Sep 5, 201209:36 AM
Dispatches from a New Orleans Newcomer
The Red Beans and Rice Ritual
My significant other, Chris, and I decided to make red beans and rice on Labor Day, the Monday after Hurricane Isaac. If you’re reading this as a longtime New Orleans resident, you might think this news is not worthy of a blog post. As a new resident to the city, however, this event was monumental; I was becoming a New Orleanian.
As I was getting ready to move here from Missouri a month ago, I was told that New Orleans is unlike any other place in the world, especially in the U.S. While I have enjoyed it so far—except for you, Hurricane Isaac—there is one aspect I have found particularly weird: red beans and rice on Mondays.
Never have I lived in a city that assigns a meal to a specific day like New Orleans does with red beans and rice on Mondays. I’ve lived in a lot of other places with food traditions, but they were all associated with special events, not a usual day of the week. There were the ice cream trips after a beach day in Hampton, N.H.; the beer at college tailgates in Bloomington, Ind.; and the pastry after a test while studying abroad in Paris. But even these events were my traditions, not citywide. While some enjoy Taco Tuesdays or Friday night pizza, those are family traditions. New Orleans is the first place I've seen with citizens that participate in a citywide food tradition 52 times a year.
It's widely understood as a city custom. It's part of restaurant marketing. It's on T-shirts. It's been said that Louis Armstrong used to sign autographs “Red Beans & Ricely Yours.” The tradition is beyond a personal decision or a family favorite; it's part of New Orleans' identity.
Since I have been wondering about this weekly habit since I moved here, I started to do a little digging. My investigation started as a conversation with my boyfriend about the food and the day. Chris happens to work at a local university with a lot of Ph.D.-holding professors—they tend to know things—so he asked around.
“Supposedly it has something to do with laundry,” Chris told me one day after his poll of the office. “Women used to do the laundry and make red beans and rice because it was an easy meal.” That made sense to me, but I wanted to know more. As a child of the computer generation, I turned to Google.
It wasn’t hard to find my answer. According to a blog post from National Geographic, the laundry story is correct. Blogger Caroline Gerdes writes:
Before washing machines, women in New Orleans would do laundry by hand — using a crank and wringer, sometimes boiling the clothes. And on laundry day, they needed to prepare a dinner that didn’t need a lot of TLC. Thus the tradition of making red beans on washday, Monday. My aunt once described the facility of cooking the soft, spicy beans by explaining that they cook themselves when left on a simmer.
I found similar information as I read more about the tradition. Even NewOrleansOnline.com, the official tourism site of New Orleans, features a page dedicated to the history of red beans and rice. The page includes this nugget of info, plus a recipe:
Mondays used to be the traditional “wash day” of the week. Traditionally, women of the house would put on a pot of red beans to cook all day while they tended to the laundry, since the meal required little hands-on attention. The beans were largely seasoned by the leftover hambone from the previous night’s dinner.
After completing my mini research project, I felt like a true New Orleanian after having red beans and rice for dinner on Monday. As I took my first bite, I felt satisfied that I might finally be adapting to the New Orleans way of life. The power had just been restored from my first New Orleans hurricane, and there I was eating the Monday staple that had seemed so foreign to me when I first arrived in the Crescent City.
After Monday’s dinner, it appears that New Orleans and its red beans and rice are starting to grow on me. While I don’t like the city’s humidity and hurricanes, I can definitely deal with the city’s culinary choices. My mom always told me to “bloom where you’re planted.” I know I can do that now as long as there’s red beans and rice next Monday.