"Red Beans & Ricely Yours!"
- Louis Armstrong
Glossy blue cabinetry. Clever built-ins. Bespoke appliances. Piano hinges? In the early 1960s, founding father of jazz Louis Armstrong and his wife Lucille updated the kitchen of their 1910 Corona, Queens home in swinging modern style. Here's a look inside this remarkable room as it's preserved today as part of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
In 1943, Louis Armstrong was an international superstar and 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, NY. Even after a state-of-the-art modernizing and remodelling, the kitchen remained a cozy center of their home.
- 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.
Louis grew up in 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. She said she didn't know how to yet, but that she could learn. Not long after, she invited him to meet her parents over a dinner of home-cooked red beans and rice and the two became engaged.
After they married, the Armstrongs purchased the Corona, Queens house 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. 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."
I was fortunate enough to speak to the Armstrong's longtime next-door neighbor, Selma Heraldo, who fondly recalled Louis ringing the doorbell of her and her mother Adele's house late one night. He said, "Mom, you got eggs? You got bread?" Selma's mother said she did. "Would you make me an egg sandwich?" Adele invited Louis inside and gave him a scrambled egg sandwich and a cup of tea. After all the time on the road, Louis said he was sick of eating filet mignon and the like, and really just craved some simple homemade comfort food. Some years later, in 1971 (the last year of Louis' life), Adele made him a birthday cake with 71 candles. They all celebrated the occasion with a big party in the Armstrongs' garden.
And finally, no account of cooking and food and Louis Armstrong would be complete without a mention of Swiss Kriss. Louis was an outspoken devotee of the herbal laxative and took it faithfully after meals - at one time famously offering it to members of the British royal family, with whom he was dining. He even designed a humorous personal greeting card making reference to it (see slideshow), which he sent out to friends. Today, packets of Swiss Kriss are available at the House Museum's gift shop.
• Louis Armstrong House Museum (Open for guided tours, Tues. through Sun.)
• Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo by Michael Cogswell
Related: Kitchen Tour: Edna St. Vincent Millay's Poetic Farmhouse
(Images: Louis Armstrong with trumpet, New York World-Telegram & Sun via Wikimedia Commons; rice and beans recipe courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum; all other images, Nora Maynard)