1970s.

No one is claiming red beans and rice is a New Orleans creation. Eating the dish on Mondays is a local tradition, but its origins are rooted in the cultural dynamics that shaped the city's food scene over the course of centuries; styles and customs introduced from Africa, Spain, and France. And while family recipes passed through generations may incorporate secret ingredients and tweaks, there's no messing around when it comes to the bean of choice. Take it from someone who knows. "Every now and then in grade school, the lunchroom staff would try to pass off navy beans on Monday," Downing told Eric Olsson of the Red Beans and Eric blog. "No offense to navy beans, but it is not tradition."