Blues, Booze and Red Beans: Monday Night in New Orleans

Bowls of red beans and rice are a Monday night staple at bars around NOLA—but they're so much more than just a cheap meal. Sarah Baird on how this centuries-old tradition in an often-unpredictable city turns strangers into family.

My commitment to the sanctity of free bar food runs deep. I’ve downed my fair share of traditional snacks—popcorn, Chex Mix and the occasional wasabi pea—at bars across the country, thoroughly enjoying their bite-sized, poppable nature (even when they are a little bit stale). I’ve patronized the enterprising food trucks that swarm in front of bars lacking culinary options, and once even briefly operated an “after school special” themed pop-up of my own called Snack Time off of a pool table in the back room of a dive bar. 

My two-night-only effort as a renegade barroom chef allowed me to sit briefly in the thick of New Orleans’ robust (mostly free or low cost) bar food scene. The city’s bars are famous for folding tables laden with Crock-Pots (always hot and bubbly) and family-style meals, portions large enough to feed a small army of drunks. If you wander into Martine’s Lounge in Old Metairie, a smorgasbord of chili, gloppy cheese, nacho chips and hot dogs anchor a card table in the back and are ripe for the taking. In a bar serving food and not hungry? Be prepared for a well-intentioned regular to chide you until you find yourself face-first in a platter of pulled pork.

The most important bar food in the city, though, is Monday night red beans and rice.

A centuries-old tradition that can trace its origins back to similar practices across the Caribbean (primarily Haiti), red beans and rice was originally cooked on Mondays as a simple meal that could simmer all day while women washed clothes. A typical pot of red beans cooks down alongside the “holy trinity” of vegetables (peppers, onion, celery), a medley of spices and a toss of ham hock, sausage or pickled meat. Fluffy rice makes a well-feathered nest for the forward flavors of the beans, part of a slurred dance the two ingredients have been tangoing since (practically) the starchy dawn of time. It is, at its heart, a food that pulsates comfort.

Your power may mysteriously go out during every thunderstorm and a cavern-sized sinkhole might just materialize on your street one day, but you can rest assured that—come hell or high water—Monday night red beans will be cooked right on schedule.

For all its charms, New Orleans is a city constantly marred by uncertainty, disaster and decay. The unpredictability can skew both ways, leaving little middle ground for stability or routine. Food and drink serve as ballast for this neverending ebb and flow between grief and high delight. Your power may mysteriously go out during every thunderstorm and a cavern-sized sinkhole might just materialize on your street one day, but you can rest assured that—come hell or high water—Monday night red beans will be cooked right on schedule.

The best place to eat red beans and rice (referred to locally as simply “red beans”) is at home. There’s nothing quite like a cauldron of red beans prepared by a loved one, friends and family soaking in the wafts of bay leaf and porky sausage spilling out from the kitchen, then holding out their bowls like a stream of adult-sized Oliver Twists, asking, “Please, may I have some more?”

Not everyone, though, is fortunate enough to have homemade red beans on the Monday speed-dial. For the rest of us, there are the city’s bars.

In the dim light of the barroom, red beans isn’t just about having a meal to sop up your whiskey—it’s also inextricably linked to music. On a recent Monday night at Tommy’s Hole in the Wall Bar in Central City, barflies and music lovers packed in to fill their bellies with red beans while listening to Walter “Wolfman” Washington plays bluesy, soulful licks on his guitar. Washington (a septuagenarian who played as part of Lee Dorsey’s band in his teens) was relaxed, a rogue lava lamp bubbling up gooey and purple behind him as he plucked his way through B.B. King’s repertoire. Entranced by the music, no one paid any mind to the fact that eating such a hearty food in 90-degree heat—in a building with spotty air conditioning—didn’t make much practical sense. Unlike gumbos and stews, red beans is a dish for all seasons.

It’s also one of the city’s great equalizers, served up in all neighborhoods and to people from all stations of life. New Orleans-based folk darlings Hurray for the Riff Raff captured the younger generation’s wistfulness for red beans in their 2014 song “Crash on the Highway”:

Germany has been cold and mean
I want to get home to New Orleans
Me and my baby all we do is fight
Take me back home to BJ’s on a Monday night

BJ’s Lounge—a ramshackle joint in the Bywater—was the longtime home of R&B stalwarts King James and the Special Men on Monday nights, with King James himself stirring up red beans before shows for fans to snack on while dancing and drinking.

This spring, the band surprised everyone by moving to a new home up the road in the slower-to-gentrify 7th Ward.  After the initial shock wore off, the biggest question quickly became, “They’ll still serve red beans, right?”

Answer? Of course. I held my breath on the first night of their new residency, paid a (relatively paltry) $5 cover and immediately scanned the room for a stack of Styrofoam bowls ready to be filled. Sure enough, the red beans—included in the price of admission—were front and center, steam from the warm pots dampening the faces of hungry guests as they started to dig in.

In many spots, it’s not unusual for the musicians themselves to prep the red beans that accompany their set, the act working to fill in the final shades of intimacy on the paint-by-number that is Monday night in a New Orleans barroom. There’s a special tenderness that unfolds from knowing the same person masterfully belting out “St. James Infirmary” and breaking your heart on the trumpet also diced the celery you’re eating. These weekly kickoff meals weave together a web of celebration connecting drinkers, diners and entertainers that’s peppered with familial backslaps, strangers twirling one another among crowded tables (drink and dish in hand) and a stable of New Orleans standards served up like aural comfort food. Just like with the best parties, it’s a controlled kind of messy chaos.

It’s a regular Monday practice for some to embark on a red beans crawl, ambling from bar to bar across the city, sitting in to catch a few licks of a musician’s set and scoop up a steamy bowl of red beans alongside a hastily assembled Jack and Coke, then bopping along to the next spot. It’s a fine way to sample the wares if you’re still attempting to find your beginning-of-the-week home base or looking to change your go-to weekly spot.

More often than not, though, Monday night loyalty to a specific bar and their red beans preparation is strong. I’ve heard passionate, whiskey-fueled debates on more than one occasion about which bar serves red beans with the most ham-hock-laden, rib-sticking comfort. (My personal favorite, the Ooh Poo Pah Doo in Treme, is operated by Ms. Judy, the daughter of songwriter Jesse Hill, who penned the bar’s supremely danceable namesake tune.)

At its very core, red beans and rice is one of the fastest ways to turn a barroom into a living room. It’s difficult to be a mysterious loner brooding into your rocks glass when you’ve just ladled out a heaping portion of beans ahead of someone, or feel glum when the other holy trinity (whiskey, free food, good music) is within your reach.

When you eat from the same red beans pot, everyone is family—at least once a week.

MORE “EATING IN BARS”:
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