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The Queen of Creole cooking Leah Chase passed away at the age of 96, in a career that saw American society shift and change greatly, Chase acted as a constant and binding catalyst through doing what she did best – cooking.
Back in the 40s, when Chase first arrived at her now iconic New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase’s, America was still deeply divided along the fault lines of racial segregation. The Civil Rights Movement was a generation away, put change was coming.
Dooky Chase’s became a magnet for African American artists, musicians, politicians and civil rights campaigners. In the 50s and 60s the restaurant became a focal point of the civil rights movement in the region, people from all backgrounds could find a table to sit at at Dooky Chase's and over her gumbo and fried chicken, plans were hatched and friendships formed.
Leah Chase was a central figure in the civil rights movement and Dooky Chase’s became a fulcrum of an empowered African American arts and cultural scene. The paintings that hang on the restaurant’s walls represent one of the finest collections of African American art anywhere in the city. In her time Leah Chase fed Hank Aaron, Ernest Gaines, Quincy Jones , Rev. Martin Luther King, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole to name just a few.
When Hurricane Katrina wrought devastation on the city of New Orleans in 2005, Dooky Chase’s was under water. It took two years living in a trailer across the street for Chase to reopen, but when she did the restaurant was restored to former glories. Good enough for President Obama, who famously, she had to stop from seasoning his gumbo with hot sauce and later for George W. Bush.
The former president (Bush) had come in for harsh criticism for what many saw as an inadequate response after the Hurricane, but Leah Chase, as always, took the opportunity to let her food do the talking and instead let a bowl of gumbo work its charms and heal the hurt of a difficult moment in the history of New Orleans.
At the age of 96, Leah Chase passed away this weekend. Her place in the annals of US culinary history is assured, her generosity, wisdom and courage are just part of a legacy that has helped change her country for the better. Creole cooking, has been elevated and today it can take its place alongside any cuisine of the world, all cultures and people being equal.