Tag Archives: Buster Holmes red beans and rice

Red Beans Road Show

When I was first visiting New Orleans on a regular basis, Buster Holmes restaurant on the corner of Burgundy and Orleans was still in operation serving distinctive New Orleans food at amazingly reasonable prices. It was a no-frills place with a jukebox and a diverse clientele. It was well-known for catering to New Orleans musicians and was famous for its simple and excellent food.

Buster’s was best known for red beans and rice, that hearty New Orleans kitchen stalwart that was the traditional meal for Mondays – “wash day” for many households. Cooks could put on a big pot of red beans, let it simmer, go about their other chores, and have a good nutritious meal to eat on throughout the rest of the day.

Buster’s came to mind recently as I traveled with my friend Madeleine – who has been known as “Bunny” her entire life – to Florence for my first dinner of 2018 at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com). The January dinner was a special Factory add-on and was not part of the Factory’s “Friends of the Café” series which will kick off its fourth season of dinners by award-winning chefs in April.

New Orleans-based writer, photographer, and raconteur Pableaux Johnson has been presenting the “Red Beans Road Show” for a few years now in a variety of locales. The event hearkens back to Johnson’s childhood memories of meals around his grandmother’s large round kitchen table. When that same table came into his possession, he felt a need to “feed the table” with informal Monday night red beans and rice dinners. Subsequently, epicurious.com recently named Pableaux Johnson to its list of “100 Greatest Home Cooks of All Time.” That “of All Time” phrase is pretty heady stuff (www.pableaux.com).

The ensuing “Red Beans Road Show” project is a series of traveling pop-up dinners inspired by meals around Johnson’s grandmother’s table and Pableaux’s desire to share Louisiana culture (www.redbeansroadshow.com).

It’s a simple premise. A local host provides the venue, the starters, and the dessert, and Johnson provides the heart of the meal – red beans and rice with skillet cornbread. Diners eat family-style around a table and lively conversation and new friendships accrue.

The Alabama Chanin Factory, helmed by Natalie Chanin with the Factory kitchen run by chef Ray Nichols, is the perfect setting for the concept; the precedent set by the “Friends of the Café” series makes it comfortable and familiar.

Bunny and I were greeted by Natalie Chanin when we arrived on a rainy Thursday night with a brutal cold front moving in. The crowd was mingling and exploring the racks of the Alabama Chanin showroom as appetizers were circulated. Pableaux Johnson’s photographs of Mardi Gras Indians were displayed on Factory walls and provided additional visual stimulation to the perfectly curated Factory space. We were a little late and I only got to the deviled eggs but I caught sight of other starters across the room.

Pableaux Johnson provided an animated introduction and explanation of the evening to the guests before we moved on to our seats at the many tables set up in the space. Once seated, huge bowls of rice appeared followed by bowls full of red beans. The assembled began to fill our bowls as plates of cornbread arrived to complete the serving.

Over the years I have realized that there are as many opinions about what constitutes the proper red beans and rice as there are people who eat it. Pableaux Johnson’s recipe for “Monday Night Red Beans” hits all of the high points and is a superior palate pleaser. Briefly, his version uses Louisiana-sourced Camellia brand red beans, andouille sausage, Tony Cachere’s Creole Seasoning, and Crystal Hot Sauce, along with the expected herbs, vegetables, and seasoning. It’s a pretty basic red bean recipe – no extreme frills or flourishes or experimentation – and it’s delicious.

The cornbread was a source of some culinary controversy as Johnson warned the gathering in advance that his cornbread contains a small amount of sugar. Those are fightin’ words in some quarters (including in my family) but the cornbread was very tasty nevertheless and a good complement to the savory dish. In Pableaux’s defense (if he needs one), the bit of sugar is part of his family’s cornbread recipe and that’s good enough justification for me. In fact, after a brief conversation with Pableaux in which I let him know that my mother is a bit of a cornbread snob, he brought over a couple of slices of the cornbread for me to take to Birmingham for her inspection.

Between the red beans course and the dessert, Pableaux discussed the Mardi Gras Indian portraits which lined two walls of the dining area. The Mardi Gras Indians have a rich and literally colorful history and tradition that is uniquely New Orleans and Pableaux’s respect for their craft and folkways is evident in his art and in his rendering of their story. It was satisfying to see the intricate details of the Indians’ painstakingly rendered and hand-sewn regalia sharing space with the meticulously crafted and hand-sewn garments of the Alabama Chanin showroom.

