Red beans and rice: It's a meal of convenience, history, music and deep, bone-comforting Big Easy flavor. It's also the meal that New Orleans writer and photographer Pableaux Johnson has been serving on Monday nights at his Uptown home for years to a motley collection of musicians, academics, chefs, journalists, even a librarian who doubles as a burlesque dancer.
It's an andouille-scented tradition that goes well beyond Johnson's table, too. Red beans and rice, as Sarah Baird wrote for PUNCH, started as a dinner of convenience, given that Mondays were typically devoted to dirty laundry. It was a "simple meal that could simmer all day while women washed clothes," Baird noted. The dish eventually migrated to Big Easy bars and clubs, where regulars would forget their Monday blues with a multi-sensory fantasia of blues, beans and booze.
Now the dish is hitting the road. Johnson's hosting a two-night stand at Johnny's Half Shell on Nov. 18 and 19. The family-style meal will include not just Johnson's time-honored red beans and rice, but also his cornbread as well as chef Ann Cashion's signature deviled eggs and bread pudding. Beer and wine comes with the package, as does a vegan/vegetarian option for those who prefer their red beans and rice sans sausage.
This isn't the first time Johnson has hit the road with his bean pot in tow. He went on a barnstorming tour in 2009, mostly concentrated in the South. This year, Johnson revisited the idea of spreading the gospel of red beans and rice when he and Cashion hosted the first Red Beans Road Show at Johnny's in early October. It sold out in 36 hours,with most of those seats filled with an ever-expanding circle of FOPs, or Friends of Pableaux, of which I consider myself one.
"Wherever I cook," said Johnson via phone as he prepared his latest Monday dinner in New Orleans, "it's like a Louisiana embassy. It's like Louisiana soil 100 yards in every direction."
He's not whistling Dixie, either. (As if anyone in New Orleans would ever do such a thing: They'd whistle Dr. John.) When you sit around Johnson's table, whether in the Big Easy or on Capitol Hill, you're not supposed to fiddle with your phone. You talk. You meet people. You drink. You eat. You remember what it's like to connect with strangers over a meal not prepared by the latest darling of the Food Media Complex.
Or as the Cajun son of New Iberia, La., likes to say: It's like "a wedding without the wedding."
Johnson started hosting dinners not long after he moved to New Orleans in 2001. He found himself in the possession of his maternal grandmother's dining table, the very one that had fed a young Pableaux and his eight siblings. "This table has to be fed," Johnson says. "It just kind of called out and had to be set once a week."
The table would eventually become a weekly rest stop for Johnson's dinner, which is served family-style with Crystal hot sauce, butter, salt, pepper grinders, Poirier's cane syrup and lots of wine to help doctor your cornbread, your beans or just your disposition. Johnson is not an overly fussy cook, but he does have a few preferred ingredients: Camellia red kidney beans and Jacob's andouille sausage for the main dish, and Weisenberger's corn meal for the skillet bread.
"If you try to make red beans and rice fancy, it will never go well for you," Johnson says.
His table has served others well, though. Among the people who have graced Johnson's table back in New Orleans: Chef Hugh Acheson; Dana Colley, former saxophonist with Morphine; and the English actor with the greatest name ever, Benedict Cumberbatch. Even the normally unflappable Johnson, a fan of the Sherlock series, was taken aback when a friend brought Cumberbatch to the table.
"I tend not to be in the star-struck category, but I had seen the whole 'Sherlock' thing a couple of times," the host remembers. "That was wonderful."
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the source of writer Sarah Baird's story about red beans and rice. It was originally published in PUNCH and was later republished by the Southern Foodways Alliance.