A Monument for the Queen of Creole Cuisine
Just a little lagniappe about Leah Chase's passing. The news programs have relentlessly reported on how much she meant to New Orleans and the rest of the world. Only a few days later, we also lost Dr. John, a musician so iconic to our music scene that few could surpass his impact. "Iko, Iko" is playing at the back of my mind right now. I will truly miss his presence, especially around Mardi Gras season. Mrs. Leah's impact, though, to the city, and as a possible monument, reminds me that she was a faithful woman who was incredibly special and monumentally loved. New Orleans is grieving over this loss.
Listening to the news that night and hearing of Mrs. Leah's death slowed me down a bit and made me think of the wonderful meals at Dooky Chase's. We always go there to note special moments as we rush through our lives. The last time I ate at the restaurant, my baby sister was in town, and we felt the need to stop by and see Mrs. Leah. We ate and ate - fried chicken and gumbo of course. When we finished stuffing ourselves, we asked if Mrs. Leah was in the kitchen, and yes, she was. We went back, and there she was sitting on her stool, taking a moment to chat with us. That is really who she was: very thoughtful and genuine. I think of all the great people who were fortunate enough to eat her food: from kings and queens and presidents and entertainers to ordinary people like us. She did not change her personality for anyone: kindness and grace punctuated her actions. She cooked as though she wanted each person to have just a bit of her wonderful spirit.
Like all the excellent women I have been fortunate enough to know and/or admire, Mrs. Leah reminded me of my mother. (Warning, this might be a common theme in my posts.) But other people probably felt/feel the same comparison to their mother. Not only her personality (friendly, giving, and smart), but my mother was an excellent cook as well. In her young life, she had worked at a diner in Baton Rouge, and when she moved back to the country to raise us kids, she cooked memorable, delicious meals that spoke of her experience as a chef. There were the homemade meals she'd grown up eating and learning to prepare, but there were also meals she learned to put together herself: salmon and seafood stews, for example, and just about every type of pie imaginable. I always sensed that Mrs. Leah also had creative fingers, seasoning her food by memory, taste, and imagination - no need for recipes ever.
Perhaps this is why she reprimanded former president Barrack Obama when he, then a senator on the campaign trail, attempted to put Tabasco sauce in his gumbo. I am sure Mrs. Leah felt that her food was perfect, just as she had cooked it, and it needed no adjustments by the diners. Or was it that he hadn't even tasted it yet? Or that it was sacrilegious to put hot sauce in gumbo? Others may have the exact reason for the slap on the wrist, President Obama himself, but those are the reasons my mother would have given. I chuckled when I heard of the incident back then and even shared the story with others who didn't know of the faux pas. I gained a higher level of respect for President Obama, though, because he gave Mrs. Leah her respect by admitting the mistake. Who knows, perhaps this is when he became a more seasoned politician and learned to tread lighter through unfamiliar situations. He certainly understood that he didn't want to insult the Queen of Creole Cuisine. And he certainly showed respect this past week when he tweeted about Mrs. Leah's death. Bravo, sir.
Since Mrs. Leah's passing, many have left flowers upon the doorsteps of Dooky Chase's, and there have been endless condolences, I'm sure. But the newest bit of lagniappe is that a petition is mounting to rename Lee Circle after Mrs. Leah - yes, that's right, the circle would then be named Leah Circle. Since the monument to Robert E. Lee was taken down in 2017, the circle has remained nameless. Mrs. Leah was beloved by everyone and I can think of no one who better represents the City of New Orleans, which means this should be a no-brainer. As Mrs. Leah's daughter recently said of her mother, "All she wanted was for all of us to live together in peace." In the end, we may remember her not only for her cooking but also for her flight to make the world a better place. Simply put, Mrs. Leah believed in treating everyone the same. What better person to be placed on that particular pedestal?