National Soul Food Month 3. One of the ongoing discussions among scholars who study African American foodways is the soul food metaquestion: What is it? If I tell you that I’m going to a soul food restaurant, you’ll have a general idea of what my menu choices might be. You’d expect chicken (probably fried), pork (in some form), and fish (probably catfish, probably fried), along with side dishes like well-seasoned greens, sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, and so on.
The problem is that there is no Official Soul Food Menu, except in North Louisiana, where Chef Hardette Harris’ list bears the approval of the state legislature. Otherwise, from place to place, and even family to family, there are distinct variations and preferences. Barbecue fans take these for granted. If you say, “Let’s go get some barbecue,” in eastern North Carolina you’ll probably get a pulled pork sandwich with a vinegar-based sauce. In Memphis, you’ll probably get baby-back ribs that may not need sauce at all. In Texas, you’ll probably get some beef, like a brisket, perhaps with a very different kind of ketchup-based chili sauce. In Kansas City, you’ll get any kind of meat you want, but almost always served with a very sweet sauce.
A typical soul food menu will likely include some sort of bean dish; perhaps black-eyed peas, or pinto beans & cornbread. In New Orleans, it’s probably red beans and rice. For instance, here’s one blogger’s classic soul food dinner at the famous Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans. Note the big helping of red beans and rice across half the plate:
In New Orleans, red beans and rice are traditionally eaten on Mondays. Why Monday? That was laundry day, and as we will see, that was a process that could consume most of the day. Red beans need time but not a lot of hands-on attention, so they could simmer away while the women tended to their laundry chores. The beans also tend to taste better the second day, so they could be prepared on Sunday, alongside whatever else was being cooked for the big Sunday dinner.
(An old-time laundry day in Wichita, Kansas)
Even today, most folks find laundry a real chore….
But not that long ago, it was far worse. I grew up in a poor neighborhood, and I remember the old wringer washer that my next-door neighbors used. In the summer, the mom would haul it outside so that she could be closer to the clothes line. There was no “spin cycle.” You got the excess water out of the clothes by running them through a wringer. (That’s the source of the indelicate old phrase for an irritated woman, “She’s sure got her tit in a wringer.”)
That was an improvement over what came before. As a kid, I remember seeing the old galvanized steel laundry tubs. Today, people use them as kitchy flower pots, but when I was a kid, they were junk that people were throwing away. They’d sneak out to our neighborhood to unload them into a junk pile in a ditch.
But in the days before electricity and automatic washers, laundry involved carrying water, heating the water, filling those wash tubs, with one for scrubbing (on a washboard) and one for rinsing, wringing it out, all by hand, and then drying everything on the clotheslines…and let’s just hope it doesn’t rain.
That’s why laundry was an all-day process, and the longstanding custom was to do it on Mondays. There was a logic to it: In many families, Sunday was the big meal of the week. That in turn would generate leftovers, and so on Mondays, the women could focus on the laundry tasks.
No matter what, laundry was a lot of work. In the north, if a family had any means at all, they would hire a teenage girl from whatever group was freshest off the boat (a couple of my aunts, first-generation Swedish American farm girls, worked as housekeepers in the 1930s). In the postbellum south, it meant hiring an African American woman, who might in turn deputize her kids to help, and thus make it a family project.
Indeed, for many women, doing laundry was a way of making extra income. In territorial Colorado, Aunt Clara Brown (the subject of an upcoming post!) parlayed her laundry skills into a fortune. Back east, Malinda Russell, stranded in Virginia, did laundry to help finance a trip back home to Tennessee.
There’s a historical reason that red beans and rice emerged in New Orleans. The basic combo of rice and beans can be found around the world. An entire book has been written on the subject. The editors, Richard Wilk and Livia Barbosa, subtitled their Rice and Beans “a unique dish in a hundred places.” But for the purposes of American food history, the dish came from West Africa. In other words, it came with slavery. In Ghana, for instance, rice and beans is known as waakye, which is eaten for either breakfast or lunch, and is also a popular street food:
Variations on rice and beans are found throughout the Caribbean. In Cuba, black beans and rice have the delightful name, moros y cristianos. In Puerto Rico, pigeon peas and rice make up the island’s signature dish, arroz con gandules. Haitian cuisine has several variations on du riz a pois (diri ak pwa). In Brazil, black beans and rice, feijão com arroz, are the foundation of the popular feijoada:
New Orleans had close trade ties to the Caribbean. Of course, that trade included human beings. In the early 1800s, as sugar plantations developed in southern Louisiana, many slaves were imported from other sugar-producing areas in the Caribbean, in spite of the fact that it was, technically, illegal. The slave rebellion in Haiti (1791-1804) also brought an influx of ethnic Europeans, free blacks, and enslaved blacks. So it was probably inevitable that the newcomers, whether voluntary and involuntary, brought along with them their rice and beans dishes, which, in New Orleans, became red beans and rice.
“Red beans” is a slight misnomer. The beans in question are kidney beans. However, they’re usually not the big, dry, mealy kidney beans that many insist on using in their chili recipes, but a smaller version that has a much more pleasing taste and texture. Indeed, if you check out the canned beans on the grocery store shelves, you’ll find both “kidney beans” and “red beans,” even though they’re technically the same thing. Folks from New Orleans insist that the only way to get the recipe right is to use Camellia Brand red kidney beans.
Red beans and rice as a dish has become part of popular culture. Louis Armstrong would sign letters, “Red beans and ricely yours.” Or try Sir Mix-a-lot’s 1992 classic, “Baby Got Back.” Toward the end of the song, he says, “Give me a sister, I can’t resist her / Red beans and rice didn’t miss her.”
Actually, red beans and rice in itself won’t put any extra pounds on the booty. Vegetarians like the rice and beans combo because it offers a complete protein. It lacks some nutrients, such as Vitamin C, but it’s a good dish, especially if brown rice is used instead of white rice. And especially on Mondays.
But Sir Mix-a-lot’s praise was nothing compared to Michael Franti & Spearhead’s 1994 ode, which even includes the recipe:
Nice. Of course, nothing is quite as easy as it seems. Red beans and rice should be an easy dish to make, but it takes practice and some trial-and-error to get the taste the way you want it. Traditionally, the rules have been that you have to soak the beans first, and not to salt them until after they’ve softened up and reached the desired level of creaminess. Both of those practices have been debunked, though acidic liquids (tomato sauce, vinegar, lemon juice, etc.) shouldn’t be added till the texture is right. Even cooking the rice can be challenging for many. My own recipes are works-in-progress, but here’s a recent attempt:
With its connections to Africa, slavery, domestic service, and even Sir Mix-a-lot, red bean and rice doesn’t have to be a purely Creole thing, and can rightly be on anyone’s soul food menu.