If you grew up in Louisiana you probably grew up listening to Johnette Downing in some form or another. The New Orleans native has been the familiar voice to a generation of school kids who sang along to her songs or were read one of her award-winning books.
Downing, a prolific songwriter and author of over twenty-one children’s books and ten recordings, loves to share her Louisiana roots and has been considered the ‘Musical Ambassador for Children‘. Her work showcases all that is unique about the culture and shares it in such a way that while you experience the story or lyrics, you’re learning about life in the Bayou State.
Some of her work includes the titles Who Got the Baby in the King Cake?, How to Dress a Po’boy, Ten Gators in the Bed, Today is Monday in Louisiana (see video below), and Mumbo Jumbo, Stay Out of the Gumbo. Mumbo Jumbo represented the State of Louisiana at the National Book Festival in 2017 while Monday in Louisiana went on to spawn a series that has so far covered Texas, New York, Kentucky, and Mississippi – all written by Downing and published by the Pelican Publishing Company.
Not only has Downing performed for schools throughout Louisiana and on stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the French Quarter Festival, but she has also toured the world sharing her music making stops in Nicaragua, Panama, Morocco, Egypt, and South Korea to name just a few. And by using food as a source for inspiration for her work, wherever she goes, children can easily relate to her stories. During a live performance, she can have the children compare the foods of their culture to show them how unique they are.
As a former early-childhood music teacher, her dedication to sharing all that is great about Louisiana isn’t all she intends to accomplish with each performance or workshop. Her end goal is to celebrate childhood and to foster literacy through her music and books by educating the children through engaging and entertaining ways.
Downing, the recipient of twenty-two international awards, continues to be one of the great ambassadors for Louisiana. She has earned the reputation for being the ‘Pied Piper of Louisiana Music Traditions‘ and through her work, has become a state treasure.
Who makes the best red beans and rice?
Though the question was “who makes,” and you probably meant which restaurant, I will have to say my grandmother made the best red beans and rice I have ever eaten. She would roll over in her grave if I gave any other answer, so I am not tempting spirits with this trick question! No, sir.
When did you learn to make red beans and rice?
I learned to make red beans and rice as a child, probably as soon as I was tall enough to reach the stove. Both my grandmother and my mother made mean pots of beans, and I learned how to cook from them.
What do red beans and rice mean to you?
Red beans and rice means New Orleans tradition to me. When I was a child, nearly every restaurant served red beans and rice on Monday, and that is what we ate. As a young adult, there was a “meat and three” restaurant on Esplanade, and people stood in line for red beans and rice, myself included.
Are there any special memories that are brought up when you think back on it?
There are so many special memories that involve red beans and rice for me. As a child, during Mardi Gras season, we always ate red beans and rice, and king cake, before going to parades. After the parades, we would come home and eat the leftovers. Even as an adult, I make red beans and rice for Mardi Gras guests. It is just the perfect dish to feed hungry parade-goers.
Do you only eat red beans and rice on a Monday?
As a child growing up in the New Orleans metro area, we had red beans and rice every Monday. Every now and then in grade school, the lunchroom staff would try to pass off Navy beans on Monday. No offense to Navy beans, but it is not tradition. Sometimes you just need to stick with what works.
What’s your process for cooking a pot of red beans?
My secret to making delicious red beans is using my grandmother’s black iron dutch oven. She used that pot so much that the walls thinned with age. I swear you could cook shoe-sole in that pot and it would taste good.
The next must is Camellia Brand beans that you soak overnight. Don’t come at me with a can of beans! After sauteing the holy trinity, I add a generous dash of Lea & Perrins and add a ham bone with large chunks of ham still attached. There is just something about using the bone that enhances the flavor. My mother threw in a bay leaf for some reason, so I do too. I take it out before serving.
Later during the cooking process, I take out a ladle full of beans and put them in a large measuring cup so that I can mash them. I then return the mashed beans to the pot to help thicken the dish. When all of the ham pieces have fallen off the bone, the beans are generally ready. I like a slow-cooking process so that many of the beans have given up, thrown off their skins, and become a thick, rich base.
What do you serve with your red beans and rice?
Because I make thick, mushy beans, not the whole kind with a watery base, I often forego serving rice. I know, I know, that’s fighting words, so I serve beans over rice for guests. A slightly sweetened cornbread made in a black iron skillet is a perfect side, as are collard greens.
Did you have any new projects that you’d like to pass along?
Red beans and rice have played such an important role in celebrations in my life that I included them in several of my children’s books such as Today is Monday in Louisiana, Chef Creole, My Aunt Came Back from Louisiana, and Who Got the Baby in the King Cake?
My upcoming picture book pays homage to another Louisiana celebration, Bonfires on the Levee, a Louisiana Christmas Tradition. This counting book about the bonfires that light the way for Papa Noel, the Cajun Santa Claus, along the Mississippi River levee in the River Parishes is slated for a fall 2020 release through Pelican Publishing. Pre-orders are available on Amazon and on my website.
I am also working on a Halloween album for children called “Jumpin’ Jitters” that combines old traditional tunes with some of my original slightly spooky, mostly silly songs.
For more information on all of Johnette Downing’s books and music, and to pre-order Bonfires on the Levee, please visit her website at johnettedowning.com. And if you sign up for her newsletter you’ll receive free song download.
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Keep the red beans cookin’!
Eric Olsson is the food blogger of RedBeansAndEric.com. He publishes new recipes and interviews weekly. He has developed recipes and written articles for the famous Camellia brand in New Orleans, Louisiana. He has been mentioned in Louisiana Cookin‘ magazine and has had recipes featured in Taste of Home magazine – with his Creole Turkey recipe being runner up in their annual Thanksgiving recipe contest. He lives outside of Detroit, Michigan, with his wife and four children.