St. James Parish and the Birth of Red Bean Gumbo
“I certainly had my share of white and red beans and rice when I was growing up, but the beans usually came with smothered or fried pork chops,” says chef and influential cookbook author Marcelle Bienvenu. She grew up in St. Martinville, Louisiana, which wasn’t quite so eccentric in its use of beans as other parts of the state. Working and living at Oak Alley Plantation in St. James Parish, she encountered dishes that deviated from the norms of her home parish of St. Martin, including a signature cuisine of the area: red bean gumbo.
“I was asked to do a cooking presentation at one of the schools in Ascension Parish, and one of the teachers asked me if I had ever experienced red bean gumbo,” she says.
According to Chef Jean-Paul “J.P.” Daigle, a chef instructor at the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University, red bean gumbo is one of those recipes that “you go down a certain ghost road in Louisiana somewhere, and they only prepare it in like a six-mile square area, but you don’t see it everywhere else.”
Farmers and local economic circumstances likely yielded the unusual gumbo. Blue Runner Beans (then the Union Canning Company, because of their location in Union, Louisiana, along the Mississippi River in St. James), opened in 1918, first canning figs and blackberries in the backyard of local farmer, cook and entrepreneur Pierre Chauvin. He would eventually begin canning a family recipe he learned from his grandmother — a cuisine, indeed, that would define the company and the St. James community: Creole Cream Style Red Beans.
Now, I’m not taking credit for this culinary sensation, but according to my mother, my own dear grandmother, Ursula “Bootsie” Letulle (née Chauvin), worked at Blue Runner Foods around that time. As it turns out, Pierre Chauvin is my great-great-uncle. On behalf of all Chauvin descendants: Louisiana, you’re welcome.
As a result of Blue Runner, gumbo as St. James Parish knew it (as well as nearby Gonzales) would never be the same again.
“Many subsistence farmers along the river raised a variety of beans, thus the creation of Blue Runner Foods,” says Bienvenu. As a result of the proximity of the major factory, most meals in the area incorporated beans of some kind.
Red beans and rice has long been a New Orleans staple meal on Mondays — the dish you make on laundry day, because you can throw the ingredients (including that leftover ham bone from Sunday’s dinner) into an unattended pot and let low heat do all the work until dinner time. Parishes all along the Mississippi River maintained the same tradition.
Red bean gumbo followed from this, according to Chef Daigle. “What would happen is, after families finished their Monday dinner of red beans, there would still oftentimes be a lot left over from that big batch they cooked.” In the early 1900s, when an ice box was literally an insulated box with a big brick of ice in it, refrigeration wasn’t exactly a long-term solution for food storage. “You might have a quart of red beans leftover after you’ve finished,” says Daigle, “Maybe not enough that would feed the whole family the next day, but enough left that you could do something with, and it was important that you did something before it spoiled.”
The solution, says Bienvenu? The red beans left over from Monday were used to make red bean gumbo on Tuesday.
Proper preparation began with a roux that wasn’t too, too dark, she explains, “to which the trinity, bay leaves, garlic and mashed-up red beans were added.” Home cooks added enough liquid — usually water — to turn the thick, flavorful food into a soupy concoction that was simmered for an hour or more.
According to Daigle, the most interesting thing — the pièce de résistance to stretch the dish even further — came next. Although the meal was already protein-heavy, it was feeding farmers of all ages in an agrarian community who needed their bulging farmhand muscles ready for work the next day. They needed yet more protein. “Everybody had chickens,” he says, “so what they would do is turn the red bean gumbo down to a nice low simmer and break a dozen eggs carefully into the gumbo, but not stir it. They let the eggs cook until they were all the way boiled.” They did this 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Essentially, cooks were poaching the eggs in gumbo all the way through until dinnertime.”
Once ladled into bowls, it would likely have been topped with chopped green onions. The eggs were more than a protein boost, however: They influenced the flavor profile of the dish. Moreover, they likely took the place of rice in the gumbo.
According to Bienvenu, “The family lined up to serve themselves a ladle of red bean gumbo and one egg.” (She emphasized that it was one egg per person.) “Sure, rice could also be offered, but more than likely, the egg was mashed up in the gumbo to make it very, very creamy.”
Bienvenu encourages readers to give the local St. James dish a try. “You may want to experiment with red bean gumbo,” she says, recommending using Blue Runner Red Beans (again, you’re welcome), and confessing, “I have to admit that I often go straight to the canned beans when making my red beans and rice.”
For Chef Daigle’s part, he has made red bean gumbo a Carnival season tradition. “Lundi Gras is the queen of all Mondays, and I think this is the queen of all red bean dishes.”