In 1983 my husband and I went to Mardi Gras with our good friends John and Jerrie Frye. It was the trip of a lifetime.
Jerrie’s father, Jim Smith, was a politician in New Orleans – the tax assessor for the Fifth District. With this position came privileges not available to your average tourist. We had first-class treatment during our visit, up to, and including sitting in the mayor’s box on Fat Tuesday.
We stayed with Jerrie’s parents, who rolled out the red carpet for us. I’ve never eaten so well. We were treated to delicious Po Boy sandwiches upon our arrival.
That evening the kitchen table was covered with newspaper, which intrigued me. What followed was incredible. Huge piles of steamed crawfish and shrimp were poured on the table, still steaming and smelling of Cajun seasoning.
I watched as Jerrie’s mother made cocktail sauce to go with this awesome display of seafood. She deftly mixed ketchup, horseradish and Tabasco sauce together until it “tasted right.” I’ve been making it that way ever since.
The days that followed were filled with a whirlwind tour of the area. We visited Oak Alley, a magnificent antebellum plantation home, rode a “paddle-wheeler” down the Mississippi, and had a personal tour of Blaine Kern’s workshop, Mardi Gras World, where the parade floats were created.
In the French Quarter, we enjoyed coffee and beignets at the Cafe Du Monde, drank Hurricanes at Pat O’Briens, ate oysters on the half shell at Felix’s Oyster Bar, and saw the Preservation Jazz Band perform at Preservation Hall.
Jerrie’s father made arrangements for us to have breakfast at Brennan’s restaurant. When we arrived we were escorted past the line of people waiting to get in and seated at a table upstairs overlooking the patio.
Fat Tuesday was the highlight of our trip for sure. We had breakfast at City Hall with the mayor. There was a huge spread of New Orleans specialties to try, but I remember the dish of red beans and rice with andouille sausages the most. I had never tasted anything like it before.
Marvin and I were presented with certificates and keys to the city. We sat in the mayor’s box to watch the parades and catch lots of beaded necklaces, doubloons, trinkets and even a couple of spears from the passing floats. Dom Deluise was Bacchus that year.
Without a doubt, I’d never had so much fun.
When we got home, I tried to re-create those wonderful red beans and rice. After lots of failures, I finally found a recipe that, once tweaked a little bit, was a winner. It tasted pretty close to what we had in New Orleans on that memorable day in 1983.
You may never have this meal in New Orleans at City Hall but you can certainly eat like you did.
Cajun Red Beans and Rice
1 lb. of dried red kidney beans
1 meaty ham hock (I use a country ham hock)
1 large onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes, undrained
3 bay leaves
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 lb. smoked Andouille sausage, cut into bite-size pieces
Salt and pepper
Soak beans in water overnight. Drain and put in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, add the ham hock, and simmer for 2-3 hours until beans are almost soft. Meanwhile, saute onion, green pepper, celery, and garlic in a little olive oil until the vegetables are tender. Add tomatoes, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, thyme and andouille sausage, then simmer for about 15 minutes.
Remove ham hock from beans. Cool. Pull meat from the bone and cut into chunks. With a ladle, remove some of the excess water from the pot. You don’t want this dish to be soupy. Remove 1 cup of beans and mash them. Return to the pot to thicken the mixture.
Put the meat from the ham hock, along with the vegetables and the sausage to the beans. Simmer for about 30 minutes until the beans are soft. Remove bay leaves and discard. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over rice.