Gumbo might be the most famous New Orleans dish, po-boys have great publicity and king cake is now a seasonal sensation, splayed across social media for the hungry world to crave.

But red beans and rice? That gets into a homier, deep down appeal in New Orleans. It doesn't normally turn heads, but it's there to satisfy the New Orleans appetite. A salvation for thrifty, busy home cooks, the go-to lunch special, it’s there whenever you need something soothing. 

But now, red beans have inspired their own kind of craze.

Bean Madness returns in March after a spirited debut in 2017. The monthlong event is a citywide red beans and rice competition styled after the March Madness college basketball tournament, complete with brackets to predict winners, to break your heart and to cheer for Cinderella stories. 

The competition doubles as a fundraiser for local community organizations, and it’s a uniquely interactive way to celebrate the humble but vital dish around town, drawing directly on the tastes and preferences of New Orleans people.   

It begins with more than 50 contenders split into four “divisions,” organized by part of town. Through the month, they’ll progress through brackets in tournament style as restaurants face off at blind tastings. The public votes for their favorites. Losers walk while the winners advance until the survivor of each geographic division meet in the “Final Fork” (puns come with the territory with Bean Madness).

Winners advance to the championship round, scheduled for April 7 at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, 1504 O.C. Haley Blvd.

You can get a bracket and see tasting schedules at Make a suggested donation of $5 or more to submit your bracket, and you'll be entered in the running for prizes for the winning bracket. Contributions will also be collected at the tastings. 

Proceeds benefit Make Music NOLA, which runs a music education program, and Anna’s Place, which provides social services and outreach programs.

Bean Madness was created by local artist Devin De Wulf, the founder of the Red Beans Parade. This grass-roots Carnival group has been grown into a Lundi Gras fixture through its creative adulation of the city’s favorite bean (and, in classic New Orleans style, even inspired its own spinoff, the Dead Beans parade). Bean Madness is sponsored by Camellia Brand beans.

“My dream is that over time this becomes something everyone in the city looks forward to, so that when America is obsessing over college basketball, all of New Orleans is talking about red beans and who’s going to win,” De Wulf said. “I hope it just becomes another of these really weird, wonderful New Orleans things.”

The competition takes the form of pop-up tastings, and there will be dozens of them over the coming weeks, each pitting two contenders in a head-to-head contest. They’ll be held in stores and bars, farmers markets, theaters, groceries, museums and at least one brewery. The idea is to spread the competition for this everyman New Orleans dish around to different parts of the city. Some tastings are held during lunch hours; others are after hours.

The format is the antidote to all those best-of online voting campaigns, which mostly measure name recognition and preconceived popularity. To vote, you at least have to show up in person and actually taste the red beans, and the range of competitors extends from well-known restaurants to corner stores to up-and-coming talent. 

Restaurants that did well in the inaugural year return this time around with higher “seeding” numbers this time, which gives people a gauge of past performance and, like sports seeds, frames the possibility for more dramatic upsets.

Last year, the Final Fork came down to Cornet, a Bourbon Street restaurant, Joey K’s on Magazine Street, the Bywater grocery Frady’s and the Mid-City po-boy shop Avery’s on Tulane. Cornet and Avery’s advanced to the final round, and Cornet was crowned the champion.

A kickoff party is Saturday (March 3) at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park visitor center in the French Quarter (419 Decatur St.), from noon to 3 p.m. The Treme Brass Band will perform, and the first round of competition will begin, pitting reigning champion Cornet against Toula’s Creole Kitchen.

The party includes a panel discussion of red beans in New Orleans, with DeWulf, Li’l Dizzy’s Café proprietor Wayne Baquet and Zella Palmer, chair of the Dillard University Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture. The park’s Jazz Ranger Dou performs at 2 p.m. 

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.