“Bean-ing Together”: Emily Shaya’s Red Beans Community
Building a Red Beans Community
For most people, the thought of planning, organizing and hosting a dinner party for dozens of people each week is enough to make them break out in a cold sweat. Between the grocery shopping (in bulk!), sending invitations, cooking the meal itself and—of course—kitchen cleanup, it’s a serious labor of love to invite others into your home to share a homemade meal.
But for Emily Shaya, Director of New Projects for Pomegranate Hospitality, that’s just a typical Monday night.
“After I went to business school [at Tulane], I moved to Atlanta…but I really missed New Orleans. So, when I got back [to the city], I vowed to start a New Orleans tradition that was new to me: making red beans on Mondays. It was a way to invite people over and catch up with friends on a consistent basis,” explained Shaya. “It just became a tradition where I would send out an email and invite basically the same 10 or 12 people over every week. At first, I would get three or four people to come, because people didn’t want to leave their house on a Monday. But now each week, what we call “small beans” is around eight people, and then big [beans] means like, 26 people, show up.”
And Shaya’s version of Monday night red beans means that adding another seat at the table is never a problem: the more, the merrier.
“If we have a bunch of people in town, or lots of people have friends in town who are visiting, they are always welcome to bring friends and family. We’ve celebrated people’s birthdays and anniversaries—all that kind of stuff—at our beans.”
Go Big, Go Home (or Do Both!)
But this year, Shaya is scaling her batch of beans up—way up—by taking her version of the dish public as a competitor in the 2019 Bean Madness competition. A double-blind, single elimination, bracket-style event modeled after March Madness and organized by the Krewe of Red Beans, the tournament pits 32 restaurants and teams against each other in the “Road to the Final Fork.”
Before the competition, Shaya expressed her anticipation. “I’m excited to have a lot of people— different people—taste them. I’ve done a few events. We did a fundraiser for the Crescent City Farmer’s Market, where we had about 100 people come and try the beans, and people liked them there. So, we’ll see how the City of New Orleans likes them.”
Shaya, who won the competition and took home the coveted “Legume d’Or”, was one of the few home cooks going head-to-head with restaurants from across the city in Bean Madness this year. That meant learning a lot of tricks, like large-scale batching, on the fly.
Shaya’s Secret? Bean-ing Together!
Shaya shared a look into her process. “This is my first red bean competition—or any kind of food competition! I’ve been working on my recipe, because it’s a large amount. It’s two gallons or three gallons per tasting, so I’m making sure I get my quantities right and things like that,” Shaya laughed. “For beans, I think that one thing you can slip up on is putting them in too large of a pot. I say, ‘They like to beantogether!’ And my husband [Chef Alon Shaya] always laughs at me, but when you cook them in a really large pot and there’s a lot of extra space, they don’t get as creamy for some reason. If it’s a smaller pot, they get creamier over time. I think it’s just because they bounce off of each other a lot more.”
And for anyone who talks to Shaya, it’s no surprise that she’s a fan of keeping things close together, whether it’s the beans in her pot or the friends and family around her red beans table on Monday night.
“I think the red beans tradition in New Orleans is really amazing because people who live here grew up eating beans at least once a week—always on Mondays. In their school, they grew up doing it, and then I know a lot of my friends, in their work cafeterias, they have red beans every Monday. I don’t know if there’s any other place where people eat the same food, every week, in the same way.”