Tuning Up - Autumn 2022

Red Beans and Life

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The dish that is my mother’s legacy—and mine

By Clellan Coe | September 1, 2022
Illustration by Eric Hanson
Illustration by Eric Hanson

My mother was born in Baton Rouge, but her family moved to New Orleans when she was still a toddler, and she lived in a duplex on Audubon Street for most of her childhood. It was the house where my grandparents still lived when we visited them in New Orleans. That was her home. The New Orleans I claim as hers is the colorful and tuneful, hot and humid city of jazz musicians and live oaks and ornate wrought-iron balconies and trailing wisteria. I can picture it all—even if I can’t remember it.

Although my grandparents’ duplex was more than a hop and a skip from the French Quarter, we must have visited the Quarter, but I don’t recall doing so. I also don’t recall going to nearby Audubon Park, though a child might remember the hanging moss on the live oaks that can look like cobwebs. But I don’t remember the trees. I also don’t remember the park’s zoo, though I would have been told that, as a girl, my mother could hear the distant roaring of the lions on quiet nights. No memories, either, of seafood gumbo or musicians or beignets at the Café du Monde, and no wrought iron other than the railing on the front steps of my grandparents’ house. New Orleans was hardly New Orleans for me. New Orleans was that house: the brick steps leading to side-by-side front doors, one for the first floor, where the renters lived, the other for my grandparents on the upper floor; a bedroom that my brother and I shared; and the service stairs that ran from my grandparents’ kitchen all the way down to the rear garden. That back staircase was fitted with a padded cream-colored chair on a rail, and tucked just under the armrest were the controls to set the chair moving. My brother and I rode it up and down those narrow, steep steps until we were scolded and sent outside to play.

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