Chef Ray Nichols’s kitchen provided the dessert, a beautiful banana pudding that provided the ideal tasty end to a relaxing and rejuvenating evening at the Factory. As the guests departed, there was a washtub full of bags of Camellia red beans. Each guest received a bag of beans and a copy of Pableaux’s “Monday Night Red Beans” recipe.

Exchanging goodbyes with Natalie Chanin, we noted how nice it was to have an event such as the Red Beans Road Show so near the end of the holiday season (and, also, to kick off the Carnival season commencing on the Gulf Coast). I’m hoping there will be other such events at the Factory to signal the start of years and Mardi Gras seasons to come.

Bunny and I made our way home through a winter mist and fog and, by the time we got home, work and school were cancelled for the next day due to inclement weather. I’m happy the hard freeze waited until the Florence version of the Red Beans Road Show had reached its successful end. 

“The Most Essential City in America”

100_1065  One July Sunday morning during my Tuscaloosa years I was awakened around 5:30 by the ringing telephone. On the other end was my friend Beth Thompson with her soothing Mississippi drawl.

“Are you up?”


“Well get up. I’m thinking we should go down to New Orleans for lunch today. I’m craving a Napoleon House muffaletta.”

Instantly I was wide awake. “When are we leaving?”

“I’ll pick you up in half an hour.”

100_2248We got to the Napoleon House around noon, had our lunch, and spent the rest of the day wandering the French Quarter and the city. Later we parked on St. Charles near Audubon Park and walked to Cooter Brown’s at Riverbend for oysters. After an afternoon and early evening of rambling, we swung by the Maple Leaf to catch a set of jazz and arrived back in Tuscaloosa in the wee hours of Monday morning. That is just one example of a perfect trip to New Orleans.

For me, they’re almost always perfect.

Beth and I took pictures on my cheap camera during that trip in 1983. When I got them developed and shared them with her I apologized that almost all of them were fuzzy and out of focus. “Isn’t that what New Orleans looks like?” asked Beth. Beth passed away in 2002; I still miss her.

“New Orleans is the most essential city in America.” I heard those words spoken by a Chicago-based printmaker whose work was featured in a New Orleans gallery opening I attended in 2012.

That was the first time I heard it put in quite that way but I immediately understood what he meant and wholeheartedly agree.

100_1099The singularity of New Orleans – its people, cuisine, music, ambience, architecture, landscape, culture, “below the Salt Line” attitude – is often imitated but the city has a feel and a vibe that is only authentic in New Orleans. A friend – a jazz aficionado who has never visited New Orleans – once told me point blank that he “hates” New Orleans jazz. I was not offended and assured him that if he ever heard New Orleans jazz played in New Orleans he would probably feel differently.

In 1994, I took a friend from Indiana to New Orleans for his first visit. We exited the interstate, turned onto Rampart, and took a right onto Toulouse to get to the hotel. I’ve always enjoyed the shock of that moment when one turns into the Vieux Carre. As we drove down Toulouse my friend grabbed my arm and said, “Are we still in America?” From the back seat I heard my friend Joe mutter, “Are we still in the 20th Century?” It’s debatable.100_2255

I have long had a passion for New Orleans and some of my favorite memories occurred there. I first visited the city with my family on a Sunday day trip in 1971 when we were living in Jackson, Mississippi. I was 16, we were only there for a few hours, we ate at a Burger King on St. Charles on the way out of town, and I fell for the place hard and fast. As we drove down Bourbon Street and out of the French Quarter at dusk I remember thinking I’m going to have to explore this place more and often when I grow up.

By the time I was in graduate school I was fulfilling the promise I made to myself at 16. Tuscaloosa is only a five hour drive from New Orleans but, since I didn’t have a car through most of my college years, I became a regular traveler on Amtrak when I couldn’t catch a ride with friends who were heading down. I could hop the Crescent in Tuscaloosa shortly after noon on a Friday and the train would be crossing Lake Pontchartrain before sunset. Local friends would meet me at the train station in New Orleans and I’d cram as much of the city into a day and a half as possible. More than once I’d be at the Café Du Monde at sunrise on Sunday drinking chicory cafe au lait and eating beignets before heading back to the train station to catch the 7:30 Crescent back to Tuscaloosa. I usually slept on that trip home, alerting the conductor to be sure I was awakened as we got to Tuscaloosa.

