Considering Leah Chase

Portrait of Leah Chase
Cutting Squash / Leah Chase / By Gustave Blache III / Oil on panel, 2010 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the artist in honor of Mr. Richard C. Colton, Jr.

Born on January 6, 1923, the renowned chef Leah Lange Chase spent her childhood in the small town of Madisonville, Louisiana, which is situated across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Because Madisonville did not have high schools for black children, her parents sent her to live with an aunt in New Orleans after the sixth grade so that she could continue her education.

These facts about Chase’s youth tell me two things: first, she was eyewitness to one of the worst periods in American history, when racism was legal. Second, her family valued education so much that they made huge sacrifices to ensure that Chase graduated from high school.

Chase experienced hard times early on, and yet she persevered, graduating from high school. She then waited tables in the French Quarter and worked odd jobs—including managing two amateur boxers—until she married musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., in 1946. She and her husband eventually took over his father’s business, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant.

During this period, despite segregation laws, people from all walks of life ate at Dooky Chase’s because of the wonderful creole food. Leah Chase was at the helm, working in the kitchen and developing delicious recipes. By all accounts, she attended her customers with equal care, from everyday folk to slightly more noticeable diners like Ray Charles.

Chase is deeply pious, and she recites the histories and legends of Catholic feast days as fluently as she does recipes. She is passionate about food, of course, but she is equally passionate about the cultural history of food. Gumbo, a delicious stew, is one of her trademark dishes, although she is the first to tell you that it can be made in all sorts of variations. Filé gumbo, for example, incorporates ground sassafras leaves as a thickener, and creole gumbo adds every meat imaginable—including veal—as well as water from canned oysters.

There is something to be said for food’s appeal to all kinds of people, and even how cuisine can serve as a kind of parallel for people in society. During an interview in 2006, Chase stated, “When you come to New Orleans, you know everybody makes a gumbo—I mean everybody: white, black, blue, green, and yellow. They all make the gumbo. Each gumbo is different, you know.” She then told of how the practice of using sassafras leaves in gumbo comes from Native Americans, and how using okra is a tradition handed down from Africa via the Caribbean islands.

It comes as no surprise that Dooky Chase’s Restaurant served as a meeting place for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It was a time so volatile that people of different races could not mix together legally, but diners knew that they were safe at Dooky Chase’s because any disturbance of the restaurant would cause an unfavorable public uproar. Leah Chase hosted voter-registration drive meetings and fed freedom riders, unencumbered.

Decades later, when the brutal flooding of Hurricane Katrina forced the restaurant to close, Chase was unwavering in her commitment to the city and worked tirelessly to reopen her restaurant. Chase remains a leader in the social fabric of New Orleans, even serving on its planning commission for the city’s three-hundredth anniversary in 2018.

The author of many prize-winning cookbooks, including And Still I CookThe Dooky Chase Cookbook, and Down Home Healthy: Family Recipes of Black American Chefs, Leah Chase continues to inspire people through food. One of my former students, Kelli Green, who is now in her early twenties, heard Chase speak at a PTA meeting at the Prince of Peace Lutheran School in New Orleans, when she was around six years old. Green told me, “Chase was sassy, and she had a kind way about her. I remember I loved listening to her voice because it was very warm, especially when she talked about her cooking. It was clear she loved what she was doing.” If you look closely, Leah Chase’s recipes reveal so much more than just food. They approach and understand different cultures and traditions, in a loving way.

 - Kate C. Lemay, Historian, National Portrait Gallery


Cited:  Charles Henry Rowell and John O’Neal, “Leah Chase on Callaloo/Gumbo z’Herbes: An Interview,” Callaloo 30, no. 1 (2007): 182–85.