The Catholic matriarch of Creole cooking: Yes, the real Princess Tiana was a Catholic believer

What made Creole chef Leah Chase so unique?

There’s at least two ways to look at that question. You can ask, “What made her famous at the national level?” Fame is important, especially a person’s life and work is connected to A-list personalities in politics, entertainment and culture.

However, in this case I would say that that it was more important to ask, “What was the ‘X’ factor that made her a matriarch in New Orleans culture?” When you focus on that question, the word “Catholic” has to be in the mix somewhere — a core ingredient in the strong gumbo that was her life.

Thus, I was stunned that the NOLA.com tribute to Chase hinted at her faith early on, but then proceeded to ignore the role that Catholicism played in the factual details of her life. Look for the word “Catholic” in this piece: “Leah Chase, New Orleans’ matriarch of Creole cuisine, dead at 96.” You won’t find it, even though the overture opened the door:

Leah Chase, New Orleans’ matriarch of Creole cuisine, who fed civil rights leaders, musicians and presidents in a career spanning seven decades, died Saturday (June 1) surrounded by family. She was 96.

Mrs. Chase, who possessed a beatific smile and a perpetually calm demeanor, presided over the kitchen at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant until well into her 10th decade, turning out specialties such as lima beans and shrimp over rice, shrimp Clemenceau and fried chicken that was judged the best in the city in a poll by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Every Holy Thursday, hundreds showed up to enjoy gallons of her gumbo z’herbes, a dark, thick concoction that contains the last meat to be eaten before Good Friday.

What, pray tell, is the importance of community life and faith linked to Holy Thursday and Good Friday?

Maybe editors in New Orleans simply assumed that Catholicism is a given in that remarkable city, something that does not need to be explained or, well, even mentioned. (Watch the NOLA.com video at the top of this post.)

In this case, if readers want to learn some facts about the role that Catholic faith played in this Creole queen’s life, they will need — wait for it — to dig into the magesterial obit produced by The New York Times: “Leah Chase, Creole Chef Who Fed Presidents and Freedom Riders, Dies at 96.”

Yes, this story opens with politics.

Yes, readers have to read until the seventh paragraph to get a mild hint that there is a religion ghost in this story. But, eventually, the facts of her life are presented in a way that makes it clear that her faith was at the heart of this story. I think that the overture is very strong, but still needed — somehow — to put Catholicism in the mix, right up top.

Leah Chase, the nation’s pre-eminent Creole chef, always knew what to feed her famous customers.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. liked barbecued ribs, and James Baldwin preferred gumbo. The singer Sarah Vaughan ordered stuffed crab to go, and Nat King Cole always wanted a four-minute egg.

She once had to stop Barack Obama, when he was running for president in early 2008, from putting hot sauce in her gumbo — a real culinary sin — and, despite pressure from a city still angry over the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, she fed President George W. Bush crab soup and shrimp Clemenceau on the second anniversary of the storm that nearly closed her restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, for good.

“In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken,” she would often say.

A few paragraphs later, the Times offered this summary that hinted at what was to come:

Mrs. Chase was much more than a gifted chef, although she would argue that there is no greater calling than feeding people. She spread her message through cookbooks, countless media interviews and television shows. Princess Tiana, the waitress who wanted to own a restaurant in the animated Disney feature “The Princess and the Frog,” was based on Mrs. Chase. It was the first African-American princess in a Disney movie.

Mrs. Chase possessed a mix of intellectual curiosity, deep religious conviction and a will always to lift others up, which would make her a central cultural figure in both the politics of New Orleans and the national struggle for civil rights.

What kind of convictions? Key themes emerge in a detailed summary of her family background and education. This is where hints turn into facts:

Leah Lange was born in Madisonville., La., a small town on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, on Jan. 6, 1923. She was the second oldest of 13 children of Charles Lange, a ship’s caulker, and Hortensia (Raymond) Lange, a homemaker and seamstress. Her parents valued hard work and education, admonishing the children to keep their elbows off the table and teaching them to read with books that her father had salvaged from the trash heap at a nearby school for white children.

Because her hometown had no schools for African-Americans past sixth grade, she was sent to live with an aunt in New Orleans to complete her education at a Roman Catholic high school.

Mrs. Chase was, by all accounts, exceptionally smart, and by an early age had memorized the Latin Mass.

Yes, there is more to know about the contents of that education. Like many African-American Christians, it’s hard to pin a label on her politics — since they included a very Catholic mix of concern about the least of these, rich and poor, at every stage of life.

This is strong material. This is why I wished that the word “Catholic” had been in the overture.

Mrs. Chase was as compassionate as she was strict, always adhering to a code shaped in large part by her Catholic beliefs. …

She supported Tipper Gore’s campaign in the 1980s and ’90s against explicit and violent rock and rap lyrics and demanded that young people dress properly when they came to her restaurant, yet she didn’t leave the neighborhood when it fell on economic hard times in the 1980s, and an 896-unit public housing project opened up across the street. People urged her to move out. Instead, she renovated.

“If we would have moved off this corner, this whole community would have been gone a long time ago,” she told Carol Allen, a biographer. “Running away from it isn’t going to help anything or anybody. I say like this, If you can’t take a risk, you’re wasting God’s good time on earth.”

Mrs. Chase believed in corporal punishment, opposed abortion and believed women should dress modestly. But she was always a champion of women, especially young women coming up in the kitchens of America’s restaurants. Her frequent advice to them was, “You have to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man and work like a dog.”

Read it all.

What’s missing? I would have loved to have heard from her pastor and some of the people in her parish. My first question: What dish did this remarkable woman bring to church pot-luck suppers and how quick did it vanish?

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