I grew up in a family where it was tradition for my parents to eat red beans and rice every Monday. This is a tradition of New Orleans, where my parents are from. The meat left over from Sunday’s dinner was thrown in a pot of red beans and set to simmer for hours for dinner Monday evening. My mother, upon moving north to Chicago — where she worked first as a high school gym teacher and then a dean of students – brought her food traditions with her. While my brother and I may not have had red beans and rice every Monday, it was in the rotation of our meals enough that it became a staple of my diet, my palate, and eventually my cooking repertoire.
When I left Chicago at 18 to attend Florida State University in Tallahassee, I distinctly remember craving red beans and rice on fried chicken day in my dorm’s cafeteria. However, that wasn’t the side the cooks prepared, and I only had a microwave in my room, which lent itself to reheating fast-food leftovers or warming a bowl of chicken-flavored ramen. I was desperate for a familiar meal, and my grandmother obliged. She sent me a few cans of Blue Runner red beans in the mail; the closest, she said, I could get to what tasted like homemade beans. Upon receiving my gift, I immediately took the bus to the grocery store and picked up some Minute Rice and turkey smoked sausage I could heat in the microwave. With my ingredients stocked in my room, all I had to do was bide my time until the next fried chicken day. When it came around weeks later, I scurried out of the café, ran up to my room on the fourth floor, and got to work. Rice, beans, and meat were all warmed in the microwave, I carried it down to the café, got in line, and heaped a crispy, fried leg and a thigh on my plate, went to the table where my roommate sat, and ate. The first bite was home. I savored it on my tongue. Even though I was far away from my mother and my grandmother, I had them — albeit underseasoned — on my plate.
My love for red beans and rice has never wavered. I doctored the dish in my dorm, I cooked it for the first time on a stove in my college off-campus apartment, and perfected my technique when I moved to Amarillo, Texas. I worked my first news job and met my husband there. The first meal I ever made for him was red beans and rice. In our 10 years together I’ve made them often, not every Monday often, but often enough that I never miss them, I never crave them.
Then one day he said, “All we have is beans and rice?”
“Yes, what’s wrong with that?” I asked.
He calmly responded, “That’s like, poor-people food.”
I was taken aback, completely unaware, and hurt. The dish that reminded me of home, of love, of the comfort of my mother and grandmother (and my husband’s)had been relegated to a dish for the lowborn, the lowbrow, the impoverished. He explained that beans and rice – no matter how perfectly seasoned, filling, and flavorful – were no different than pork and beans, or beans and weenies. These were dishes he sometimes had no choice but to swallow and stomach in his youth because hunger is a beast that knows no class. I immediately recognized the contrast between my tradition and a socio-economic tragedy I did not identify with.
In a New York Times review of the 2007 cookbook, Beans: A History by Ken Albala, Southern Foodways Alliance executive director John T. Edge echoes the sentiment. Beans red and otherwise, he says, carry a social stigma. Albala writes the stigma began with the ancient Greeks and has lasted into this century.
In the review, Edge writes, “Because beans are cheap to raise and offer a protein payoff that is comparable to meat’s, poor people have traditionally eaten them. The plants that bear beans don’t appeal to the aspirational bourgeoisie. Beans are, in the developed world, markers of a hand-to-mouth lifestyle best left behind.”
This is what my husband implied with his flippant quip that red beans and rice is poor people’s food. I — of the South Side of Chicago, of ’90s crack-house raids, racing police cars, and flashing lights — suppose I should have known this. However, even though some may posit that the block of my youth is the ’hood, inside my home my mother preached education and excellence. We were at the very least “ghetto-adjacent,” or, as some of my friends referred to us then and now, “bougie.” But not too bougie to stop eating red beans and rice. Not too bougie to leave tradition behind in the pursuit of the bland and banal on the upward mobility ladder.
If we were to follow Albala’s advice, to leave behind the dishes, the recipes, and the cultural foodstuffs that have traveled the globe for centuries through voluntary and forced migration patterns we are also abandoning our history.
James Beard Award-winning author Toni Tipton-Martin writes in her new cookbook Jubilee that “blending beans and peas with meat has a multiethnic lineage.” A lineage that goes back to Europe and Africa before being brought to the new world.
