Remembering Buster Holmes
Some people live and die eating the same foods they grew up with; others are adventurous, gourmets who sample all manner of dishes, savoring the newness of foods in their heads and on their tongues.
If I had to choose a last meal, I'd pick a basic, comforting food, red beans and rice – a poor man's meal defying conventional wisdom that tells us a poor man's food is not as good as a rich man's.
I ate red beans and rice growing up, but the first time I remember thinking, wow, this is good stuff, came in New Orleans at a soul food restaurant run by Buster Holmes. I'd graduated from school, taken a job at an art studio in the French Quarter, and was living a block over and two blocks down from the restaurant, which was located in the 700 block of Burgundy Street.
I happened on the place by accident. I'd just paid rent and parking, and was short on cash, light of coin. While experiencing the gnawing hunger pangs you get when you’re broke, I saw the Holmes' chalk board with it’s daily menu and prices.
I went in, but at first it was a little intimidating. Before me was a handful of long, communal tables where you took your food and sat with a boisterous crowd of hippies, blacks, and sometimes a down and out writer, artist or hooker.
After becoming something of regular, I used to go back in the kitchen area to see what was cooking in the big kettles and pots and skillets, the specials and sides of the day, like yams, turnip greens, fried chicken, pork chops, sometimes tripe stew.
But that first day, I went for the red beans and rice, which came piled on a plate with all the French bread and butter I could eat for an amazing 27 cents. You could add a huge link of sausage for $1, and another day when I was more flush with coin of the realm, I did just that, discovering there was no way to eat so much food in one sitting, even if I had missed a meal or two.
Buster cooked red beans on Monday, white beans another day, black-eyed peas another, and so on. He served great soul food at low prices, but grew famous for red beans and rice in a city renowned for red beans and rice.
One time, in the kitchen, I asked him how he got his beans to turn out so creamy. It was a secret, he said, smiling as he poured a tablespoon of cooking oil in the bottom of a pot in which he was about to cook another batch of beans that day.
These days, when I'm not in New Orleans and want really good red beans and rice, I prepare my own in the Buster Holmes style, with two exceptions. I use more healthful brown rice, and the tablespoon in the bottom of the pot is cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil.
If he were still around, Buster might wince at my healthy changes, but he'd let it slide. When it came to red beans and rice, we saw eye to eye.