Remembering Leah Chase
"In the South, whites, blacks, everybody, we eat the same things. We may cook a little different, but we eat the same things," Leah Chase told me one balmy fall afternoon in 2012 at Dooky Chase's Restaurant in New Orleans. Ms. Leah, as the Queen of Creole Cuisine was affectionately called, was known for sharing her decades of wisdom through such simple statements that consistently hit the mark. One of the highlights of my career was getting to spend time in her kitchen on that day—learning how to make her signature gumbo z'herbes (a gumbo cooked with nine different types of greens, typically prepared for Maundy Thursday), but also opening my ears to tales from her lifetime of experience. This fierce woman with a mega-watt smile was one of the first women to wait tables in the French Quarter, in 1941 when many of the men were off at war. She further broke boundaries by creating a fine dining restaurant that welcomed blacks, including musical greats such as Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and Sarah Vaughn, when other kitchens drew a hard and fast color line. She fed those waging battle for Civil Rights. She fed presidents crab soup and gumbo and shrimp Clemenceau. She fed friends.
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That afternoon, as we ate fried chicken together in a quiet part of the dining room, her husband, the now-late Dooky Chase, popped by to say hello, as was his custom when she was at the restaurant. Within seconds, her already-smiling face began to glow. "My boyfriend is here," she cooed. As much as Ms. Leah was beloved, she loved. She loved her community. She loved the people who gathered to learn from her. And above all, she loved her family.
My time with her that day was to report an article for Southern Living about the Southern Foodways Alliance, to tell the stories of the people whose lives and recipes form the bedrock of our richly textured food culture. And no one has contributed more to the New Orleans foodscape than its matriarch, Ms. Leah. Through perseverance, a bottomless gumbo pot, and heartfelt hospitality, she transformed the dining table into a forum for seeing eye to eye. "The best way to know people is through food," she told me. "Get them to talk about food. Talk over food. If might be about food, but you're also talking about issues." She believed that the act of breaking bread with someone created an intimate bond, one that could help cut through perceived differences. That's a lesson I'll long remember. The South was lucky to have her for 96 strong years. Rest in peace, Ms. Leah. The world will always need a good pot of gumbo.