This year, Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras fall on the same week.
And I cannot think of a better way to celebrate both days with a plate of red beans and rice.
Louis Armstrong was a native son of New Orleans and loved red beans and rice – so much so, that he often signed his letters “Red Beans & Ricely Yours! Louis Armstrong.” When he and Lucille, a Northerner, were courting in the early 1940s, he asked her if she knew how to cook his favorite dish. Lucille laughed, thinking he was just teasing her. But then she realized the seriousness of his question – and his intentions. It was a litmus test. Louis had to make sure that Lucille was able to cook his favorite dish. Being from New Orleans where red beans and rice is a staple, Satchmo wasn’t joking. She said she didn’t know how to yet, but that she could learn and requested a few days to scramble for a recipe. Two days later, she invited him to meet her parents over a dinner of home-cooked red beans and rice. He described her version as, “Just what the doctor ordered.” Not long after, the two became engaged and were married in October 1942.
While many know of Louis’ accomplishments on stage, little is known about his personal life. Louis was married four times, his first marriage occurring when he was only 17 years old. However, it was his fourth and final marriage, to Lucille Wilson Armstrong, that was his longest. This was the relationship that would define the rest of Louis’ life and his legacy.
Lucille Buchanan Wilson Armstrong was born in the Bronx, on January, 13, 1914, to the owner of a cab company. When the stock market crashed and destroyed her father’s business, Lucille was forced to drop out of high school and focus on becoming a dancer.
In order to help pay the bills, Lucille worked the club circuit dancing in shows in chorus lines. Lucille found great success; she danced on Broadway in the show “Flying Colors” and became a regular dancer in the chorus line at the famed Cotton Club.
The Cotton Club was one of the best known clubs in New York City from 1923 to 1940. It was located on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue (1923-1936), then briefly in the midtown Theater District (1936-1940). The club operated during the United States’ era of Prohibition and Jim Crow era racial segregation. African Americans initially could not patronize the Cotton Club, but the venue featured many of the most popular black entertainers of the era, including musicians Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb, Count Basie, Fats Waller, Willie Bryant; vocalists Adelaide Hall, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, Aida Ward, Avon Long, the Dandridge Sisters, the Will Vodery Choir, The Mills Brothers, Nina Mae McKinney, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and dancers such as Katherine Dunham, Bill Robinson, The Nicholas Brothers, Charles ‘Honi’ Coles, Leonard Reed, Lincoln Perry (Stepin Fetchit), the Berry Brothers, The Four Step Brothers, Jeni Le Gon and Earl Snakehips Tucker.
At its prime, the Cotton Club served as a hip meeting spot, with regular “Celebrity Nights” on Sundays featuring guests such as Jimmy Durante, George Gershwin, Sophie Tucker, Paul Robeson, Al Jolson, Mae West, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Langston Hughes, Judy Garland, Moss Hart, and Jimmy Walker, among others.
At The Cotton Club, Lucille received high praise and a local critic even wrote, “the most important contribution to the city’s ha-cha-cha is in the person of an obscure youngster, in the chorus, by the name of Lucille Wilson.”
Everyone performed there — and as you might have guessed, another notable name performed at The Cotton Club — Louis Armstrong.
After traveling throughout Europe for a bit, performing in the chorus line of various shows, and receiving world-renowned praise for her talents, Lucille returned to The Cotton Club.
Louis and Lucille met at the club in 1939, and Louis was smitten with her immediately. Lucille knew who the musician was – her mother was a huge fan and Lucille had been raised on Armstrong’s records. In an interview, Lucille said that she couldn’t imagine why a man who was 13 years older, with so much life experience, would be interested in her.
One night, when Louis was at The Cotton Club, he told Lucille that he wanted to buy all of the cookies that she would sell to the dancers and band members, in order to make some extra money. He and a member of his band would then take the cookies and distribute them to children at a local school.
