We have been busy with funerals. Oddly enjoyable gatherings of old friends and new tears.
“That is about all you can ask of a funeral,” L. A. Norma said to an elegant lady in black frock and white pearls.
She was from Rhodes Funeral Home and escorted us to the line into Saint Peter Claver Catholic Church, Faubourg Tremé, for the Funeral Mass of Leah Chase, world-renowned Creole Chef of New Orleans.
Inside the church, hugs from family, politicians, Carnival Krewe dignitaries, musicians and artists spanning the forty plus years we knew this great woman who blessed the gumbo and passed the ladle to us all.
Passing through the crowd, Jackie Clarkson, New Orleans long time District-C Council Woman gave us air-kisses and remembrances.
Leah’s handsome children gave deep embrace. I told them how I loved their mother who had taught me how to make a roux, when first I splashed down in Big Swamp City.
“Not hard to do, but till you know how you don’t know,” Norma said.
Leah Chase famously admonished President Barack Obama, “You don’t put hot sauce in my gumbo.”
Besides, Obama, more dignitaries have dined at Dooky Chase’s than can be listed here. A few include President George W. Bush, Hank Aaron, Ernest Gaines, James Baldwin, Bill Cosby, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, and a host of others.
As noted by the James Beard Foundation, “Chase’s original dishes would help pioneer the Creole food movement and her recipes for dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and fried chicken have gone on to become kitchen staples.”
Leah Chase even served as the inspiration for Princess Tiana in Disney Studio’s
Princess and the Frog.
Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, The Night Tripper, whose own funeral was the following week in New Orleans, sang “Down in New Orleans” on the soundtrack.
As a writer of two cookbooks — And Still I Cook, and The Dooky Chase Cookbook — and winner of countless food and humanitarian awards, Chase was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America in 2010.
Leah Chase received many other awards, including multiple awards from the NAACP, the Weiss Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the New Orleans Times-Picayune 1997 Loving Cup Award, and the Outstanding Women Award from the national conference of Negro Women.
Southern Foodways Alliance presented her with a lifetime achievement award in 2000.
She received honorary degrees from Dillard University, Tulane University, Loyola University, Our Lady of Holy Cross College, Madonna College, and Johnson and Wales University.
Ms. Chase is also recipient of the Francis Anthony Drexel Medal, the highest award presented to an individual by Xavier University.
In 2009, Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans named a permanent gallery in Chase’s honor.
And Ray Charles sang of Dooky Chase’s famed restaurant in his song, Early in the Morning.
In celebration of Chef Chase’s longstanding contributions, the New Orleans Museum of Art presented an exhibition of twenty paintings that capture Chase at work in the kitchen of her restaurant. The series, painted by New Orleans raised Gustave Blache III, captures her lifelong dedication to the Culinary Arts. One of the images was included in the collection of iconic American images in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C.
Following the Funeral Mass, a prized honor dirge was provided by the members
Seven Mystic Sisters of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, ending with the joyous ‘Cutting Loose of the Body’ (to fly away Home) and Second Line jubilation with the Seven Mystic Sisters
Today, Dooky Chase’s continues under the family operation.
Leah befriended me when I was a young Yank from the Land of Lincoln, newly splashed down in The Swamp. She taught me how to make a roux. Listened patiently when I — naive white boy — explained the civil rights movement of my college daze at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. (She knew Thurgood Marshall, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King, to name a few. I knew John and Wendell O’Neal, Ray Lenzi, and Jane Adams.) My most cheeky act of all, I once baked her an apple pie. She told me it was good. But talk about taking Shrimp to Delcambre!
Like I said, she was patient.
She shared the awful days after Katrina, often taking my friends and me around to look at the devastation inside Dooky’s. She and Dooky lived in side-by-side FEMA trailers across the street. Once, when I mentioned we were having lunch at nearby Willie Mae’s Scotch House, she said, “My red beans are better.” They were, but her stove wasn’t working that day.
We had a favorite Leah Chase dish, Shrimp Clemenceau, named for Georges Eugene Benjamin Clemenceau (1841-1929), French statesman who played a key role in negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. His Grandson, Pierre Clemenceau (1904 -1995) lived as a noted bon vivant in New Orleans, married to local socialite, Jane Grunewald.
As we passed along the aisles of Saint Peter Claver Church we met the great Baton Rouge / New Orleans artist, Clifton Webb, who invited us to view a new work dedicated to Leah Chase: On The Shoulders of Ancestors, on display in the church of the lovely new boutique Hotel Peter and Paul, a deconsecrated Catholic church, in adjacent Faubourg Marigny.
Leah died the first day of Hurricane Season, 2019.
As fate would have it we had a last meal together at Dooky’s during last year’s New Orleans Film Festival talking about friends and years. I loved her, and am so glad we were / are friends.