A red beans and rice number, Virginia

“One day Jim Duffy came by my carrel in the Eisenhower Library. Duffy was a Tulane graduate, steeped in southern history and politics. He said “Cynthia’s doing a red beans and rice number. You come along now”. What did I know about red beans? I was English. I knew about baked beans.

That night – it was Tuesday, November 7th, 1972, election night, Cynthia set me to chopping a slew of red bell peppers from Lexington Market. They were juicy and highly scented. Duffy said “If I know Cynthia she’ll want them smaller”. Real red beans and rice are made from red kidney beans and American long grain rice. There are neither chilis nor tomatoes in this recipe. In those days, cans of red kidney beans contained sugar; dried beans were the thing to cook.

Everyone seems to agree that Creole spicing is more delicate than Cajun spicing. It consists of garlic, oregano, cayenne pepper, paprika and basil, more of the herbs and fewer of the spices. I incline to the Creole version. Some people add fennel but that night Cynthia didn’t. I favour smoked paprika because real Louisiana red beans were first cooked in cast iron pots over a wood fire. I like fresh garlic, basil and oregano but you may use mixed, dried spices.

red beans and rice
  • Ingredients: Red beans, white long grain rice, red peppers, garlic, cayenne pepper, paprika, oregano, basil, a few flakes of salt

Make lots. Cold rice is always useful and there’s nothing like real refried beans. You can fold them into your tortillapatis with a fistful of coriander.

  • Method: Rinse your beans. Water them generously and soak throughout the night. After this soaking, throw away the water and replace it with fresh water. Chop your peppers as finely as you like. Add the herbs, spices and peppers to your pot, along with a morsel of salt, and let the whole thing bubble away for at least 10 minutes . After this, turn the temperature down and aim for a gentle simmer. Wait patiently for the beans to mellow and for your sauce to turn sludgy and red. This will take at least an hour and a half but far longer if you are using beans that you found in a Kilner jar at the back of your kitchen cupboard. (Canned beans are already soft, for them you just have to wait until the liquid in the pot thickens and smells appealing). Fix your rice, I shan’t say how, but it mustn’t be stodgy. I recommend that you eat your beans and rice from a bowl as it should be too moist for a flat plate. Corn bread is good with this: I might get to that later.

And the election? Richard Nixon won, but he had no support that long ago night at Duffy and Cynthia’s. His opponent, George McGovern, carried only Washington DC and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Four more years, we thought. But we were wrong.

(And if this were a memoir piece instead of a somewhat recipe, I would conclude with this little ditty.

Don’t change dicks
In the middle of a screw Vote for Nixon
In ’72

Or I might use Nixon’s own delightful slogan – You can’t lick our Dick… )


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