From then on, Lucille and Louis were inseparable- at least when he was in town. Louis traveled frequently, performing in shows, but he did his best to keep the courtship going- he would call and wire Lucille regularly and married on October 12, 1942, after she passed the cooking the red beans and rice test, of course.
After they were married, Lucille quickly decided that life on the road wasn’t for her. She wanted to buy a house and put down roots of her own. She had an idea to buy a house, but Louis balked. She decided to buy the house anyway, and in March of 1943, Lucille put a down payment on a house in Corona, Queens, New York. The area was not far from the homes of other musicians, such as James Brown and Dizzy Gillespie.
When Louis got back from tour, he saw the house that Lucille had bought and absolutely loved it.
After she purchased the house, Lucille spent less time on the road with Louis, and more time at home. Although she was happy to finally be settled in Corona, Lucille gladly joined Louis whenever he traveled abroad.
This three story town home at was built in 1910. Armstrong was an international superstar and he could have lived anywhere in the world. But always down-to-earth, he and his wife Lucille chose a modest house in an ordinary neighborhood in Queens.
This is just a regular Queens ‘Archie Bunker’ home, and it looks like the home of a working man with a wife who loved shiny things. The den was the one room in the house that he could call his own. Louis said he didn’t ask for much in life, and this is the room Lucille gave him. He let her have the rest of the house.
Even after a state-of-the-art modernizing and remodelling, the kitchen remained a cozy center of their home. where they’d live for the rest of their days. Although Louis’ demanding tour schedule kept him on the road much of the time, he still developed close ties with his community at home.
Can you imagine Mrs. Armstrong cooking in her kitchen. If walls could talk, what stories they could tell.
- All the doors on the glossy blue custom cabinets are mounted on piano hinges.
- A Nutone food processor, outfitted with an assortment of attachments is built right into the counter top.
- Covered dispensers for waxed paper and aluminum foil are built into the wall for easy access
- Long before the era of Viking ranges, Lucille commissioned a deluxe stove from the maker, Crown.
- The kitchen also boasts an early 1960s Sub Zero refrigerator, customized to match the cabinetry.
- A chair converts into a kitchen step-stool with a flip of the seat. Lucille stood 5′ and Louis 5’4″ and frequently used the stool to reach high shelves.
Today, the neighborhood feels like a foreign country, predominantly Latin. On a recent visit, Caribbean music could be heard over the hum of a vintage window air conditioner in Armstrong’s second-floor, wood-paneled den. Shelves and cabinets with glass doors held reel-to-reel tape recorders and boxed recordings of Armstrong’s musings and practice sessions. Among the audio documents, museum staffers discovered tapes of the couple’s daily life in the house – a narrow brick place that they shared with numerous dogs.
The Armstrongs had no children of their own, but Louis would often invite neighborhood kids over to hear him play. When the ice cream truck came by their street, he’d buy them all frozen treats, but only, as Louis Armstrong House tour guide, MacKerrow Talcott, recounts “if they’d finished all their homework.” However, it was revealed in December 2012, 57-year-old Sharon Preston-Folta claimed to be his daughter from a 1950s affair between Armstrong and Lucille “Sweets” Preston, a dancer at the Cotton Club. In a 1955 letter to his manager, Joe Glaser, Armstrong affirmed his belief that Preston’s newborn baby was his daughter, and ordered Glaser to pay a monthly allowance of $400 (US$4,772 in 2019 dollars) to mother and child.
In the late ’60s, when Louis’ health began to decline, Lucille converted the den in their home, making it more comfortable for him, and dedicated herself to nursing him back to health.
By 1970, Lucille rarely left Louis’ side, even joining him for TV appearances, much to the delight of audiences. After Louis died on July 6, 1971, at the age of 69, Lucille dedicated the rest of her life to preserving his legacy. She began traveling the world, giving lectures about Louis’ work and life and met with musicians that Louis worked with (and some he didn’t have the opportunity to work with).
