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Red Beans Stole a Day of the Week

All photos courtesy of Camellia Brand

New Orleans is a pretty accommodating place, but if you pop into a neighborhood joint like the French Quarter’s Verti Marte and ask for red beans and rice on, say, a Wednesday, you’ll get a blank look.

Because Mondays are for red beans. With butter, smoked sausage, bay leaves, garlic, and the holy trinity (celery, onions, and bell pepper).

Going back for so many years now that no one knows exactly how or where the tradition started, local lore lands on the fact that Mondays were traditionally wash days, a many-houred, hands-on affair in the years before machines. Dinner needed to be something that could easily come together on its own (and it would be great to use up that leftover hambone from Sunday dinner while at it).

Red beans are now so synonymous with New Orleans that it’s hard to believe they don’t belong solely to our cuisine. Originating in Peru thousands of years ago, red beans have found their way all across the world and into both sweet and savory dishes—from spicy stews in India to sweet pastes used in Japanese desserts.

In the early 1900s, you’d head to the French Market to stock up on red beans. In the 40s, Camellia Brand came up with the idea of packaging individual bags of beans for consumers who were beginning to frequent a burgeoning supermarket industry. By 1984, 95% of packaged dry beans sold in New Orleans were Camellia Brand. It’s still the brand most locals keep stocked in their cabinets, the brick-sized clear cellophane instantly recognizable with the bright pink camellia flower popping off the front. Some folks will use the recipe on the back of the packaging while others may hunt for one online and still others have an old family recipe they return to week after week.

Come Lundi Gras, you can catch a several hundred Camellia red beans—uncooked—in the handmade bean suits belonging to members of the Krewe of Red Beans. Camellia is an official sponsor, believing in the central power of a good bean for the cooking and the party.

But bean suits and parades are just one way folks—locals and outsiders alike—show love for this dish. Louis Armstrong loved red beans and rice so much that he used to sign his letters “Red beans and ricely yours.” He had his own favorite recipe, too. Red beans and rice have made cameos in songs from local boys like Dr. John and Charlie Daniels to more national acts like Steely Dan and ZZ Top. Michael Franti and Spearhead gave red beans and rice their own song on their 1994 album, “Home.”

There’s nothing quite like New Orleans’ ultimate comfort food. Most locals believe it’s best simmering on your own stovetop all day, some of the beans smashed up for a creamy feel and then served with your favorite hot sauce. Give Louis’ recipe a whirl or try Camellia’s. It’s a pretty hard dish to completely screw up, but then again, the devil is in the details. The ultimate compliment is scraping clean the bottom of the pot.

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