The story of Leah Chase reads like a social history of New Orleans. Creole-born across Lake Pontchartrain, she started waitressing in 1941—part of the first group of female servers in the French Quarter—when the men were off at war. In '46, she began working at her in-laws' restaurant, Dooky Chase's, where jazz greats such as Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and Sarah Vaughan would congregate. "There was no place else for them to eat when they came to town," Leah said. Then in the 1960s, with desegregation, Leah began "learning what they were doing on the other side," in places like Commander's Palace, where her clientele now had the opportunity to dine. For her, the strength of the SFA is its ability to transcend borders and bring people together over food. Every year on the Thursday before Easter, she used to cook up to 100 gallons of her Gumbo Z'Herbes, made with nine different types of greens. All of New Orleans, from Catholics to Jews, whites to blacks, would flock to her gumbo pot en masse. "The best way to know people is through food," she says. "Get them to talk about food. Talk over food. It might be about food, but you're also talking about issues."
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