She also worked to have the Singer Bowl, located in Queens, renamed in Louis’ honor. The Louis Armstrong Memorial Stadium was dedicated in 1973 and held that name until it was demolished in 2016. The new stadium, located on the same site, was dedicated as Louis Armstrong Stadium in 2018.
In 1976, Lucille filed paperwork to have her and Louis’ Corona family home established as a National Historic Landmark and a plaque declaring it so was placed in 1977. The home is now the location of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, per Lucille’s request. The house contains all of the scrapbooks, photos and news clippings that the couple collected throughout Louis’ life.
Lucille passed away on October 3, 1983, in Boston, where she had planned to attend Louis Armstrong memorial events. Lucille’s willed everything to The Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, Inc. and the family home was willed to the City of New York. Until the end, Lucille was dedicated to her Louis. Her love for the legend can’t be mistaken and will never be forgotten.
The home now serves the public as The Louis Armstrong House Museum & Archives is a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark. The Museum is a member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of African American Museums, the Museums Council of New York City, the New York State Museums Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and NYC & Company. The Museum is a constituent of the Kupferberg Center for the Arts at Queens College.
The historic site is owned by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and administered by Queens College under a long-term license agreement.
The mission of The Louis Armstrong House Museum & Archives sustains and promotes the cultural, historical, and humanitarian legacy of Louis Armstrong by preserving and interpreting Armstrong’s house and grounds, collecting and sharing archival materials that document Armstrong’s life and legacy, and presenting public programs such as exhibits, concerts, lectures, and film screenings. The Museum seeks to educate and inspire people of all ages, origins, and locations.
Although the museum is closed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, you can still visit on-line Make sure you check out the special virtual events that the museum will be hosting throughout the year.
In 1970, he wrote about early life with Lucille, as collected in Louis Armstrong In His Own Words: Selected Writings (ed. Thomas Brothers):
The Red Beans + Rice that Lucille Cooked for me was just what the Doctor ordered. Very much delicious and I Ate Just like a dog. I said forgive me after I had finished eating. I Just had to make some kind of excuse. She accepted it very cheerful. Because I am sure that Lucille has never witnessed any one Human Being eating So much. Especially at one Sitting. I had her to save the rest of the Beans that was left over. Then I’d come another time and finish them. We commenced getting closer “n” closer as time went by.
So satisfied was he with her take that when he appeared on The Mike Douglas Show — a daytime television talk show — in 1970, he brought on Lucille for a red beans and rice cooking demonstration.
On the May 26, 1970 episode of “The Mike Douglas Show,” Lucille Armstrong hosted a cooking segment on her recipe for red beans and rice while Louis, Mike Douglas, Caesar Romero and Joe Williams look on.
Louis and Lucille were the ultimate power couple in their day, as they were happily married for nearly three decades, until Louis’ death in 1971. I like to think that love and food kept them together for all of those years.
And if you don’t know already by now…….
Red beans and rice is an emblematic dish of Louisiana Creole cuisine, traditionally made on Mondays with red beans, For the most part, ham was traditionally a Sunday meal and Monday was washday. A pot of beans could sit on the stove and simmer while the women were busy scrubbing clothes. Besides the red beans, the seasoning known as the bell pepper, onion, and celery along with spices such as thyme, cayenne pepper and bay leaf, and the pork bones as left over from Sunday dinner, were also added to the pot and all the ingredients were cooked together slowly in a pot and served over rice. Meats such as ham, sausage (most commonly andouille), and tasso ham were added to the recipe as many cooks adapted the dish to what was on hand at the time. In most modern restaurants, these meats are also frequently used in the dish. The dish is now fairly common throughout the Southeast. Similar dishes are common in Latin American cuisine, including moros y cristianos, gallo pinto and feijoada.