Whether it’s red beans and rice, black beans and rice, rice and peas, or any derivative thereof, beans have been sustaining people around the world since the beginning of agrarian society. Cultures from Brazil to Zambia have subsisted on bean dishes for centuries. The fact bean dishes are cheap and filling, to me, is an attractive bonus, not simply a signifier of poverty.
Trademarks of haute cuisine, or high cooking, include elaborate preparation and rich and opulent flavor. These are the very characteristics found in bean dishes. Beans that have cooked for hours, and are flavored with various fresh and dried ingredients, with meat so tender it falls off the bone, have a depth and nuanced flavor profile that rises to meet the definition of haute cuisine, even in the absence of traditional French techniques.
Furthermore, the viral use of crockpots, pressure cookers, and Instagramming delicious meals has led to a resurgence in bean dishes showing up on tables in homes across the country. That and the hyper-exclusive Rancho Gordo bean club, which sends its members boxes of heirloom beans grown on traditional Mexican farms four times a year — and in such great demand the club is currently closed for membership.
So what’s with the stigma?
I believe it’s the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality that has relegated bean dishes to fart jokes, or snide comments of what one can and cannot afford. In a culture of consumerism and materialism, no one wants to be seen as being less than, or not being able to keep up. Why choose to eat red beans and plain rice when you can afford to eat foie gras with saffron rice?
Beans are more than just the knobby legume to turn to in times of need. Good for the body, good for the environment, and good for the economy bean dishes in all of their complex simplicity pack a protein punch, and create a sumptuous feeling of fulfilling wholeness from their rich and creamy broth.
As writer Meghan McCarron describes, “Beans fascinate because of their dual nature; they’re both beautiful and plain, hard and tender, simple and luxurious. … They’re a little magic spell we can still perform, coaxing lushness out of a hard nubbin of a seed with water, a little fat, and time.”
Are bean dishes, and my preferred red beans and rice, easy on the budget? Sure. Is it an easily accessible meal for people subsisting in developing countries? Yes. But for me, beans and rice is so much more than the low socioeconomic stigma attached to it in the quest to class-jump. Whether you’re in New Orleans’ ninth ward or the French Quarter, red beans and rice can be found.
The same is true in my family and in my own house. My beginnings in Chicago’s South Side have led me to my present day on the south side of the city of Jacksonville, Florida. The south side here is much different than the one of my rearing. Here I live in suburban sprawl. A house inside a subdivision on a cul de sac is where my husband and I and our family call home. It is markedly different from Jacksonville’s Eastside, where my husband grew up. Our neighborhood now is one indicative of the “all-American dream” sold to carpetbaggers, sojourners, freedom seekers, native migrants, and neighborly immigrants. In our own way we have shed our humble beginnings for more; a higher ladder rung and tax bracket, more socioeconomic power and freedom, and a more well-established place in the capitalist hierarchy. But even with our own social climbing and striving, remnants of our genesis are present all around. That includes the bag of black beans and the two bags of dried red beans sitting on a shelf in our pantry, the pot of red beans and rice I cooked and we ate two weeks ago, or the black-eyed peas I made for us on New Year’s Day.
Bean dishes have traversed the world with people from early civilization until present day as markers of poverty and movement. The unwillingness to remain in one spot, to stay in one place — or one’s place. In that movement, bean dishes have become popular and trendy, and venerated as much as they are stigmatized. But more than anything, for me, they are a fond reminder of home, of family, and of love.
Nikesha Elise Williams is a two-time Emmy award winning news producer and award winning author of four novels. She was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, and attended The Florida State University where she graduated with a B.S. in Communication: Mass Media Studies and Honors English Creative Writing. Nikesha’s debut novel, Four Women, was awarded the 2018 Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Award in the category of Adult Contemporary/Literary Fiction. Four Women, was also recognized by the National Association of Black Journalists as an Outstanding Literary Work. Nikesha is a full time writer and writing coach and has freelanced for several publications. Her fifth novel, Beyond Bourbon Street, centering on the fifteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina will be released this August from NEW Reads Publications. You can find her online at newwrites.com, Facebook.com/NikeshaElise or @Nikesha_Elise on Twitter and Instagram.
(Originally published on The Bitter Southerner)