Leah Chase and a healing bowl of Gumbo
“Meet 94 four year old Leah Chase. For seventy years she has led the kitchen at New Orleans famous Dooky Chase restaurant. During her time she’s hosted US Presidents, and civil rights activists, and music legends from Ray Charles to Michael Jackson. Her specialty is serving creole food specialties like gumbo, fried chicken and sweet potatoes. Dan Saladino sits down with Leah as she tells her story through the food she’s cooked and asks whether a restaurant can change the course of a country.“
This post is another small tribute to Leah Chase, outstanding human being that she is, and also another tribute to BBC Radio Four’s The Food Programme. The complex and intimate relationship between food and love and community and politics is explored in this interview with Leah Chase from New Orleans who has cooked through real live hurricanes and the humdrum hurricanes of political change. Her message is simple. We are all human, we all need feeding and we are all here to help each other. It’s is about ‘coming together‘, it is about integration. You can imagine how my psychotherapist’s ears pricked up at that. Integration and kindness are my favourite words and this lady embodies both. I am also a great believer in ‘the power of food to bring us together and help make sense of the world.’
‘Everybody has to eat’, she says, ‘ If you can feed them it makes them happy. It is a good life. One way of thanking is to do for others.‘ I once heard an extremely eminent consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist say much the same thing although it took longer. Working with extremely dysfunctional patients on the ward she found the best treatment building self-esteem and a sense of shared reality was to cause people to help each other. One way of thanking is to do for others. Yes, indeed and it reduces psychosis as well.
Leah was six in 1929 and she knows firsthand about discrimination, segregation and poverty. Maybe that is why coming together seems so important to her and why she has such a lot to teach us. She has had a hard life ‘but not a hungry one‘. Her people knew to plant things, raise a few chickens ‘and your hog‘.
(A word here about our own hog, a stately Large Black pig called Porcia (sic) whose eight piglets will be running around for another few months to come before they go the great sausage machine in the sky and crackling is back on the menu.)
Leah went to work in a fancy restaurant before she had ever eaten in one and she loved it. In the New Orleans of the 1930s she was 16 and adored her job as a waitress. Why? ‘Because you make people happy. If I could walk good today I would wait tables because I loved it.’ At 94 her waitressing days are behind her but she is queen of Creole cooking and in any case, you get the feeling that Leah Chase would have found a way to love whatever she did. She is that kind of person.
She married a jazz musician and that meant that her restaurant, in due course, was full of musicians and music, but it wasn’t until 2005 that she began entertaining presidents. After hurricane Katrina in 2005, George Bush paid more than one visit. Her kitchen underwater Leah pulled out all the stops to create a full scale Creole feast worthy of a president and, not surprisingly, President Obama sought her out too. Famously he got off on the wrong foot with Leah by asking for the hot sauce to adulterate his bowl of gumbo. “You told him off good,” cackle Leah’s friends and the president enjoyed the smack on the wrist by all accounts or it didn’t stop him from returning whenever he could. Is Leah expecting President Trump to drop by? Her answer is full of wisdom. “I’m still trying to understand this man. I don’t know whether talking to him will matter. We don’t want walls… We want people to come together. We need one another… Or our whole world will be destroyed.’
Leah believes in always having a dream and focussing on the positive in life. Her advice is free and she has no axe to grind. You could do worse than take it. ‘We give up too soon. If we just hang in there and do whatever we have to do it’s going to be alright.‘
So I have nothing to add to that apart from this kitchen basic recipe for red cabbage which might fill a hungry spot. Worth mentioning perhaps that it costs peanuts, it’s low in calories and very tasty.
Red Cabbage with Apple, Onion and Beetroot
Small red cabbage chopped
Large cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
Large onion, sliced
2 small beetroot (optional), chopped
salt and pepper
1 tblsp Olive oil
2 tbsp really good Balsamic vinegar
Put all the ingredients in a heavy pan with a lid and cook on a slow heat for half an hour. Eat immediately with anything that takes your fancy. A couple of slices of good ham and a dollop of fromage frais go well but grilled white fish or a slice of Cheddar or Dolcelatte would do just as well with some nice dark bread.