Now that President Carter has made the White House safe for Gumbo, the next logical step in raising the Southern soul food consciousness of the nation is the Red Beaning of America.
Red beans and rice, that cassoulet of the Louisiana bayous, has languished too long in the gustatorial shadow of such Southern culinary cliches as fried chicken and sweet potato pie. It is far too rich and versatile a dish to leave to the bean-mad cults of fur trappers, debutantes, bartenders, levee inspectors, cotton brokers, sugar barons and others who range across the marshy flatlands at the Mississippi's mouth.
In Louisiana red beans are almost a religion. I have overheard two businessmen in Lafayette debating the seasoning of red beans in an office elevator. Once in New Orleans two beanophiles at my table came close to blows arguing the proper soupmess of the dish.
Louis Armstrong> who made the entire world aware of New Orleans' jazz, used to sign letters "Red beans and ricely yours."
Red beans are often confused by the uninitiated with the black beans and rice of Latin America, which aren't the same thing at all. Black beans, as splendid as they are, are usually a side dish. Red beans and rice, with maybe a salad, a beer and some French bread, are usually the whole enchilada.
People in Louisiana eat red beans for lunch, for dinner, on sandwiches, for midnight snacks and - not infrequently - for breakfast. Thermos bottles of red beans are packed along to offshore rigs and duck blinds, to Mardi Gras floats and other repositories of Louisiana culture.
Entire generations of college students, welfare families, hospital interns and other underfinanced minorities subsist for years at a time on red beans and rice, which functions economically as a sort of one-dish food stamp program: the peanut butter sandwich of the lower Mississippi Delta.
As a teen-age bag boy in a grocery store in New Iberia, I once encountered a grizzled old black man in bib overalls and a pith helmet who could speak no English, only Cajun French. After much idiomatic groping he finally made it clear that he was a trapper in from the swamp for his yearly grocery pickup. All he wanted was a 25 pound sack of rice and a 12-month supply of red beans.
Born, like so many great regional dishes, in the culinary crucible of hard times, red beans and rice has much to recommend itself, in fact, as the national dish of the United States.
A product of many cultures - principally African, French and Spanish - it is outrageously cheap, bountifully nutritious, instantly addictive to even the most finicky eater and virtually impossible to misprepare.
The full extent of this last quality was brought home to me several years ago when mu younger brother called to get the vaguely worded family recipe for red beans and rice. It was written down by my mother sometime in 1959 on an link-spotted index card.
"How many will this feed?" he asked ne after I had read him the card.
"Well, it's supposed to be for six, but you once ate the whole recipe single-handed," I replied.
"I remember," he said. "I shouldn't have done that."
"How many are you feeding?"
"Forty-two," he said calmly, "or maybe 47."
Until that time, to the best of my knowledge, my brother had never warmed a pot. His chief involvement with red beans had been in their consumption. Yet he had embarked on feeding that very night the greater part of a church youth group, none of whom, apparently, could cook.
"Don't worry," I told him. "You can't possibly screw it up." I hung up the phone, not entirely convinced.
An hour later he called back.
"Well, we have the onions and we're ready to start. Now, do you slice an onion with the grain or across?"
Thirty minutes later the phone rang again.
"We can't brown all the onions at the same time," he said. "Does it matter if we brown some in one skillet and some in another?"
There were, as I remember, about four other calls, involving the dimensions of the ham chunks, the soaking of the beans ("there isn't time - just cook them longer") and the making of that keystone of Cajun cooking, the roux.
The roux is simply flour browned in fat. "Don't worry," i told him after he had put in too much flour. "You can't hurt it."
As it turned out, he couldn't. The meal was pronounced a great success, though the meat had not been browned, the onions had been put in before the flour instead of afterward, the cooking beans had expanded and overflowed into three other pots and 13 volunteer aides - none of them cooks - had lent their hands to the preparation.
The only way you can really mismanage red beans is to burn them, so keep an eye on them as they cook, stirring ocassionally (unless in a pressure cooker) and adding water if necessary. The final product should be rich and velvety, heaped generously on the rice, and consumed with more gusto than ritual.
RED BEANS AND RICE 1 package (1 pound) dry red kidney beans 1 pound or more lean salt meat (ham shoulder is good) and or 1 ham bone 2 large onions 3 tablespoons bacon fat 3 tablespoons flour 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce 1 teaspoon thyme 1/2 teaspoon sage Salt to tast
Soak beans overnight (or at least 4 hours) in a heavy pot, Dutch oven or pressure cooker. Strain, rinse, cover with water and place on stove (with optional ham bone) to boil.
Cut onions into thin slices and the meat into 1-inch cubes.
Heat bacon fat in a heavy iron skillet, dump in flour and cook over high heat, stirring rapidly, to make roux. Flour will boil in fat turning slowly brown. Do not allow it to burn! If it gets the color of a chocolate bar or darker, throw out and start over.
Stir rapidly until roux reaches a deep cinnamon tan, then throw in the onions and meat, stirring steadily until the onions are well softened and coated with roux. (Meat and onions may instead be browned separately before adding to roux).
Dump meat, onions and roux mixture into pot with beans, add thyme, sage and hot pepper sauce. Cover, bring to boil and simmer for about 2 1/2 hours. In pressure cooker (use trivet under beans) cook at 15 pounds pressure for about 45 minutes.
For rice, add two cups of converted rice to about 5 cups boiling water with a bit of salt and 1 tablespoon if butter. Simmer, covered, about 20 minutes or until all water is absorbed. Serves six unless one of them is my brother.