When I got married, I asked my mother to teach me some recipes that would be easy to make for my new husband. “Why are you cooking?” she replied. “I’m here.”
Why, indeed. My mother was Leah Chase, proprietor with my father of Dooky Chase's, the New Orleans restaurant that began in 1941 with my grandparents, Edgar l. "Dooky" Chase, Sr., and Emily Tennette Chase. Originally a street-corner sandwich shop for the Treme neighborhood, it became, under the guidance of my parents in the Jim Crow era of the South, the one upscale place in the city where African-Americans could gather for a great meal, as well as voter registration campaigns and NAACP meetings.
Mom learned to read from books that her father salvaged from the trash at a school for white children, and since her hometown of Madisonville, Louisiana, had no schools for African-Americans past the sixth grade, she was sent to live with an aunt in New Orleans. She had never been in a real restaurant until she took a job as a waitress in the French Quarter when she was 18, but she always knew that cooking was her talent, and her way of making a contribution to society.
From the days of the civil rights movement (when she fed the Freedom Fighters and let Thurgood Marshall use the restaurant’s phone to call Bobby Kennedy) through Hurricane Katrina (when she gave crab soup to George W. Bush, despite the community’s anger at the government’s inadequate response), my mother’s delicious food and hospitality became part of the fabric of the city. Blacks and whites met at Dooky Chase to discuss strategy, even though it was illegal for them to “mix.” Mom was never intimidated by the restaurant’s famous patrons—she once chastised Barack Obama for putting hot sauce in her gumbo. (The singer Sarah Vaughan ordered stuffed crab to go, and Nat King Cole always wanted a four-minute egg.)
As we were growing up, my two sisters, brother, and I all had summer jobs in the restaurant, most often as a takeout cashier or occasional hostess. I never had to be reminded of my manners when greeting one of the illustrious guests—my mother had drilled into me the need to be polite and respectful, no matter whom I was meeting. With any misbehavior, she would “tap”—and it wasn’t always a tap. No profanity, no rock and roll music in the house (although she did love Johnny Mathis), and she had to know the parents of any boy I dated. I once asked her why she had disciplined me so harshly because I really was a good girl; our family was well known in the community, so there were always a lot of eyes on us, and we knew better than to embarrass our parents.
In some ways, my siblings and I were shielded from racism because we were part of a community that was insular and protective. But my older sister Emily and I went to school on a bus that had a dividing line: “Colored Only” behind the line. Same with the bus we took to go shopping on Canal Street, the soda fountains at the 5&10, or the water fountains in public places. My mother would go with us to give us a sense of security, and as the years passed and the names for people with my skin color changed from “colored” to “Afro-American” to “African-American” to “black,” she would remind us that whatever we were called, we were to be proud of ourselves, just as she and our dad were. As the restaurant got famous and she became active in civic affairs, she was often the only African-American at the table, but she brought to the table who she was.
I wasn’t involved in the family business at first; I trained as a schoolteacher. My sister Emily was designated to follow in my mother’s footsteps, and she inherited a lot of the same mannerisms and traits, such as her ability to keep everyone on task. When Emily died delivering her eighth child, our family was devastated—she had been my confidante and best friend, and my mother said there were more tears in her gumbo pot than gumbo. But I tried to replace her as my mother’s sous-chef and business partner. Mom’s frequent advice was: “You have to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog.”
Growing up in the Depression, my mother learned to do without and to be resourceful—she could sew as well as she cooked. She made sure I had pretty dresses, and I was proud of the clothes she made, never embarrassed. She even made my prom dress, and my aunts provided the beading—“You can have the most beads of anyone there,” they said. (And I did.) Mom had a thrifty side but also had a deep faith that God would provide; she sometimes liked to splurge, and she was a soft touch for worthy causes. I can remember my dad exclaiming, “Leah, what are you giving away?” I’m a bit more like him about money.
As I got older, the restaurant became a demanding job for my mother, and her leadership in the city took a lot of her time. Her 75th birthday was a fundraiser for African-American art at the New Orleans Museum of Art, which, as a black woman, she was forbidden to visit until she was in her 50s. Princess Tiana, the waitress who wanted to own a restaurant in the animated Disney film The Princess and the Frog, was based on my mother. I had to share her with the wider world, and I didn’t always like it. Dooky Chase was open on Christmas Day, so she wasn’t home to celebrate the holiday like some families did. Sometimes the restaurant had to be the priority—it was like having a needy sibling. But the upside was the joy of having a huge extended family of friends—never more evident than at her memorial service this year.
Mother’s Day was always a busy holiday at the restaurant, and for many years, we had a tradition of going out to dinner on the Monday after. This year, Mom was not well enough to go out, so we brought the meal to her. Every member of the family got to have his or her favorite dish (I think we went to ten different places for them), including Mom’s choice: liver and grits, but she tasted some of everything. How lucky I was to have a mother with such a zest for life, right up to the end of her 96 years.
My mother’s funeral included a mournful “second line” (the iconic brass band parade in our city), as well as another more spirited second line ending by the Museum of Art, with food and drink for all who paid their respects, as Mom would have wished. In her eulogy at the funeral mass, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell recalled the advice Mom gave her throughout her political career: “Sometimes I find myself saying: ‘What would Leah do?’ instead of: ‘What would Jesus do?’”
So do I, Mom, so do I.
Stella Chase Reese is the proprietor of Dooky Chase's Restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana.
6 5-oz. boneless and skinless chicken breasts
1 T. salt
1/2 t. white pepper
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1 c. onions, chopped
1/2 c. green peppers, chopped
2 c. whole tomatoes with liquid
2 c. water
2 cloves garlic, mashed and chopped
1/2 t. ground thyme (or 2 sprigs fresh)
1/4 t. cayenne pepper
12 small whole okra
1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 T. parsley, chopped
Season chicken with 1 teaspoon salt and the white pepper.
In large skillet, heat vegetable oil.
Place seasoned chicken in hot oil, turning as it cooks (about 6 minutes).
Remove chicken and set aside.
Saute onions in skillet until they are clear.
Add green peppers; stir and cook for 3 - 4 minutes.
Add whole tomatoes, mashing them as you stir them into the onion mixture.
Add water, garlic, thyme, cayenne pepper, and remaining salt.
Cook over high heat for 4 minutes.
Lower heat and return chicken to sauce.
Add okra and cook for 10 minutes until okra are just tender.
Add shrimp and cook until shrimp turn pink (about 5 minutes).
Serve over buttered rice.