Leah Chase, Creole Chef Who Fed Presidents and Freedom Riders, Dies at 96 The New York Times


Leah Chase, Creole Chef Who Fed Presidents and Freedom Riders, Dies at 96 The New York Times Leah Chase, the nations pre eminent Creole chef, always knew what to feed her famous customers. The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. liked barbecued ribs, and James Baldwin preferred gumbo. The singer Sarah Vaughan ordered stuffed crab to go, and Nat King Cole always wanted a four minute egg. She once had to stop President Barack Obama from putting hot sauce in her gumbo — a real culinary sin — and, despite pressure from a city still angry over the federal governments response to Hurricane Katrina, she fed crab soup and shrimp Clemenceau on the second anniversary of the storm that nearly closed her restaurant, Dooky Chase, for good. In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken, she would often say. Mrs. Chase died on Saturday at her sons home near her restaurant in New Orleans, her daughter Stella Reese Chase said. She was 96. Ms. Chase was much more than a gifted chef, although she would argue that there is no greater calling than feeding people. She spread her message through cookbooks, countless media interviews and television shows. Princess Tiana, the frog who wanted to own a restaurant in the animated Disney feature The Princess and the Frog, was based on Ms. Chase. It was the first African American princess in a Disney movie. Mrs. Chase possessed a mix of intellectual curiosity, deep religious conviction and a will always to lift others up, which would make her a central cultural figure in both the politics of New Orleans and the national struggle for civil rights. She is of a generation of African American women who set their faces against the wind without looking back, said Jessica Harris, who is an author and expert on food of the African diaspora and who Mrs. Chase came to view as another daughter. Its a work ethic, yes, but its also seeing how you want things to be and then being relentless about getting there. Leah Lange was born in Madisonville., La., a small town on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, on Jan. 6, 1923. She was the oldest of 14 children of Charles Lange, a ships caulker, and Hortensia Raymond Lange, a homemaker and seamstress. Her parentsvalued hard work and education, admonishing the children to keep their elbows off the table and teaching them to read with books that her father had salvaged from the trash heap at a nearby school for white children. Because her hometown had no schools for African Americans past sixth grade, she was sent to live with an aunt in New Orleans to complete her education at a Roman Catholic high school. Mrs. Chase was, by all accounts, exceptionally smart, and by an early age had memorized the Latin Mass. She graduated from high school at 16 and two years later took a job at a French Quarter restaurant. It was the first restaurant she had ever been in, and it sparked a love of food beyond home cooking and an appreciation of beauty that she would nurture for the rest of her life. She met Edgar Chase Jr., a jazz trumpeter and band leader known as Dooky, in 1945. Three months later they were married and began a family. They would have four children, 16 grandchildren and 27 great grandchildren. Mr. Chase at 88. In the early years of their marriage his parents ran a sandwich shop and lottery business in New Orleans in the Treme, one of Americas oldest African American neighborhoods. Once the couples children were old enough, Mrs. Chase began working her husband at the restaurant. She slowly pushed her husband and his parents to expand the business, to make it more like the finer restaurants she had worked at in the French Quarter. In a city operating under the heavy cloud of Jim Crow laws, Dooky Chases became the only upscale restaurant where African Americans icould gather. In these desegregated times its hard to imagine what it meant for Leah Chase to try to create a fancy restaurant for black people, said Lolis Eric Elie, an author and filmmaker whose fatherwas a prominent New Orleans civil rights lawyer and whose mother was a well regarded educator. Even in the days when my parents were courting, black people had Little League championship teams, college graduations and date nights with special people, Mr. Elie said. Dooky Chases was the place you went to for those occasions at the time when Galatoires and Antoines didnt serve colored. The restaurant became a gathering place for leaders of the civil rights movement to discuss strategy, often with their white allies. At the time, it was illegal for black and white people to mix in public places in New Orleans, but Dooky Chases became a neutral ground that the police never raided. At the restaurant, Mrs. Chase fed hungry Freedom Riders fresh off the road and hosted meetings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She let a young Thurgood Marshall use her telephone to call Robert F. Kennedy even when phoned in lunch orders were pouring in. We were trying to be accepted without hurting anybody, Mrs. Chase said in an interview with the National Public Radio program The Splendid Table. In