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.