New Orleans is jazz. More precisely, New Orleans is improvisational jazz: a city built on the familiar strains of complex cultural chords — French, African, Creole, Spanish — with ever-expanding riffs and variations on one enduring melody. With its “blended family” of history, traditions, and superstition, New Orleans is unique among American cities, at once seductively foreign and comfortingly domestic. Founded in 1718 by the French Mississippi Company under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, NOLA is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year.
We just returned from another trip to New Orleans (pronounce it like a native: “Nu Or’ lins) a couple weeks ago. My husband and I first met there over 50 years ago, so it is a special place for us. (See more in “Fat Tuesday,” journal dated February 13, 2018.) We know the city well and we return often for various reasons, especially now that we live within driving distance. This time, though, we just needed a brief respite from the mind-numbing routines of life. What better place than New Orleans to figure out how to “jazz up” the same old tunes that play day in and day out?
We always stay in the French Quarter and always frequent our favorite places, though not ALL of them in every visit, because, well … just way too much food. Besides, given the longevity of the Vieux Carre’s most venerable establishments, we can always count on them to be there for future visits: the Hotel Monteleone (1886) with its Carousel Bar (1949), Arnaud’s (1918), Tujaque’s (1856), Galatoire’s (1905), Cafe Du Monde (1862) — the list goes on and on. As old as they are, they stay current by offering new variations: Arnaud’s, for instance, has opened an adjacent dining room, same menu but less formal, that has live jazz music in the evening. Likewise, Jackson Square with its street artists and musicians, always has the same atmosphere, but with different characters; this time, magicians, jewelry makers and tarot-card readers made the scene. The Presbytere has a changing schedule of relevant exhibits, right now a fabulous Mardi Gras collection and a special exhibit on hurricanes and Katrina.
Little stores and antique shops lining Pirates’ Alley up toward Royal Street have been there forever. Invariably, I buy a hat at one of my favorite places, De Marcy, and then usually stop in at the Royal Praline Company for candy, Cafe Du Monde coffee and beignet mix (even though I can buy all that in my local supermarket here at home). Sometimes a brand new shop appears with an interesting twist on old themes: this visit it was a store full of gorgeous, hand-made masks of all kinds — Mardi Gras, Carnival, Venetian, Halloween, generally funky —in feathers and sequins and molded, painted paper maché.
But I also always come to NOLA with something in mind that I haven’t yet seen, perhaps a new exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art or another jazz club or restaurant that someone has recommended. This trip, I finally went to a place that has been on my list for quite a while: Dooky Chase on the corner of Orleans and Miro in Treme. Now unless you know something about Creole cuisine, or the Civil Rights Movement, or African American art, or Harry Connick, Jr., you may not have ever heard of Leah Chase and her restaurant, Dooky Chase, but believe me, she, and it, are national treasures. (Paintings by Gustave Blache III of her working in the restaurant’s kitchen now hang in the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC!)
Brief history: in 1946, Leah married a musician, Edgar “Dooky” Chase, whose parents owned a little place that sold lottery tickets and po-boys. During the 1950s, Leah and Dooky acquired a house next door and turned the whole business into a sit-down restaurant. Edgar was a musician, a trumpeter with a jazz band, and he was gone a lot, so Leah managed the restaurant, updated the menu and added family recipes that reflected her Creole heritage. Her cooking became legendary. Dooky Chase’s was THE white-tablecloth restaurant in the African-American community, and during the 1960s, the only place where Civil Rights activists, including Dr. King and the Freedom Riders, could meet. Over the years, Miss Leah has hosted Presidents (George W. Bush and Barack Obama), and celebrities (Ray Charles and Hank Aaron), and has won all sorts of honors, from James Beard recognition to honorary college degrees. At 95 years of age, Miss Leah is still working as the executive chef of Dooky Chase.
But here’s where the complexity of the Dooky Chase melody expands beyond food, or even politics. You see, along with their success, Miss Leah and her husband became major philanthropists and supporters of the arts; she was the first black woman named to the Board of the New Orleans Museum of Fine Arts. The impressive, serious collection of African-American art that is displayed on the walls of the various dining rooms in her restaurant today (by Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlettt, John Scott, John T. Biggers, and many others, including contemporary newcomers) is as much a reason for visiting Dooky Chase as the food!
So we went for the lunch buffet and, while there, I got to meet Miss Leah — talk about the ultimate lagniappe! — who was, yes, at work in the kitchen that day. I had bought her cookbook and wanted her to sign it, but we ended up in an extended conversation that was much more than a book signing. She asked about me, about my life, thanked me for coming to her restaurant. When I complimented her wonderful art collection, she said, “Oh, I got the way better end of that deal. Back in the old days, these young men were all starving artists, you know. I’d feed them gumbo and they’d give me a painting, so really the collection sort of built itself. Who knew they would be famous?” She laughed.
This is not a woman who is into famous. This is a woman who is unbelievably humble, hard-working and devoted to her cooking, her culture, and her New Orleans. This is a woman who “improvises” on her themes, for whom food has become art, both literally and figuratively. And by the way, as for Harry Connick, Jr., Miss Leah cooked for the family and cared for him after his mother died when he was a small child. “He is such a good man, a wonderful man, and I am so proud of him,” she said, showing me photos of him and her.
New Orleans: multiple keys within a single song — food, music, culture, history, art, hospitality — and all that jazz! Everything old there is new again, including me.