A Brief History of Red Beans

It's a Monday in New Orleans, are you eating red beans for dinner?

Traditional New Orleans style red beans and rice is still a Monday staple in Louisiana homes.

Traditional New Orleans style red beans and rice is still a Monday staple in Louisiana homes.

New Orleans has too many distinct culinary traditions to count. Ranking high among them is our love for — some would say obsession with — red beans. Few other foods are so relevant to the city’s identity.

If you’re not from New Orleans, you may not be aware of the city’s deep love for red beans. You’re not alone, either. When one of Louisiana’s most celebrated chefs, Paul Prudhomme, moved to New Orleans from Opelousas in the 1970s, he had no idea that red beans were viewed differently from any other beans; they had no more relevance than pintos or black-eyed peas. A bean is a bean, right?

Wrong. What Prudhomme discovered was a culture obsessed with certain traditions that go back so far in time that no one’s even sure anymore how they began. Red beans is one such tradition.

The most popular legend goes like this: Ham was traditionally served at Sunday dinners in New Orleans. The leftover ham bone was still useful even after the meal — for flavoring — and could be used the following day as well. 

Monday was traditionally laundry day. Cooking and doing laundry at the same time isn’t really feasible, so…. how about cooking that ham bone with some red beans? 

There are numerous other origin stories, too. Did New Orleanians’ love for red beans come from enslaved people working in Louisiana’s sugar plantations 300 years ago? Or did the stew come from Canada, whose Acadian people emigrated south in the 1750s and became today’s Cajun people?

Regardless of where the tradition came from, red beans today aren’t exclusive to any particular race, class, age or political group. “Food unites with complete sincerity,” writes Sara Roahen, author of Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table. “It harbors no ulterior motives; its power is irreversible. Red beans and rice is my best example.”

Make your own! Get the Louisiana Red Beans and Rice recipe.

Next time you’re in New Orleans — on a Monday or any other day of the week — take your pick of one of the city’s dozens of Creole restaurants and order up a bowl of red beans and rice, either as a side or as a main dish. You can also take a little bit of Louisiana tradition home with you in your carryon bag: A package of red beans transports very easily. When you get home, put them in a pot over low heat, add some spices (maybe basil, garlic, bay leaf, TABASCO or Crystal hot sauce — no two recipes are alike), along with a meat and some veggies, and serve over rice.