Red beans and rice is one of the few New Orleans style dishes to be commonly served both in people’s homes and in restaurants. Many neighborhood restaurants and even schools continue to serve it as a Monday lunch or dinner special, usually with a side order of cornbread and either smoked sausage or a pork chop or fried chicken. While Monday washdays are largely a thing of the past, red beans remain a staple for large gatherings such as Super Bowl and Mardi Gras parties. Indeed, red beans and rice is very much part of the New Orleans identity.
Courtesy of The Louis Armstrong House Museum (LAHM), here’s Louis and Lucille Armstrong’s red beans recipe, verbatim. (It’s transcribed below.) It’s an all-day and all-night process, and vegetarians will have to substitute. But for those who have only known canned beans, an afternoon spent simmering in aromatic vegetables might just prove revelatory true love.
Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum
POPS FAVORITE DISH
By – Louis and Lucille Armstrong
Creole Red Beans (Kidney) And Rice
- (Use 2 qt. pot with cover)
- 1 lb. Kidney Beans
- 1/2 lb. Salt Pork (Strip of lean, strip of fat)
- (Slab Bacon may be used if preferred)
- 1 small can of tomato sauce (if desired)
- 6 small Ham Hocks or one smoked Pork Butt
- 2 onions diced
- 1/4 green (bell) pepper
- 5 tiny or 2 medium dried peppers
- 1 clove garlic – chopped
- Salt to taste
Wash beans thoroughly, then soak over night in cold water. Be sure to cover beans. To cook, pour water off beans, add fresh water to cover. Add salt pork or bacon, let come to a boil over full flame in covered pot. Turn flame down to slightly higher than low and let cook one and one-half hours. Add diced onions, bell pepper, garlic, dried peppers and salt. Cook three hours. Add tomato sauce, cook one and one-half hours more, adding water whenever necessary. Beans and met should always be just covered with water (juice), never dry. This serves 6 or more persons…..
To prepare with Ham Hocks or Pork Butts….. Wash meat, add water to cover and let come to a boil in covered pot over medium flame. Cook one and one-half hours. Then add beans (pour water off), add rest of ingredients to meat. Cook four and one-half hours. Add water when necessary.
For non pork eaters, chicken fat may be used instead of salt pork. Corned beef or beef tongue may be used instead of ham hocks or butts.
- 2 cups white rice
- 2 cups water
- One teaspoon of salt
- One pot with cover
Wash rice thoroughly, have water and salt come to a boil. Add rice to boiling water. Cook until rice swells and water is almost evaporated. Cover and turn flame down low. Cook until rice is grainy. To insure grainy rice, always use one and one-half cups water to one cup of rice….. “To serve”
On dinner plate — Rice then beans, either over rice or beside rice as preferred. … Twenty minutes later — Bisma Rex and Swiss Kriss.
“Biography of Louis Daniel Armstrong”. LouisArmstrongFoundation.org. Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation. Accessed January 16, 2021.
“Louis Armstrong: FAQ”. Louis Armstrong House Museum. Archived from the original on January 16, 2013. Accessed 11 February 2021.
Goddard, Jacqui (December 15, 2012). “Louis Armstrong’s secret daughter revealed, 42 years after his death”. The Daily Telegraph.
Jarenwattananon, Patrick, (August 4, 2011). “Red Beans And Ricely Yours: The Culinary Habits Of Louis Armstrong”. National Public Radio (NPR). Accessed 11 February 2021.
Marshall, Keith. (July 29, 2015), “She snagged Satchmo: Peek into Louis Armstrong’s New York love nest”. Accessed 25 December 2020.
Maynard, Nora. (July 13, 2010). “Kitchen Tour: Louis Armstrong’s Cool Blue Haven Corona, Queens, NY”. Accessed 11 February 2021.
Songy, Marielle. (February 10, 2021). “WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE LOVE STORY OF LOUIS AND LUCILLE ARMSTRONG”. , Very Local New Orleans. Accessed 11 February 2021.
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