IF YOU want to start an argument, you can always count on red beans and rice. Some like their beans cooked to a creamy mass, others insist they remain whole. Some cook celery in the beans; someone else is bound to say celery "makes everything taste like soup." There are people who soak their beans overnight before cooking, and people who reheat their cooked beans with beer after leaving them overnight. People eat them with cornbread or with frence bread, or even eat them cold, slathered on french bread. But in New Orleans, there are certain rules that get no argument. You've got to eat red beans on Monday. Even the public schools serve them once a week. And above all, everybody in New Orleans knows that nobody else cooks red beans as well as they do.
Such was the wisdom imparted by Narvin Kimbell, who plays banjo with New Orleans' Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but is also a master at improvising red beans and rice at home, on the road, in motel rooms, wherever a few saucepans and a good audience are available. At the moment his stage was the kitchen of Catherine Filine Shouse, founder of Wolf Trap Park, where the band was playing for two nights.
At 72 years, Kimball is one of the youngest musicians in his group. Nevertheless, they travel about three months a year to perform around the country. You can get mighty hungry for red beans and rice if you miss too many Mondays in New Orleans. So they travel with electric skillets and coffeepots, bring their bags of New Orleans red beans (which are defintely not the red kidney beans that outsiders mistake for them) or, in a pinch, canned red beans and instant New Orleans coffee with chicory. Even the bus driver cooks. They've taken their red beans as far as a jazz festival in Nice. And they still haven't forgotten the frustration of having their file powder seized by the customs people in London. The band has even made stabs at preparing a cookbook, inspired by Shouse writing to ask them for a receipe to include in the Wolf Trap cookbook.
Where the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is in residence, the smells drift down the motel hall, and the band members gravitate to their source. "If anybody comes into anybody else's room, he doesn't even ask," says Kimball. "He just gets a plate." Road cooking has developed into such an efficient process that, with nothing but little plug-in water heaters, the band can cook canned beans and stews they doctor with their own seasonings, even spaghetti, from scratch.
Food is serious business if you're from New Orleans. "New Orleans people go out to eat," explains Kimball, "then they come home to eat."
Tuba player Allan Jaffe, founder of Preservation Hall, chimes in, "Thin is out in New Orleans."
Kimball takes his red beans and rice seriously enough that, even at 10 a.m., he cooks them in performance regalia: pale green shirt and brown tie, beige patent leather shoes, a pink dish towel tucked neatly in his belt. He washes the beans and rice as carefully as a doctor might scrub for surgery. He picks through them painstakingly, discarding any with the slightest imperfections.
"People who cook the New Orleans," he says, "are very, very finicky about it. You can get into some of the nicest arguments you want about it in New Orleans . . . but there are certain structural things they do, and always about the same." After about five minutes of washing the rice and rubbing it between his hands under running water, Kimball has left no doubt about the finicky nature of the New Orleans cook. Even the ham he washes, scrapes and scrubs. It doesn't affect the taste, he explains, but without such thorough washing, "it just isn't what I would like to eat."
Every part of the process is purposeful, evoking an explanation. The ham bone, for instance, is necessary. The marrow, says Kimball, adds flavor, as well as providing a delicate morsel that "plenty of people like to eat, I, personally."
And then the onion and green pepper. It must be grated rather than chopped for Kimball's beans, because then "you won't see any of it. Some people don't want to see what's in their food, just like to get the taste." Besides, it "mulches" better.
This is personal cooking, and for it Kimball uses personal words. It is vital that his ingredients "mulch," or blend, combine to create something new out of indistinct parts.
But Kimball is adamant about his personal style. He doesn't like to use an electric stove: "I like to see things moving." He never adds salt to his beans (which are already seasoned with the salty ham) or even his rice: "My mother told me, 'Always cook short on salt.'"
A discussion of red beans and rice seems to be part of the process of cooking red beans and rice. Narvin likes his beans 2/3 creamy and 1/3 whole. New Orleans restaurateur Paul Prudhomme likes his beans hard -- all whole. Buster's restaurant, which Kimball and Jaffe agree has the best restaurant beans in their city, makes them plain, so that you get the taste of the beans. You season them yourself at the table.
Kimball is of the bacon grease school, explaining that bacon grease helps make them creamier and adds flavor. In case one ever forgets that New Orleans cooking is a style unto itself, one need only watch Kimball use bacon to be reminded. He cooks the bacon slowly, worrying over it as it gradually and thoroughly browns. He carefully drains the grease into the beans. Then he throws away the bacon.
