In honor of Women's History Month, here at FamilyArchive we are celebrating women who have made powerful contributions to their own families and communities. Too often women have been written out of the so-called “important” history, i.e. the stories that take place outside of the domestic and private space, partially as a result of not being allowed to participate in the public and governmental sphere by law and by custom. Women's History Month is part of a movement to correct the glaring absence of women who have always been vital to shaping the minds, bodies and practices of human life in every generation. We excavate diaries, heirlooms, newspaper clippings, and old cookbooks to retrieve these stories, to celebrate women's accomplishments in private and public space. In FamilyArchive's March entries, we will share what we can unearth, from women who have impacted our lives from afar and directly. We look forward to hearing your comments and stories!
In June 2015, my mom and I traveled to New Orleans to explore a vital aspect of culture for us: food. Our first stop: Dooky Chase, a restaurant in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, that I had first read about in Kim Severson's, Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life. Mrs. Leah Chase has been at the helm of the restaurant since the 1940s. She has fed her Creole cooking to countless jazz greats, who passed through her doors in the midst of creating the other visionary art of New Orleans. During the Civil Right era, Dooky Chase was one of the few public places in New Orleans that allowed mixed race groups to gather and strategize the Civil Rights movement.
Now 93 years old, Leah Chase has been named the recipient of the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Foundation. She has bounced back from tremendous odds, including Hurricane Katrina's devastation of Dooky Chase, which took two years to restore. When my mom and I visited, we were told by our waiter (her son-in-law), that Chase still works the morning prep by day, and sits in the kitchen at night with her eye on the service. Upon my mom's first bite of the Creole gumbo, she was reminded of a classic Filipino technique: pounding the heads of shrimp in order to extract the flavor and juice from the meat behind the eyes. Filipinos, Southerners and other people in the know, know that this is the best and most flavorful part.
We were asked if we wanted to meet Mrs. Chase after our meal. Of course! If it wasn't too much trouble. Escorted to the kitchen by her son-in-law, we found Chase sitting behind a table in front of a clean second kitchen, separated by a wall from the active kitchen. She had the biggest and brightest smile I had seen in a long time. I told her how I'd read about her in Severson's book (“oh, Kim!” she said, with enthusiasm). How the story in Spoon Fed inspired me to make gumbo every time a hurricane is predicted in NYC, just in case we lose power but can still feed our neighbors, as Chase did after Hurricane Betsy. Chase talked about her gumbo z'herbes gatherings, the traditional Holy Thursday meal, how the line stretches around the block. My mom's eyes glistened as we spoke with her, and at the end of our chat, after Chase called out for one of her chefs to take a picture of us, my mom took Chase's hand and held the back of it to my mom's forehead, explaining that this was the traditional Filipino sign of respect.
As we walked to the parking lot, the sky was aglow with gentle blues, oranges. I breathed deep, smiling through my tears. We had just met an icon, but I don't think my mom or I ever thought she would impact us in this way. It's Chase's energy, her genuine warmth and generosity. When you meet her, you understand why people have gravitated towards her for decades. Through her welcoming spirit Leah Chase has built and fed her community with food, faith, and love.