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Giving Black Chefs Credit Where It’s Due

How Leah Chase and Rudy Lombard created the framework to celebrate Creole food

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Leah Chase at her New Orleans restaurant.
Photo: Denny Cuthbert for Southern Foodways Alliance

In the early 1970s, as black farmers tried to earn a living while holding on to their land, black restaurateurs leveraged the new soul food chic that ranged from Harlem, where diners at the Red Rooster washed down chitlins with Champagne, to Atlanta, where Rev. Willie James Stafford of the Free For All Missionary Baptist Church (who favored maroon jumpsuits and packed a revolver), opened Soul on Top of Peachtree atop a down- town skyscraper. “I’m giving the people pleasure and I’m creating jobs for them,” he said in 1972, explaining what it meant to claim a perch on top of Peachtree Street, “and I’m throwing the money right back in the Black community.”

Black restaurants served black customers as clubhouses. Leah Chase built the reputation of her husband’s family restaurant by serving her New Orleans neighbors and courting political and civil rights figures. Early in her career Chase managed boxers. Later, her dining room was a gathering place for black progressives and musicians. Ray Charles ate gumbo at Dooky Chase’s and cut a song to make clear his devotion. Lena Horne came for fried chicken. Sara Vaughan ate stuffed crabs. Breaking the color line, playwright Tennessee Williams taxied down Orleans Avenue to eat lemon icebox pie.

Constance Baker Motley, the attorney who represented James Meredith in his federal appeal to gain admission to the University of Mississippi, arrived before court to eat breakfast. When union organizer Jim Dombrowski, a founder of the Highlander Folk School, met with Godchaux Sugar Company employees, he claimed the upstairs at Dooky’s.

Before retiring to a friend’s home to eat crawfish or boiled crabs on newspapers, spread on the hardwood floor, Thurgood Marshall, the eventual Supreme Court justice, swung by Dooky’s for gumbo.

Chase recognized that neither her famous customers nor the black chefs who worked in restaurants across New Orleans saw value in traditional dishes like fried chicken. “I don’t think they realized their worth because they never put emphasis on anything they had,” Chase said, speaking of the intricate Creole dish gumbo z’herbes and of the women who were expert at cooking it. “They never thought it was good enough. They never thought it was something to make over. It was just what we do. Like the ladies who sew, the men who do the carpenter work, just what we do you know. They didn’t put any value on themselves or on their work.”

By the mid-1970s, Rudy Lombard, who led the desegregation of New Orleans restaurants in the 1960s, recognized that, if black workers were going to see value in their labor, new frames for that work had to be constructed. He reached this realization in the midst of the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which the critic Houston Baker described as an “attempt to construct a chrysalis of blackness.” That cloak, he said, might allow artists to “grasp the essence of the black American’s reality.”

Published in 1978, the year after New Orleans elected Ernest “Dutch” Morial the first black mayor of the city, Creole Feast was a political manifesto, masquerading as a cookbook, draped in a black chrysalis. “Black involvement in the New Orleans Creole cuisine is as old as gumbo and just as important,” Lombard wrote. “French, Spanish, Cajun, Italian—all these ethnic groups live in New Orleans, but they are not running the best kitchens of the best restaurants of the city. The single, lasting characteristic of Creole cuisine is the Black element.”

Too many writers ascribed a “secondary, lowly, or nonexistent role to the Black hand in the pot,” Lombard explained. Too few recognized that New Orleans culture, food, music, architecture, ceremony, and belief were based on African knowledge and traditions. If the chefs who ran the kitchens at Antoine’s and Galatoire’s were not going to get the pay they deserved from employers or the accolades they deserved from customers, Lombard aimed to canonize them himself.

To make his case, Lombard interviewed fifteen black chefs including Nathaniel Burton, with whom he partnered on the recipes. (Toni Morrison, who had already written The Bluest Eye but was still working at Random House, served as editor.) Lombard gave the chefs voice and space to share the lessons they learned in city kitchens. Leah Chase held forth on how to avoid a gravy that roped on the heat. Austin Leslie of Chez Hélène talked through how to cut up a chicken into twelve pieces instead of the customary ten.

Sherman Crayton, who began cooking at Arnaud’s in 1936, confirmed Lombard’s argument that the problems of Creole food were rooted in attribution: “They say it is a mixture of Spanish and French, but the only people who seem to know all about it are neither Spanish nor French, they’re Blacks.” Lombard worked to frame the lives of these chefs in a way that bestowed honor. He accomplished that with a subtitle, 15 Master Chefs of New Orleans Reveal Their Secrets.

Jacques Pépin, the celebrated French-born chef, made the arguments advanced by Crayton and Lombard when he told his biographer that, on arrival in the United States in 1959, he was most impressed by the old guard African American chefs he met, the men and women who worked in the grand hotels and fine dining rooms. He thought they had the same gravitas, the same experience-honed talent that Frenchmen exhibited.

Pépin expected those black men to emerge as the stars, and was surprised when they did not ascend to the firmament during the American culinary renaissance of the late twentieth century. He didn’t understand why they failed to get their due. As the years advanced and Southern food gentrified, his question would linger in the air, nagging and unresolved.

Excerpted from THE POTLIKKER PAPERS: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2017 John T. Edge.

John T. Edge is a contributing editor at Garden & Gun, a columnist for the Oxford American, and directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi.

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