Counting Beans: A Soupçon of History

Photo credit: Judy Baxter
Photo credit: Judy Baxter

Not too long ago, I looked at the messy pile of one-pound bags of beans in my pantry and knew I needed to start using them up. But how?

For some reason, the night before, I’d cooked chicken-and-sausage gumbo and maybe I could just make red beans to go with the leftover rice. Yes, that would be it.

Never having made red beans and rice in the style of New Orleans, I could feel that little frisson of excitement that warbles its way through my brain when I’m about to do something new.

Beans in Bags
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

The next step lay with finding the right “mother” or “grandmother” to whisper in my ear just how to do this, seeing as that the only beans my mother ever cooked were kidney beans dumped into a big pot with a leftover ham bone. Nothing more, but nothing less. Smelling that pot of beans cooking after a long, miserable day at school, walking home in sub-freezing weather with no long pants on, in the days when girls had to wear dresses every day, well, let me tell you, my taste buds quivered with the gentle puckering that occurs just before the salivary “let-down.”

So a brief moment of fumbling around in the stacks of cookbooks scattered throughout my house led me to first put my hand on Rima and Richard Collin’s The New Orleans Cookbook. True, I can hear you say, what about Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen? If I hadn’t picked up the Collin book, I probably would have gone the K-Paul route and cooked the same red beans any tourist might pay $20 for, only thing is they’re not on the menu at K-Paul’s. (But Chef Paul does include a recipe in his book.)

Red Beans Raw
Red Beans Raw

Looking at the recipes, the one for “Red Bean Stew” came the closest to what I envisioned, give or take a few grains of cayenne and some bacon and sausage instead of ham hocks. As I started cooking, something seemed awfully familiar about the recipe, though to my recollection I’d never cooked beans like this before, like I said.

Not exactly, no.

A sense of dejà vu hit me.

And there it was …

“Beans in Their Own Sauce,” a recipe from Haiti — one I’d cooked many, many times  —  so similar in its final consistency to the New Orleans dish that I started wondering about a connection. But what could that connection be?

West Africa? France? Spain? Portugal?

To be continued …

**For the next few weeks, I am going to be on a “working vacation,” so my posts will be somewhat more abbreviated. I will still provide you with something substantial to chew on, though!

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


4 Comments Add yours

  1. cbertel says:

    Looks great — will try it soon.


  2. kingbiscuitpants says:

    speaking of beans this might help as I have made it as often with dried beans as canned, as always love the blog


  3. mae says:

    I’m a big fan of “The N.O.Cookbook” too — I love their carrot cake, for one thing. So have a good vacation.


  4. You’ve got me on the case with you. Food Detectives to the rescue. Making the connections, filling in the blanks, following the trail of crumbs, or grains of rice, or splashes of spice that connect this dish to that one, this place to another one, these people to those people —- that adds so much to the flavor and story of what we cook and eat. Can’t hardly wait to find out more, but hey, you are on a working vacation, so take your time. All in good time; you can’t rush a pot of beans.


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