Almost always you can find red beans in Kimball's house, particularly since he decided that freezing makes them taste better. He remembers clearly times of deprivation, when he was forced to do without red beans and rice for a whole month on the road. Although New Orleans is a city where men tend to cook only commerically, Kimball, rather than his wife, does all of the cooking in his house. "He does all the eatin', too," adds Jaffe. Kimball learned much of his cooking from his mother-in-law, whom he describes as an old Creole cook from La Place. "Those people know how to take just a piece of meat and a pot of rice and make it taste like everything," says Kimball.
With the beans simmering quietly, discussion turns to the whens and hows of red beans eating. "You wouldn't believe this, but some people like to eat red beans cold," Kinball shudders. Some eat them in the morning, at lunch, at night. "They like red beans -- period." Kimball seems to include the whole world, but surely means only every man, woman and child in New Orleans.
On the road Kimball is occasionally forced to substitute pinto beans for the small red beans readily available in New Orleans. One hesitates to tell him about Washingtonians transplanted from New Orleans who have substituted adzuki beans, those darlings of the health food store. He'd probably group such hertics with cooks who put celery in their beans.
He is no less insistent about his rice. Every grain must be separate, but the rice should come out unmolded when you turn the pot over a plate.
The subject of beans and rice exhausted, it is time to discuss restaurants. On the road, sighs Jaffe, "We frequently find McDonald's is the best restaurant in town." Kimball prefers Burger King; he says it is because their hamburgers are less dry, but Jaffe insists it is because Burger King is a New Orleans chain. In any case, Kimball knows a good restaurant right away: "Half of it is in the smell," he tells. When he walks in he knows, "I like the cooking here."
The conversation never wanders too far from New Orleans restaurants. It is but a short detour from red beans to tell about "hot calas," those deep fried rice cakes that are a cross between doughnuts and rice pudding, little known outside New Orleans. The secret, Kimball reveals, is that the rice is slightly fermented, about like sourdough, "right on the change." It is seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg, formed into balls and deep fried.
Back to red beans, Kimball reveals that his final touch is a pinch of sugar, which he describes as "the best accent in the world. That makes it," he kisses his fingers to illustrate his point, "soigne."
With the beans simmering and the restaurants discussed, Kimball sits down with his banjo, the gold-banded, mother-of-pearl inlaid banjo he bought seven years ago in San Francisco, then had a friend etch from one end of the gold to the other. The Wolf Trap staff gather, drawn by smell and sound. They listen to Kimball's compositions, "Lover" and "Let's All Join Hands." Then somebody requests "When the Saints Go Marching In."
"That's always a finale, and I'm not yet ready for that. The beans aren't done."
Soon they are. The saints go marching in and Kimball dishes out what Shouse has just dubbed, "Beans a la Banjo." BEANS A LA BANJO (Navrin Kimball's New Orleans Red Beans and Rice) (8 servings) 2 1/2 pounds ham with bone 1 pound dried New Orleans red beans (substitute pinto beans) 1 large onion, grated 1 green bell pepper, grated 1 3/4 heads of garlic, chopped fine Fat rendered from 1/3 pound bacon Pinch of sugar 1 pound long grain rice
Scrub ham and wash under running water. Cut into 2- to 3-inch cubes. Cover with water and simmer 1 hour. Pour off water; add 1 1/2 to 2 cups fresh water and bring back to a boil, then simmer ham cuts with a fork.
In the meantime, wash and pick over beans. In a large pot, cover beans with water to 1 inch above level of the beans and bring to boil over high heat.Add onions, green pepper and garlic, lower heat and simmer. Fry bacon slowly until very crisp, reserve bacon for another use and pour fat into the beans. Add ham with its water to the beans. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for a total of 2 to 3 hours, until the beans are as creamy as you like. As they cook, the beans gradually disintegrate to look creamy; some people like them all remaining whole, some half creamy, some all creamy. Kimball prefers them about 2/3 creamy. Be careful toward the end of the cooking that the bottom of the pot doesn't burn. If it does, stop stirring and immediately pour beans into a clean pot, taking care to leave the burned parts in the old pot. At the end of the cooking, stir in a pinch of sugar.
While beans are cooking, cook rice. Wash it well under running water until the water runs clear. Put rice in a pot with water to cover 3/4-inch above the level of the rice. Simmer uncovered over low heat until a table knife stuck deeply into the rice is not sticky when it is removed.
