Chef Leah Chase Elevated Food and American Society
|thenorthstar||Jun 28, 2019|
The late Leah Lange Chase, chef and restaurateur, lived a life of service to the nation. She utilized her creativity and business savvy to fight injustice and foster an array of opportunities for Black people in Louisiana and beyond.
The preeminent Queen of Creole Cuisine --“Ms. Chase,” as she was affectionately known--harnessed the power of food to broach some of the most difficult topics, including racial segregation. She did not simply condemn it; she helped end it. To Chase, food was not merely a commodity. It was a tool. Whether through gumbo and fried chicken, red beans and rice, shrimp Creole or shrimp Clemenceau, she challenged the pervasive inequalities confronting African Americans in the long struggle for civil rights. In her view, our nation’s founding principles were not to be taken lightly, nor were they illusive, aspirational, or exclusive.“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.” These words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 Nobel Prize speech, which he accepted on behalf of civil rights advocates like Leah Chase, were not mere rhetoric to her. They were living doctrines she practiced throughout her life.
For Leah Chase, food intersected with culture, justice, and human dignity.
The act of feeding others was her mission. It was love. It was prayer. It was her activism. And her famed historic Dooky Chase’s Restaurant (founded by her husband’s parents and eventually transformed and run by her and her husband) was a safe haven. It served as a civil rights meeting place, where interracial groups met, even during the period of Jim Crow. Local law enforcement never intervened. Black voter registration organizers, the NAACP, Freedom Riders, and countless others — Dr. King, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and future Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young — met, organized, and strategized over meals. “In my dining room,” Chef Chase often said, “we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken.”
Leah Chase knew how to unify, build intercultural bridges, imbue folks with human dignity, and make people of all backgrounds feel good. This was her guiding principle. She treated folks equally and was ever cognizant of others. “It’s the way you treat people,” as she shared with NBC Nightly News, and what “you have to understand about people” is “everybody is worth something.”
This disposition was born out of her experience of growing up in the segregated South. Born in 1923 in New Orleans and raised in small-town Madisonville, Louisiana, Chase came of age during the Great Depression. Even as the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote nearly three years before she was born, she, as other African Americans during this period, was disfranchised long after they had voting rights. She knew, at her very core, that all people were worthy of equality and dignity and that everyone, whether presidents or strawberry pickers (her father had strawberry fields), should not be denied their humanity. Her ethos, acquired long before the civil rights era, harkens back to her racial, familial, and cultural roots.
Chase was African American and a Creole woman of color (a mixture of African and French, Spanish and/or indigenous blood reflective of Louisiana’s unique complicated history of slavery and belonging to both France and Spain in the past). Chase’s parents, Charles and Hortensia Raymond Lange, were devout Catholics, and her father instilled in her a fundamental doctrine: “Pray, work and do for others.” This indelible lesson — grounded in a deep abiding faith in God and an audacious faith in people and humankind — is one she carried literally to her grave.
She worked in her restaurant — serving others and advocating for culinary arts, equity, and justice — until she died on June 1, 2019 at the age of 96.
Throughout her life, Chase defied the status quo. In a male-dominated profession, she garnered respect and accolades. In 2016, she was the first African American recipient of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. She prepared meals for prominent figures ranging from Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Ray Charles, James Baldwin and Beyoncé to two presidents: George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Portraits of Chase, along with her culinary jacket and other memorabilia, are in the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She is also celebrated in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, its first movie with an African American princess, for whom she served as inspiration.
Throughout her life, Chase faced racial, gender, and class indignities. However, she never allowed these to define or limit her. She always embraced her very own unique self — her rich racial and cultural heritage and roots — and used these to uplift people of every background. This was evident even in her Celebration of Life and Mass of Christian Burial, both of which I had the honor of attending at Xavier University of Louisiana and St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, respectively. Both services displayed the magnificent richness of her life in Black Catholic institutions and culture. It was grounded, too, in the unique customs of New Orleans: famed musicians Terence Blanchard and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews led a church recessional, followed by a brass-band funeral dirge and second-line from the church to Chase’s iconic Tremé restaurant.The memorial service recalled her wisdom: “Your best bet in life,” as Ms. Chase said, “is to do what brings you joy, and to remember to be yourself and give your best to whatever it is you do, then use that to help others become the best they can be.” She did this consistently and effortlessly.
On the occasions I was fortunate to be in her presence--usually in her restaurant--she would express pride in what I was doing as an author committed to social justice. If I ever questioned the utility of my words or work, Chase's infectious smile and her willingness to take a moment to encourage me made all the difference. It was in those moments that “Ms. Leah” embodied the best of humanity and of our nation. She elevated food and people. She elevated American society. With her overarching optimism, her refusal to succumb to division or inequality, and her courage in the face of adversity, she and her very life are a model. She is what America has always aspired to be and our nation is infinitely better thanks to our forever beloved Leah Lange Chase.
About the Author
Trimiko Melancon is an associate professor of English, African American Studies, and Women’s Studies at Loyola University, where she serves as the director of African and African American Studies. Her teaching and scholarly interests and expertise lie primarily in African American and American literary and cultural studies; critical race, gender, and sexuality studies; Black feminist theories and criticism; African American and Black German studies; and race, media, and digital as well as cultural production. She is the author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation and co-editor of Black Female Sexualities.