It was a humid morning in early June of 2013. Mallory had just accepted her position at Tulane and we’d made a last-minute trip to New Orleans to look for apartments. Moving is intimidating under normal circumstances, but we were really in the thick of it. Just the week before we’d driven from Virginia to Albany, making a quick pit stop in Princeton so Mallory could submit the final draft of her dissertation. We weren’t eager to travel after that, but our wedding was only four weeks away and there was no other time we’d be able to make it down.
So there we were, nervously but excitedly telling the woman at the rental car desk that we were moving here for work. “You’re gonna gain some weight.” It was the first thing she’d said to us that wasn’t a formality required by Avis. It wasn’t delivered in a mean way, or even a playful way. It was just matter of fact. “You’re gonna gain some weight.” That was our first welcome to New Orleans.
There are so many things that seem to define this city’s culture, but food is undoubtedly at the top of the list. We make red beans and rice on Mondays, boil crawfish by the bagful in the spring, and fix pots of gumbo to fight the damp winter chills. People here spend more time talking about food than they do eating it, and food is the main focus of every social occasion. And while we undoubtedly enjoy a mix of cuisines, from traditional French to Italian to Vietnamese, many of our most iconic dishes bear the mark of the city’s black population. The history of those traditions is definitely worth knowing, so for my third BHM post I wanted to do a little digging into it.
Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. There are fewer ready-made resources on this topic than I’d hoped for, and I didn’t feel right trying to piece together the history by myself. In the end, I decided the best approach was to triangulate with a set of pieces on Southern black and New Orleans culinary traditions. It’s not perfect, but it will hopefully do the trick:
-The best one I found is from National Geographic. It describes how slaves are not only central to the story of Soul Food, but play a role in American dining of all types from the nation’s founding to today.
-There’s also this one from the Louisiana Folklife Program that discusses native African and enslaved American contributions to the wider tapestry of the state’s food traditions.
-And last is a very brief interview with Chef Joe Randall that discusses the role of African Americans in the history of US fine dining and his hopes for African Americans to take on more ownership and executive chef positions in the future.
The historian in me really laments how few resources there are on this topic (at least that can be found easily with a few searches), but the New Orleanian in me suspects there’s a reason–or at least an excuse–to celebrate hiding somewhere in here. After all, food is a part of culture that’s always living. Restaurants, bars, and private homes throughout the city are engaged every day in passing earlier traditions on to new generations and to new people who never encountered them before. Recipes and methods may change with time, but the new layers don’t cover up the old so much as add to them. History is still in there, hiding in names and ingredients if you know where to look. And part of me thinks there’s something fitting about that. History is about tracing the stories of individuals, but food isn’t about individuals–it’s about people. The act of sharing it unites people as a group, and the act of enjoying it together forges the sense of common identity that’s central to a culture
The food of New Orleans has been indelibly marked by the contributions of black people and black culture over the course of three hundred years. There is no end result to study, just a current form to enjoy. And that alone is worth celebrating and being grateful for, even if it means you’re gonna gain some weight.
Since it’s a Monday, here’s my recipe for red beans. Consider it a lagniappe!
1 lb. Red Beans
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 smoked ham hock
8 oz. tasso
1 quart Guidry’s Fresh Cuts Creole Seasoning
Apple cider vinegar
2 bay leaves
Salt & Pepper
1. Sort red beans and soak in cold water.
2. Heat oil in a large stock pot on a medium-high heat.
3. When oil is hot, add ham hock, turning occasionally to brown.
4. Meanwhile, dice tasso and add to pot; stir frequently.
5. When fat has rendered and tasso begins to brown, add Creole Seasoning.
6. Stir occasionally until onions begin to brown, about fifteen minutes.
7. Deglaze pan with a splash or two of apple cider vinegar.
8. Drain red beans, then add them to the pot with the two bay leaves.
9. Add water to the pot until ham hock is fully submerged, plus salt and pepper to taste.
10. Heat on high until it just begins to boil, then reduce to a simmer.
11. Cook on low for 5-10 hrs, until beans are soft and creamy.
12. Remove ham hock; separate meat and return to pot, discarding bones and cartilage.
13. Add more salt and pepper if needed.
14. Turn off the heat and finish off with a large splash of apple cider vinegar.
Serve with rice and hot sauce. Enjoy on Mondays / Laundry Day. Beans also freeze well for an easy weeknight meal.