Today is New Orleans culinary legend Leah Chase's 93rd birthday, folks. And to celebrate, here is a look at the week's best stories regarding the life of the civil rights pioneer, chef, and restaurateur who never fails to offer up some of her sage advice to adoring fans: "Everybody likes a bowl of gumbo. I like to think we changed the course of America in this restaurant over a bowl of gumbo."
After marrying Edgar "Dooky" Chase Jr. in 1946, Mrs. Chase went on to turn her family's Treme restaurant into one of America's most significant landmarks for Creole dining and the Civil Rights movement. At 93, she still works daily, well into her seventh decade running the restaurant, having fed numerous activists, politicians, presidents (you may recall the Obama hot sauce incident), and tourists and locals alike. Her gumbo z'herbes and fried chicken are the stuff of legend. And Mrs. Leah Chase is herself a legend, the magical kind, whose birthday also just happens to usher in the start of Carnival. Here's to the Queen of Creole cuisine!
Leah Chase's importance to the Civil Rights Movement and Creole cooking: "She broke the city's segregation laws decades ago by serving white and black customers, including civil rights leaders like Thurgood Marshall. She offered an upscale, white-tablecloth dining experience at a time when none existed for blacks in the city. Her jambalaya, fried oysters, shrimp Creole and Gumbo des Herbes have introduced countless people to Creole cooking." [AP]
On the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, civil rights pioneer Leah Chase New Orleanian Of The Year for 2015: "A younger generation... may remember her fried chicken, or her moss-hued gumbo z'herbes on Holy Thursday, and a few even may know that she was the basis for Princess Tiana, the first African-American Disney princess, in the 2009 animated musical The Princess and the Frog... But the proprietor and chef at the brick mainstay on Orleans Avenue is remembered by an older generation as a steadfast leader for equality and social justice." [Gambit]
A glimpse at some of Leah Chase's crowning achievements, how she came back after Katrina, and what makes her fried chicken so great: "Ray Charles sung about Dooky Chase's. Civil rights leaders, like James Baldwin and Thurgood Marshall, gathered there in the 1960s. And dining at Dooky Chase's became a necessary rite for anyone who wants to truly experience New Orleans." [NOLA.com]
On feeding Obama in 2008: "Chase said the Secret Service came by Dooky Chase around 10 a.m. to pick up the food. While the order only called for enough to feed a few people, Chase said, 'You know I don't do that.' She essentially prepared a full buffet: 35 pieces of fried chicken, two gallons of gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp Creole.'I made enough so he could share,' she said." [NOLA.com]
At 93, Leah Chase is well aware of changes she'd like to make at Dooky Chase: "She wants the take-out window back in business for walk-up sandwiches and snacks, and she wants to see the restaurant's bar developed as a social hub again. This would make the restaurant more accessible to more people, she said, and would hark back to the roots of the family business." [Advocate]
Mrs. Chase celebrates her birthday, along with Dooky Chase Restaurant's 75th Anniversary, with a special dinner tonight, January 6. $75/person with tickets available here.