David Beriss has made food in general, and New Orleans food culture in particular, a focus in his work as an anthropologist at the University of New Orleans. His latest research paper, "Red Beans and Rebuilding: An Iconic Dish, Memory and Culture in New Orleans," uses our fondness for red beans to examine the city's identity. The work received special recognition at the recent Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery at Oxford University in England. A Minnesota native, Beriss has lived in New Orleans since 1997.
What stirred your interest in red beans as a subject?
Beriss: Ultimately, this is a mundane dish, but it's one of those things that symbolize New Orleans that you don't necessarily know about unless you live here. It's not gourmet at all. It's the staff meal at restaurants, it's in the cafeteria at my kids' schools every Monday. And after Hurricane Katrina there was this insistence that people missed red beans more than anything else. You heard it from everyone. It reminded them of home. I felt that and I'm not even from there. That made it stand out as a key symbol.
You've called red beans "central to the practice and mythology of New Orleans cuisine." How so?
B: It's part of the story we tell ourselves about why New Orleans is unique. The food comes from this mixing of people, the different European nations, the Africans, the Native Americans. Pick up any cookbook and that story is always there, though the oppression is usually left out. The idea that beans themselves are an American thing adapted by Europeans, that the rice arrives from Africa through slavery and then the combination of beans and rice, that influence from the Caribbean, well that's our entire history in three pieces.
What's it like studying food anthropology in New Orleans?
B: On some level, anthropologists are always interested in food because it's an important part of what humans do. In New Orleans, it's hard to miss the fact that food is one of our key symbols. So it's fun. The students love it, and there's this growing concentration on it at UNO that we want to capitalize on. If you're looking at food policy, restaurant marketing, food production, labor issues, zoning and urban planning, those are all realms where having a background in this could be helpful. — IAN MCNULTY