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A man in a Jazz Fest red beans shirt mixes his rice with his red beans. 

Red beans and rice is a dish that likes company, and not just the smoked sausage or pork chops on the side.

We still hear all about its roots as the Monday laundry day dish, but today red beans and rice is also party food. It's on the stove when people come over and ladled up at the countless occasions that bring us outside to cook. It feeds a crowd affordably, soothes the soul like comfort food should and lets you know where you stand: in New Orleans. 

This week, an annual celebration of red beans returns with a new format that brings the party. 

Bean Madness is a tournament-style red beans and rice competition. It spoofs the March Madness basketball hoopla, complete with brackets and evolving storylines (defending champs, rivalries, bracket busters and Cinderella stories). Neighborhood joints, upscale restaurants and independent cooks all compete in head-to-head tastings.

This time around, Bean Madness also includes group tastings at a Bywater block party, a Treme art space event and a lakefront Bucktown farmers market on the road to a championship. 

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Rene Guzman, chef of Ma Momma's House of Cornbread, Chicken & Waffles won the 2018 edition of Bean Madness in New Orleans. Vince Hayward (center), CEO of Camellia Beans, and Devin De Wulf, founder of the Krewe of Red Beans, present the Legume d'Or trophy for her championship red beans.

The 2019 tournament starts with 32 competitors facing off one-on-one at pop-up-style tastings at venues around town. The kick-off event is Wednesday (March 20) at the Jean Lafitte National Park Visitor's Center (419 Decatur St.), from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Chef Smitty, formerly of Bean Madness contender Joey K's, will compete with Emily Shaya, who has earned a following for her red beans through charitable events held with her husband, the chef Alon Shaya. Treme Brass Brand plays from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.

From March 21 to 24, the next round takes place at a circuit of shops and bars (keep your eyes peeled, locations and times vary).

From here, the competition takes more of a festival format, with 16 contenders at a Bywater block party dubbed the Sweet 6-Bean on March 30, outside Bud Rip's Bar (3200 Burgundy St.). From noon to 7 p.m., attendees get to sample beans and cast their votes, while music continues from Happy Talk Band, the Tin Men, the Treme Brass Band, Bon Bon Vivant, Múevelo and the Maggie Belle Band.

The eight that survive move to a tasting in the Bell ArtSpace Campus in Treme on April 3. Then it’s down to the Final Fork on April 5 at the Crescent City Farmers Market in Bucktown. The championship round will be held at the Bywater restaurant and event space Capulet on April 8 — a Monday, fittingly, and also the date of the college basketball championship. 

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Shoppers at the Crescent City Farmers Market sample competing red beans recipes as part of the Beans Madness contest in March.

Bean Madness has been refreshingly hands-on as a contest based on taste instead of reputation. Bean Madness votes are not counted by clicks by rather must be cast in person by those who actually sample the goods. New Orleans people themselves pick the winners for each round. Losers walk while the winners advance through the bracket.

This uniquely democratic and interactive event is run by the Krewe of Red Beans & Dead Beans, which hold bean-themed Lundi Gras parades in New Orleans. 

Events and tastings leading to the championship are free to attend, and donations are encouraged to sample and vote (though not required).

A donation (starting at $5) is required to complete an official bracket.

Proceeds support seven partner nonprofits. Last year, some 3,600 people took part in the tastings, raising $8,000 for community groups, organizers reported.

The 2019 champion, the New Orleans East eatery Ma Momma's House of Cornbread, Chicken & Waffles, is back in the competition again this year. 

Who will hoist the trophy in 2019? Let the bracket be your guide. 

Get Bean Madness brackets and event schedules at redbeansnola.com.


Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.