Spill the Beans
I was in New Orleans with a mission. It was a particular dish I was after—a childhood favorite—but at each place I stopped, I drew a blank. "It's Sunday, not Monday!" was the common refrain. It wasn't gumbo or jambalaya I was searching for, but beans. Red beans, to be precise.
I was looking for red beans, because I had a hunch that they were, under the hood of all the crawfish etouffee—et cetera—blackened redfish, the real life force of NOLA. This is a bold thought. Especially for a city that has the only intact, historical cuisine in the U.S. So many dishes, so much history. And so many opinions, too. (Including that they should only be eaten on Mondays, like fish on Fridays—apparently because that was traditionally laundry day, and the beans could simmer while the wash was done.) Could beans be the one dish that sums up this place? I needed to get to the bottom of it all.
But first, I needed to eat more beans. I headed to Mr. Ed's Oyster Bar and Fish House, just down the street in the French Quarter. There I met "Juggy," Damian A. Clark Sr. "I had bean juice in my baby bottle," he said right off the bat, laughing. "With a hit of hot sauce in it." The beans here were creamy and decked out with pieces of satisfying andouille sausage. "Rich or poor, I don't care who you are, if you're gonna make red beans you need to use Camellia," Juggy said, referencing the revered 95-year-old maker of dried beans. Camellia is to red beans as Kleenex is to tissues—synonymous. He then pulled me aside and said in an almost inaudible whisper, "Don't quote me on this, but even Popeye's [the fast food Holy Grail of red beans to many] uses Camellia."
He went on to map out a matrix of how to eat red beans. Some people mix them completely with the rice, making a kind of porridge; others crumble cornbread on top. But his preferred method is to add a little bit of each component in a spoon and drizzle hot sauce on top, constructing the perfectly layered bite. The kitchen staff erupted behind him—everyone yelling out their signature eating style—with a few heckling Juggy's method as fussy. Unfazed, he rattled off a couple of his cooking tips: A long overnight soak is a must ("to suck the water in") as is slow-cooking to get the beans creamy ("If a baby can't chew it, it's not red beans"). He was clearly a legume technician and he was certainly proud of his red beans—but not afraid to accept a silver medal. "My mama's are actually the best. The older the soul, the better the food. You know?"
The next day was Monday, but this was no ordinary Monday—it was Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras. I was in the midst of an indescribable bean madness at the Marigny Opera House. All around me were people in ornate costumes, all made of or covered with beans. And the puns! There was "L.L. Bean," a woman decked out in bean-clad fisherman's costume; another was a woman dressed as a stove with a "bean in the oven." My favorite was the "leguminati," complete with a pyramid hat with a bean "seeing eye." Everyone in attendance was part of the Krewe of Red Beans, which parades through the city every Lundi Gras led by a convertible enrobed in red beans. Camellia provides the Krewe with 500 pounds of beans every year to make their costumes and most of them meet weekly all year long to work on their getups together. (Halloween nerds, take note.)
I headed over to Mardi Gras Zone, a one-stop-for-everything supermarket, for a short break from bean mania. Up front, they had a steam table of New Orleans favorites, and of course, there were red beans. I ordered a big bowl and found them delicious, but realized there was something different about them—and, expecting a coin of sausage, fished out a big chunk of carrot. When I asked the chef behind the counter about it, he explained that he's been a vegetarian for over 40 years, and just loves carrots—and the way they balance out the bell pepper in his recipe.
"Carrots in red beans?!?!," Pableaux Johnson, a food writer and native Louisianian, said later that night. "You have to draw a line somewhere and that's it." I was at Pableaux's for his famous Monday night red bean supper, a sort of salon where writers and creative types convene and bond over red beans. He was cooking more beans than usual, as he was getting ready for his Red Beans Roadshow, wherein he holds suppers all over the country in partnership with local chefs and friends to spread the gospel of red beans. His rendition was my favorite so far. Sumptuous and creamy and very spicy. I could have kept downing bowls all night, but the next day was Mardi Gras and I had an appointment with Leah Chase, the Queen of Creole Cooking.
Chase is the owner and chef of the restaurant Dooky Chase in Treme, a pilgrimage the food-obsessed. At 95 years old, I figured if anyone knew the real reason for why red beans are served on Mondays, it would be her. "There was no question what you were having on Monday! Never on another day, no no no," she said immediately. "Washing on Monday was a ceremony back in the day. We boiled the whites (they'd better come out white or the neighbors would talk about it!), we put them in a big black pot on a charcoal furnace—the beans went on the same fire, you had to cook something simple. The kids would get red bean sandwiches on big French bread. My dad used to put pickled onions on his—I still have customers who want that."
Her beans, unsurprisingly, were sublime. And she has a very particular way of making them. "First, I never soak a red bean, never at all. I don't use anything but Camellia (I even ship 'em to my sister in L.A.). I boil them with onions and fresh thyme. Old Creoles used to fry the onions in lard during hog killing. I always add a leftover ham bone, nothing can replace that—the gelatin that comes out gives you that real creaminess. When I was coming up, you made things with what you had; we didn't have money for sausage."
"There was nothing left after Katrina but the recipes," Cheryllyn Branche, a fourth generation New Orleanian who's famous for her red beans, said. "I cook from memory." I was visiting her huge family get together on Napoleon Avenue. There must have been four generations in attendance, most of whom had brought take-home containers because they knew she was cooking. Her pot of red beans were a revelation. They were incredibly silky and rich, almost like gumbo. Because of the deep color and caramelization, I asked if she used a roux. This elicited laughter: The smoothness came from seven(!) different meats. There was mild sausage, smoked turkey neck, andouille, Cajun tasso, pickled tips, hot sausage and seasoning ham. Her trinity—a base of onion, garlic and celery that's sauteed at the beginning of many local dishes—also has red onion, while she adds the garlic in raw, which she believes makes it sweeter. I decided to tell her about the carrot I found in the beans at Mardi Gras Zone. "Whoa. That cook's not from around here!"
After learning so much about red beans, I decided it was time to go to the source: the Camellia bean factory. Allison Hayward Costa, a member of the family who founded the company in the 1920s, met me there. The place was a whirlwind of activity, as huge bags of beans were moved around by forklifts and emptied and sorted by vast networks of chutes, funnels and other high-tech gadgetry. It turns out that there's a good reason why most people use Camellia—you can't get beans this incredible from anyone else. "We've been working with the same farmers for decades," Costa says. "Over the generations, we've perfected a perfect strand of creamy bean with them. Our farmers won't sell to anyone else—that's our secret sauce." While standing next to a pan of beans, I wondered out loud why they all looked so identically perfect. "Oh, you know, we take everything further," Costa say with a smile. "There's USDA Grade A, but that's not good enough for us to accept. We use what we call "The Hayward Standard," started by my great-grandfather." That pursuit of perfection has paid off, as they sell more red beans than any company in the U.S.
As my journey was coming to an end, I decided to pay a visit to my friend Skip Lomax Jr., a cook at Mr. B's Bistro, and an oracle for all things pertaining to New Orleans food. "I could eat red beans every day!" Skip said enthusiastically, who goes on to mention that when he started at Mr. B's in 1981, they didn't serve red beans. When beans finally ended up on the menu, "They were doing all sort of crazy stuff to those beans, adding basil and sugar. For over a month, no one was finishing them at the table." Soon thereafter, Skip made real red beans for staff meal, and after a manager had a taste, red bean duty fell under his watch. They've been insanely popular every since.
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