To serve, spoon rice on individual plate and spoon rice on individual plates and spoon beans over it, including some ham with each portion. Accompany with hot or mild sausage, cornbread or french bread, cooked greens, even game or fish if you like. Pass hot sauce, salt and pepper for seasoning at the table. PRESERVATION HALL NEW ORLEANS CREOLE GUMBO (20 to 25 servings) Oil, bacon grease or butter to cover bottom of large pot 1 pound Italian sausage, cut into chunks 1 pound ham, diced 1 pound lean beef stew meat 2 to 3 pounds chicken wings 2 to 3 cups chopped onions 1/4 cup chopped garlic 1/2 cup chopped parsley 3 cups water, more as needed 2 tablesppons flour 2 tablespoons oil, fat or butter 1 quart oysters 1 pound raw shelled shrimp 1 pound crabmeat File powder (optional)* Salt to taste
In a large pot, heat enough fat to cover the bottom of the pan and begin to brown sausage, ham, beef and chicken with the pot covered. Add onions, stirring occasionally, then garlic and parsley for the last few moments. When meats and vegetables are well browned, add 3 cups of water, cover again and cook 2 to 3 hours, checking occasionally to see if more water is needed. Mixture should be soupy. In the meantime, over a very low heat in a small pan, stir flour with 2 tablespoons fat until the flour turns a nutty brown. Stir in some of the liquid from the pot, then return the browned flour (roux) and liquid to the pot with the meat. When meats are done, add oysters, shrimp and crabmeat, and the file powder if your are using it. Season to taste. Bring entire pot to full boil and turn off the heat. Let gumbo sit, covered, until slightly cooled.
Serve with rice: Let each person add rice to his own bowl of gumbo.Also delicious with cornbread and butter and tossed green salad.
*File is powdered sassafras leaves, which thicken the broth and impart a distinctive flavor. It may be difficult to find, but can be left out of the recipe if you don't tell anybody from New Orleans that you have done that. SING MILLER'S HUSH PUPPIES (20 to 25 hush puppies)
This recipe is offered by a member of the Preservation Hall Band. 1/4 cup flour 4 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 cups white cornmeal 2 eggs 1 cup buttermilk 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion 1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic Oil for deep frying
To start, sift together flour, baking soda and salt. Stir in unsifted cornmeal. Beat eggs into flour mixture one at a time until smooth. Add 3/4 cup buttermilk and stir. Batter should just hold its shape in a spoon; add up to 1/4 cup more buttermilk if necessary. Beat in onions and garlic. Heat 2 to 3 inches oil to a temperature of 375 degrees. Deep fry several hush puppies at a time (1 rounded tablespoon each), turning them constantly until they are golden brown (about 3 minutes). Remove the hush puppies with a slotted spoon and transfer to a baking dish lined with paper towels.
Place in warming oven while finishing the rest of the hush puppies. Serve piping hot.
Hush puppies go well with fish or gumbo or by themselves smothered in butter. ALLAN JAFFE'S STUFFED CRAB (8 servings) 4 teaspoons softened butter 2 eggs 4 tablespoons mayonnaise 4 teaspoons worcestershire sauce 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper 2 pounds crabmeat 1/2 cup finely chopped red bell pepper 4 teaspoons butter, cut in pieces
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In individual ceramic baking shells, spread the softened butter. Beat eggs lightly and then, in same bowl, add the mayonnaise, worcestershire sauce, salt and white pepper. Beat this mixture until smooth. Add crabmeat, green pepper and red pepper, and toss together. Divide the crab mixture evenly among the baking shells and dot the tops of each with the butter pieces. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes and then place under a broiler for 30 seconds to brown the tops. Serve at once. NARVIN KIMBALL'S STUFFED EGGPLANT (8 to 10 servings) 6 medium eggplants 4 green bell peppers, chopped 4 medium onions, chopped 1/2 cup celery, chopped 3 cloves garlic, chopped 2 to 3 tablespoons oil 1 pound small shrimp 1 pound white lump crabmeat 1/2 cup parsley, chopped Salt and pepper Bread crumbs Paprika Oil
Boil eggplants until soft; halve lengthwise, then dig out meat and chop. Save eggplant shells. While you are doing this, fry bell peppers, onion, celery and garlic together in oil until limp, then add eggplant meat. Let smother on medium fire until most of the liquid evaporates, then add shrimp. Cook for another 20 minutes, then put all of this in another bowl and fold in crabmeat and parsley. Salt and pepper to taste. Let cool a little, then add enough bread crumbs to be firm enough to stuff shells. Stuff shells but note that you may not have enough stuffing mixture for all of them. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and paprika, then a little oil. Bake in 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes, until heated through and the top has browned.