Red Beans and Rice

Red Beans and Rice

Tonight I’m cooking Red Beans and Rice. It’s a specialty of New Orleans. Usually cooked on a Monday, washing day, and put on in the morning and cooked real slow. I learnt this from NPR, America’s great public broadcaster, when I was in Washington, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Given Monday is my work at home day, I was able to get the dish on early, in the crock pot (and put on the washing!).

The recipe I’m using comes from this terrific book called Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans. My friend and colleague Kate Brady put me onto this book. It collects recipes from New Orleans. After Katrina, people wrote into the local newspaper with requests like, I’ve lost my recipe for Red beans and Rice, and someone else would write in with a recipe. As the editors wrote:

In New Orleans, food is culture, food is family, food is comfort. Food is life.

It is another example of a brilliant recovery project, of the little things that make a difference.

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Food in the recovery context is fascinating. Food is a great way to get people together. I was told early in my career, offer people counselling or education, and they won’t come. Offer them food, with a talk on the side, and they will. Importantly, it’s an opportunity for people to get together. The good folks of Strathewen, in the early days after Black Saturday, in an unorganised way started to meet at one of the few remaining houses for dinner once a week. It seemed like a good idea. This event then transferred to Strathewen Community Centre. It was strictly for getting together and having a meal. When I did the memorial project, I thought this would be great way to consult with the community. Steve Pascoe told me firmly “Richo, you are welcome to have dinner with us, but don’t ask no questions. This is our time to get together”

Food is also comforting. It is one of those things that links us to something that we know and feel secure. It’s not called comfort food for nothing. It also allows people to contribute, to do something, to feel useful. One of the parents in our school became terribly ill. A food roster was developed, and dishes were dropped off every night for 3 months.

We arranged for Dr Rob Moodie, who then was head of VicHealth, to come to talk to people who survived Bali about healthy living. His brief, amongst other things was to talk about healthy eating. I expected him to talk about food pyramids. Instead he talked a lot about how the French go about thinking about food, shopping, preparing food, serving food, eating food, all together, and they had a low incidence of heart disease. The importance of being together, and ritual, stuck in my mind.

I recall an executive director saying to me in a car on the way to a community meeting, why are we bothering to fund these bbqs for people. How I wished for an economic analysis that said for every sausage cooked, $50 was saved in psychologist costs.

Of course food is one of the basics, one of the things we move heaven and high earth to get to people in the early hours and days post disaster. Interestingly, in an excellent report by the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry on the food challenges in the Queensland Floods in 2011, the report noted that young inner city apartment dwellers were really challenged in food preparation by the loss of power and gas. Many of the apartment were not designed with kitchens, many people either ate out, got take away or heated pre made meals. Without power, it was a challenge to prepare food (although many had a BBQ on their balcony!).

When my father died, as we were all sitting around planning his funeral, suddenly my sister burst out in horror; the mayonnaise recipe, gone to heaven. We all had a laugh. My dad’s mayonnaise recipe, he wouldn’t tell us or write it down, it was a state secret, he said. As it turned out I was relating this story to a friend, and I mentioned something about sweetened condensed milk (I used to get to lick the lid of the tin), and my friend Liz said, hang on, I think my dad made the same recipe. She was able to retrieve the recipe for us (turns out it came from the back of the Nestle tin).

The beans are done, ready to be served, from the Crock Pot that was my mum’s (and one of the things that I would retrieve from the “burning house”) and time for us all to sit down and reflect on work that was and wasn’t done, and the first day of the school term.

Professor Longhair cookin’ up some Red Beans

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