How a Creole Classic Warmed the Hearth: Red Beans and Rice
There are some dishes that are emblematic of a culture. Fried chicken is as Southern as kudzu and sweet tea. Lobster defines the food of New England, and chili peppers speak to Southwestern cuisine. There are many others to consider, but red beans and rice, a true Creole classic, means Louisiana country cooking. Like many of the best recipes from simple food, red beans and rice is made up of humble ingredients that, after a slow simmer, are transformed into a sustaining, nourishing bowl of down-home comfort.
When I was 3 years old, my family moved from Georgia to Louisiana, where I spent my elementary school years. My mother didn’t know anyone when our family relocated. Her natural curiosity led her to Junior League cookbooks and she started cooking the local dishes. In effect, she grounded her family in our new home by cooking the local food.
I absolutely love how she used food to become more familiar with our new home; literally, to make us part of our new tribe, our new culture. I strongly believe that food is a major part of everything we do. Everything that we eat is part politics, art, culture and religion. Food defines us, in a way that nothing else can.
It was a very transformative time for me, because I was exposed to Creole and Cajun dishes at an early age. At the time, Cajun and Creole cooking wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is today, and to a little girl from Georgia these dishes seemed to be as exotic as some far-flung global cuisine.
I grew up playing in the bayou behind our subdivision. I learned how to set nets for crawfish by tying a chicken neck in the center of the triangular net, and once the crawfish were cooked, my native neighbors showed my tiny fingers how to shell the tails for the meat — and suck the heads, like a true Cajun. Jambalaya and etouffee became part of our weekly meals. One of our favorite family dishes was savory and satisfying red beans and rice. I swear I think my mouth waters a bit, just thinking about a steaming-hot bowl of that creamy, meaty goodness.
Get the Recipe: Red Beans and Rice
Red beans and rice was originally served on Mondays, using the ham bone left over from Sunday supper. A pot of red beans simmered on the stove all day while the women washed and dried the family’s laundry. Monday washday may be a thing of the past, but red beans and rice is still often served as a lunch or dinner special at many Louisiana restaurants and family homes. I hope you enjoy it in yours.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Georgia-born, French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has cooked lapin Normandie with Julia Child in France, prepared lunch for President Clinton and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. A Southern food authority, she is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, among others. Follow her continuing exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.