At a time of deep political and social division in America and across the world, lots of pundits are pondering how to bring people back together.
For New Orleans restaurateur Leah Chase, who died Saturday at 96, the best way to unify people from all walks of life was also the oldest way, a ritual as old as civilization itself. It involved gathering men and women around the same table to share a meal. In breaking bread, Chase understood, humanity could also break down barriers.
Chase, whose Dooky Chase’s restaurant is a New Orleans institution, knew a lot about barriers. As an African-American who came of age in the Jim Crow South, she was a central figure in a restaurant started by the family of her husband, Edgar “Dooky” Chase II.
The restaurant was a place where black diners enduring the indignities of segregation could be served a great meal with courtesy and respect. Dooky’s was also where whites and blacks ate together, envisioning the civil rights reforms that revolutionized New Orleans, Louisiana and the country.
“Food builds big bridges,” Chase said in an interview last year. “If you can eat with someone, you can learn from them, and when you learn from someone, you can make big changes. We changed the course of America in this restaurant over bowls of gumbo. We can talk to each other and relate to each other when we eat together.”
Chase died shortly before the 75th anniversary of D-Day, an occasion to remember a global war that, back then, might have made thoughts of enjoying great food seem beside the point. But food writer MFK Fisher, reflecting on that anguished time, argued that cooking and sharing a good meal is an important way to affirm civility and sanity when they’re under threat.
“I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and . . . fears and pains,” Fisher wrote, “is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves.”
Leah Chase lived that ideal, embracing food as not only a physical necessity, but a spiritual one, too. She was a gifted conjurer of what we often call “the trinity” in this part of the world: onions, celery and bell pepper. The wry religious reference in that description defines south Louisiana culture, where the sacred and secular keep close company, where the church and Carnival converse with each other, where the domestic and divine are merely different sides of the same coin.
It’s why Leah Chase knew, in nourishing thousands with some of the best food they’d ever eat, she was doing more than feeding their stomachs. She was also feeding their souls, answering a hunger that, in the wake of her passing, seems as urgent as ever.
— The (Baton Rouge) Advocate