Red Beans and Rice is one of the iconic foods of New Orleans. It is generally served on Mondays and lore has it that this tradition began as a way of using up the ham bone from Sunday dinner in a dish that required little attention. Because Monday was wash day, a homemaker’s duties would be on her washing and she would not be able to stand at a stove all day; hence her choice of a recipe that practically cooked itself. This dish is such a part of New Orleans, that Louis Armstrong used to sign his letters “Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours.”
Beans have always been a strong presence in Louisianans diets. Long before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans were cultivating a variety of beans including runner beans, lima beans and red beans. The crops of beans, corn and squash, called the Three Sisters, supplied a nutritionally complete diet. When Europeans arrived, they brought their own history of bean consumption, eating garbanzos, lentils and other legumes.
Bean preparation can be very forgiving to a cook who must tend other duties. They are also a way of stretching a small quantity of meat to feed a large number of people. These two qualities made them very appealing to the cooks across the state. Italians, Alsatian Germans, Cajuns and Spaniards all ate beans in their countries of origin and brought a variety of methods of preparing them to Louisiana. Creole recipes often call for ham or pickled pork as the meat, while Cajun recipes would call for andouille sausage or tasso as their meat, reflective of local tastes.
As to red beans popularity with home cooks, one can look at its presence in cookbooks to ascertain its prevalence. It is worth noting that Lafcadio Hearn’s Creole Cook Book, (1885), a book that endeavors to present to the reader “a number of recipes…embracing the entire field of La Cuisine Creole contains only 4 bean recipes, none of them for red beans. However, The Picayune Creole Cookbook (1901) contains seven recipes for red beans alone in a listing of 18 bean recipes. Does this imply that bean consumption rose in those 15 years, or that perhaps Lafcadio Hearn was not a bean fan. Regardless, the recipe for Red Beans and Rice from 1901 would be recognized by any home cook today, though there is no mention of its allowing one to tend her washing and not the bean pot.