In a Southern kitchen, rice and beans bind generations and geographies

Cooking stew peas or any iteration of beans and rice was never meant to be dogma. Rather, it is a humble offering connected to nourishment and nostalgia wrapped in the comfort of eating what we are used to eating and will continue to eat.

In a Southern kitchen, rice and beans bind generations and geographies

Photograph by Martha Williams

I bury my nose in the cilantro and breathe in deep before I run it under cool water, turning the flimsy bunch over and over then shaking off the excess wet.

I gather and slice through the damp leaves and toss the stems in a bowl for some stock later. Next comes the parsley, the garlic, the scallion.

For heat, both sweet peppers and Scotch bonnet are needed. There is a logic to this: Fresh Scotch bonnet peppers are aromatic, and their confidence lasts throughout long simmers. They are boisterous at first, but they mellow and temper at the end to join the sweet peppers, which blend and yield.

I blend these in broth until it is the color of frothy jade and taste it, spooning it out into my cupped hand and slurping it up like how I’ve seen Mom do.

Needs more garlic.

Needs more . . . salt.

I spoon some more into my palm to mimic how my aunties wearing head scarves with thick plaits tucked beneath roll the flavor on their tongues and scan for a flavor that overpowers, or underperforms; how they clang clang clang the spoon against the side of the pot and look off at nothing in particular; how they make trade-offs—the meat will add more salt, the beans will soak up the flavor, the coconut milk might be too boastful, so, just a little for now. Maybe more later.

I have soaked the beans for stew peas overnight, so they give a little when I prod them under the filmy water.

Throw out that water and start fresh, I hear Mom saying. I bring the pot of fresh water to a boil and when the water “cooks out,” I add more.

Whatever you do, don’t junk the beans, Mom cautions. She swats away my questions about the etymology of junk. Is it “junk” or is it “drunk” warped by island tongue and syntax?

With “junk,” I imagine the beans languishing and losing form.

With “drunk,” I imagine the beans nonresponsive and belligerent.

Just don’t do it, she repeats. Don’t add cold water to hot.

Here in my kitchen, with Jamaican roots in Southern soil and miles from home, I’m holding on to hers and my family’s recipes—if they can be called that. They are more so cultural omens encased in culinary maxims. Proverbs that predict and caution. The point is to aspire to taste, I’ve learned. The method: First mimic, then master, then play.

And so, I wake up early in the morning to start chopping onions and peeling provisions just like Mom does. Just like home.

• • •

In most Caribbean homes, there is likely a pot on the back left burner of the stove with its lid resting askew—halfway covering soup or stew, a serving spoon covered with goodness resting nearby. Withered thyme and bay leaves corral to one side, floating above mounds of beans and salted protein protrusions or ground provisions under a blanket of flavor.

Cooking stew peas or any iteration of beans and rice was never meant to be dogma. Rather, it is a humble offering connected to nourishment and nostalgia wrapped in the comfort of eating what we are used to eating and will continue to eat. Then there’s the freedom to interpret and improvise and wind up at the same destination.

For instance, on Mondays in New Orleans, considered a northwestern contour of the Caribbean, creamy, rust red beans and rice line stomachs. It became a traditional dish on Mondays because it made use of the ham bone left over from Sunday dinner. Monday was typically wash day, and the beans could be simmered for a long time on the back of the stove while the laundry was being done.

With gallo pinto, a dish that is served with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, each region and family have their own variation. The basics of the dish in Nicaragua are white rice, black beans, peppers, onion, and especially cilantro. The rice and beans are cooked and then fried together. In Costa Rica, they use black beans instead of red, like in Cuba’s Moros y Cristianos—meant to tell the tale of the epic conquests between the Spanish Christians and African Moors.

The dish with the residue of black beans glazing the white rice is essentially a détente.

In Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic’s arroz con gandules, rice joins pigeon or gungo peas, a bean of African heritage that has migrated and delighted all over the world.

In pelau, the traditional dish of Guadeloupe, Dominica, Trinidad, Grenada, Barbados, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the meat is brown and cooked down with rice and beans, like Haiti’s diri ak pwa: beans, Scotch bonnet, coconut milk, rice.

In Appalachian soup beans, pintos are slow-cooked with a fatty protein and plenty of smoke.

Rice, beans, meat, repeat.

Wherever there was stew, soup, or one-pot, there was sustenance, a fact that made a cultural habit of dropping by someone’s house without notice and expecting to be fed—never inconvenient. Stew and a pot of rice, even if a day or two old, meant that you could feed them to the point of fatigue and send them home, full, with a tightly covered bowl for supper later. And that would be an act of love.

The old saying goes, when your partner sends you home with a bowl of stew peas, take note: Stew peas apparently can be used to tie or bind man to woman, lover to lover, certainly, parent to child, so that the two will never part.

• • •

Though no measurements will properly build the flavor profile of “home,” by learning my family’s and culture’s dishes, I step into a kind of inheritance.

And so over time, my renderings gave way to improvisations where measurements are concerned. “Season to taste” is my mother’s favorite refrain. The antidote for going too far or being heavy-handed is always readily available. Too salty? Lengthen the roux. Not stewy enough? Let it cook down some more. Trust, essentially, that you have everything you need to “make do.”

Any uncertainty about how it will taste is assuaged in the preparation. If the broth tastes good, that’s how the beans will taste, Mom would say. There’s a life lesson somewhere in there.

With each attempt, I gain more skill and my palate becomes more seasoned. Most importantly, as the elders in my family age and transition, the meals that have nurtured and nourished my family for generations connect me to them and their culinary evolution, too.

My uncle, for example, insists on “sinking the beans” when he can’t bother to soak them overnight. He boils up the water, and when the dark pink flesh of the beans starts to wrinkle and languish, he pours cold water on top of hot. The contrast in temperature, he theorizes, pushes the beans to the bottom of the pot, where they will cook more uniformly.

“One day,” Mom says, “I should try it that way.”

• • •

Early on in the second act of Steve McQueen’s film series Small Axe, three women with head scarves rock at their respective stations in a narrow galley kitchen in England and sing alongside a melody. One is rolling sticky dumplings between floured hands; the other washes callaloo and transports the heaps from sink to stove; another stands before a spread of scallion, onions, and thyme that she slices to the downbeat, lifting the knife only to put her full frame into belting the chorus of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games.”

They quiet when a dubstep tune starts playing and the pots bubble and simmer in concert.

Depending on what parts of the stew peas–making process you are in, there’s a score to match. Something upbeat, like dancehall, can serve for building the broth at the opening, where you layer flavors and stop short, praying the subsequent simmer-down will build up the rest of the profile. Downtempo beats like roots or lovers rock serve for when onions ebb and bob in the pot and turn clear. Nyabinghi drums are for the stir and restraint while the beans respirate, ruminate, and thicken.

If you cook toward a sonic end, the Nyabinghi drums, then—a driving beat played at Rastafarian spiritual gatherings called “groundings”—are like the altar call. Part gospel and African rhythm, the drums conjure a call to ascension like the wispy saunter of my sweetgrass incense.

The simmer-down can be an existential state—a way of life, full of lessons of presence and patience: The key to making stew peas is to slowly tend to the blooming beans until the yield is thick and heavy, enough to coax the rice to give way beneath it but remain fully formed and sovereign.

What a joy to witness that dance.

Read the full feature: Atlanta’s Caribbean Vibes

This article appears in our May 2023 issue.