In my salad days I would brag that I could go to New Orleans with very little money and still have a great time and great food. It seemed to be that no matter how much cash I left with, I’d pull into Tuscaloosa with a dollar left in my pocket. Remember the red beans and rice at Buster Holmes’s place on Burgundy? I recall wonderful meals at Buster’s with the sassy waitresses delivering the mounds of food and Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” playing on the jukebox.

As soon as I pull into New Orleans I take a deep breath and relax. There are many places that I love but my passion for and comfort in New Orleans is unique and special. There are always new places to explore but I am drawn also to the places and people I have known and returned to for decades: Acme Oyster House; Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s; Brigtsen’s; Faulkner House Books; hanging out on Frenchmen Street; Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub; Herbsaint; Muriel’s; Napoleon House; Snug Harbor; Upperline, with JoAnn Clevenger circulating graciously among the diners as if we were in her very special private salon; and more. 100_2262

As the tenth anniversary of Katrina and the flood approaches, I still remember the agonizing aftermath of the storm. I had spent a few days in New Orleans in August 2005 just a couple of weeks before the storm. For some reason, I had an impulse to take the long way down and had headed down to Mobile and left the interstate. I drove through the fishing village of Bayou La Batre in Alabama and into Mississippi taking the coastal highway along the Gulf past Ocean Springs, Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian, and Bay St. Louis and into the backroads of southeastern  Louisiana.  The sights and sounds of that detour stick with me today; it was my last view of those places “before the deluge.” They will never be the same.

That trip was fresh in my mind on the Sunday night before the storm hit as I watched the grim forecasts until late into the night. One anchor even suggested that “we might lose a major American city tomorrow” and I switched the channel. He might have been right but I was in no mood to hear that kind of talk.

I finally went to bed and turned the television on early Monday morning to see what had happened overnight. It looked like New Orleans had been spared the direct hit and the brunt of Katrina and I began to focus on the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf coasts, both of which had suffered more extensive hurricane damage.

Later that day the reports about the flooding in New Orleans began to appear and I watched the man-made disaster of the levees breaking with horror, sadness, and disgust as the various levels of government inefficiency were slowly revealed. I still remember the next weeks as a dazed period when I could not get the developing story out of my mind. For the weeks that followed if anybody dared say anything that I thought was insensitive to the situation of New Orleans, the Alabama and Mississippi Gulf coasts, and the plight of the people down there, my anger could clear the room (and did a few times).

I returned to New Orleans four months after the storm. I had to be a first-hand witness. Starting in Mississippi a few hours from the city I was stunned as the damage and sheared trees began to appear along the interstate. My horror only increased as I approached Slidell, north of Lake Pontchartrain, and crossed the shaky temporary I-10 bridge over the lake at 25 mph. Abandoned vehicles still lined the interstate and much of the city was still pitch black at night. There were signs of life and vitality when I pulled into the French Quarter on a Friday night but much of the revelry felt more like a wake than a celebration. I drove away from the city shaken by what I had seen.

I made a quick day trip four months after that to have lunch at Galatoire’s and celebrate the reopening of that legendary restaurant. John Fontenot, my Galatoire’s preferee, was living in a FEMA trailer but was cheerful as ever. “Tell people to come back,” he said. “The city needs them to come down and spend their money.”

I have tried to get back at least once a year since the storm and it is amazing to see how much progress is made although if one looks closely it’s very clear that there is still a lot to be done. Many businesses have come back and some never reappeared. New businesses are popping up and there are hundreds more restaurants now than there were before the storm even though the population is still decreased. The areas frequented by tourists have recovered nicely. Open your eyes and pay attention, though, and there is plenty of healing and rebuilding that still must be done.

Even though I have never lived there I always feel that New Orleans is “mine” in some special way. My grief and depression when the flood happened ten years ago felt unique to me but I know that people all over the world felt that their experience of the tragedy was unique as well. And none of us non-residents will ever fully understand the grief and loss of the citizens of New Orleans who lost everything in the flood. Many of them were never able to return.

Despite our different experiences of the event, what we all shared was the hope and certainty that New Orleans would be back.

In the aftermath of the flood I found myself constantly thinking of the Louis Armstrong cover of the standard “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” It constantly was playing in my head and frequently was playing for real in my music system at home and in the car. The tune sustained and inspired me somehow.

Those of us who viscerally missed New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina know all too well what it means. And those memories make us cherish the place even more “each night and day.” 100_2227