Beans and Rice : Pigs and Money

Years ago we fell into a family tradition of making Red Beans and Rice for New Year’s Day. I think it first came about when a student of mine, Alice Kern, shared her mother, Oralee Kern’s, recipe for the dish. The Kerns were from Louisiana so I figured the origins were sound. Oralee’s recipe includes ham, smoked sausage and hot sausage.  She doesn’t specify but I imagine she probably used andouille for her hot sausage, which I’m sure she thought I’d never be able to get in Indiana in the mid-70’s, so just listing hot sausage was easier – she was right.

Turns out we ended up liking the recipe from the American Cooking: Creole and Acadian volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series of cookbooks. It has fewer ingredients (only smoked ham hock or shank) and its simplicity seems a more authentic version.  Sorry Mrs. Kern.

While getting the ingredients for the Beans and Rice, I started thinking about why beans, and why pork shows up in so many New Year’s dishes around the world, the most familiar being Hoppin’ John from the American South or lentils and sausages from numerous European traditions.  I knew about the beans – they’re round and numerous like coins and, to boot, they swell when you cook them.  So the beans symbolize wealth and particularly an increase in wealth.

But why pork aside from what Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain call its piggy goodness?  Well, before we got our meats in plastic trays at the grocery, having a pig meant you were well off.  Having enough pigs to be able to butcher one was even better.  So, pork symbolizes prosperity.

But, there’s more!  One reference I consulted claims that the pig is the only animal that can’t look backwards or, alternatively, it can only root forward.  I’ll let that go as is because I have no knowledge of porcine anatomy, or that of most other animals, to know whether it is true or not.  The point, however, is that because the pig can’t look backward, only forward, it represents progress.  An appropriate dish for New Year’s here in Wisconsin, the home of Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette and the Progressive Movement.

Forward to 2011!

Red Beans and Rice

6 C. water
1 lb. small red beans
4 T. butter
1 C. finely chopped scallions including 3″ of the green tops
1/2 C. finely chopped onion
1 t. (1 clove) finely chopped garlic
1 to 1-1/2 pound smoked ham hocks or shanks
1 t. salt
1/2 t. freshly ground pepper
6-8 C. cooked long-grain rice

Soak the beans in 4 C. water overnight (or for a short soak, bring to a boil for 2 minutes.  Turn off, cover, and let set for 1 hour).  Drain the beans.

Melt the butter in a heavy 4 to 5 qt. pot.  Add 1/2 C. of the green onions, the garlic and the chopped onions and saute until softened but not browned.  Add the beans, 4 C. of fresh water and the ham hocks or shanks.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 3 hours, partially covered.  Check periodically and add water as needed if the beans seem dry.

Beans and Ham Shank simmering

Remove the hock or shank and let cool.  Clean the meat from the bone and chop into small dice.  Discard the bones, fat and any gristle.  Mash some of the beans against the side of the pot to make a sauce for the remaining beans.  Return the meat to the pot.

Serve over white rice topped with the remaining green onions.

Serves 4 – 6 (adapted from American Cooking: Creole and Acadian, Time-Life Books, © 1971)


3 thoughts on “Beans and Rice : Pigs and Money

  1. Pingback: Clash of traditions: Birds or Beans? | Another Stir of the Spoon

  2. Hi – really enjoyed reading about your New Year’s tradition of Red Beans and Rice! It’s always so interesting to hear how others celebrate. Thanks to Wendy for bringing us together:) Diane

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