the ’60s, here come these young people — bam! — they would just go in there and break the door down. They were going to take chances, go to jail if they had to. We couldnt understand that, but it worked. A lot of mistakes were made, but sometimes thats what it takes to change a system. The eras great musicians and actors, too, came through her door. The restaurant had such a hold on the cultural firmament of the time that Ray Charles rewrote the lyrics to Early in the Morning Blues in tribute to the restaurant: I went to Dooky Chase to get me something to eat./ The waitress looked at me and said, Ray, you sure look beat. Mrs. Chase was as compassionate as she was strict, always adhering to a code shaped in large part by her Catholic beliefs. She held up Gen. George S. Patton of World War II fame as a hero and was a fan of baseball, which she often used as a metaphor. I just think that God pitches us a low, slow curve, but he doesnt want us to strike out, she said in a New York Times interview. I think everything he throws at you is testing your strength, and you dont cry about it, and you go on. She supported Tipper Gores campaign in the 1980s and ’90s against explicit and violent rock and rap lyrics and demanded that young people dress properly when they came to her restaurant, yet she didnt leave the neighborhood when it fell on economic hard times in the 1980s, and an 896 unit public housing project opened up across the street. People urged her to move out. Instead, she renovated. If we would have moved off this corner, this whole community would have been gone a long time ago, she told Carol Allen, a biographer. Running away from it isnt going to help anything or anybod. I say like this, If you cant take a risk, youre wasting Gods good time on earth. Mrs. Chase believed in corporal punishment, opposed abortion and believed women should dress modestly. But she was always a champion of women, especially young women coming up in the kitchens of Americas restaurants. Her frequent advice to them was, You have to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man and work like a dog. Mrs. Chase won numerous awards for her civil rights work and her cooking, but she was perhaps proudest of the work she did to promote art, Ms. Harris said. Mrs. Chase was 54 when she first walked into an art museum. Museums were segregated, and you didnt go there, so we knew nothing, she said. Her guide was Celestine Cook, a New Orleans socialite and civic leader who was the first African American to sit on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art, which Mrs. Chase would join in 1972. Her husband gave her a painting by the late African American artistand her love of collecting was set. The walls of her restaurant were soon filled with pieces by artists like Elizabeth Catlett and John T. Biggers. It was considered by many to be Louisianas best collection of African American art. A chopping squash in her kitchen by Gustave Blache III is in the National Portrait Gallery, and her chefs jacket and other artifacts from her kitchen are on display in the the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. She often said she would be as mean as a rattlesnake without art. Art softens people up and warms them up to deal with each other in humane ways, Mrs. Chase told a congressional committee in 1995 in an effort to save funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2005, when New Orleanss levees broke during Hurricane Katrina, floodwater filled the floor of the restaurant but didnt touch the art, which a grandson was able to retrieve undamaged. For nearly 18 months, Mrs. Chase and her husband lived in a government trailer next to the restaurant while they struggled to repair it. By 2007, it was open again. The flood was only one of many setbacks Mrs. Chase countered by cooking. Her eldest daughter, Emily — her right hand at the restaurant — died giving birth to her eighth child in 1990. That child died a short time later. The day after her daughter died, Mrs. Chase was scheduled to open the restaurant at 11 a.m. So she did. I lost myself in the pots, she wrote in The Dooky Chase Cookbook. I had more tears in the gumbo pot than I had gumbo. In addition to her daughter Stella, survivors include a son, Edgar III; another daughter, Leah Chase Kamata; 16 grandchildren and 28 great grandchildren. Friends knew that Mrs. Chases health was failing in April, when she didnt show up for her annual Holy Thursday lunch, for which she had long served gumbo zherbes, a special dish that requires nine different kinds of greens. Seats for the lunch were always booked a year in advance, and nearly 700 people would share the meal. For the last several years, the chef John Folse had made the gumbo with her oversight, but Mrs. Chase always showed up and addressed the crowd. She had worked up until a few days before Holy Thursday, her daughter, Stella, said, but had to be hospitalized. She always said you have to do something every day for somebody else, Mr. Folse said. She told me she tried to never say no. Thats what the school of Leah Chase was all about. You just never say no, and you keep on going.

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