Leah Chase’s name is almost synonymous with New Orleans’ Creole cuisine. Her reputation as executive chef at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans is legendary and she’s won accolades around the world.
Now, Chase will return home to the north shore Saturday, to receive an award she said has special meaning.
St. Tammany Parish’s first Native Son award will be bestowed on Chase during the President’s Arts Awards gala at the St. Tammany Parish Justice Center in Covington.
Growing up in the Lange family home in Madisonville, she learned to grow and gather many of the foods she still cooks with today.
“That’s where I grew up,” she said. “I know how to go through the woods” along Bayou De Zaire where it merges with the Tchefuncte River. The family house is still there, now surrounded by the Madisonville Junior High School. Several of her siblings still live in the area.
“We’d go three miles to pick strawberries and I knew what berries I could eat and which I couldn’t,” she remembers.
The family had 15 acres on which they raised strawberries.
“We got up at 4 a.m. in the morning and would walk there, pick them, then come home and go to school.” Sometimes her dad would take the horse and wagon to bring the berries to market.
She said the school allowed them to be a little late during picking season, because that was their livelihood.
Her father, Charles Lange, was from Madisonville, and he married Hortensia Raymond, from New Orleans. They would have 14 children.
Chase’s mother traveled to New Orleans to give birth to Leah because at that time, her grandmother Adonicia Raymond was a registered nurse and midwife. Later, her aunt became a midwife and would travel to Madisonville to help with the births.
Charles Lange worked not far from home as a caulker on wooden boats being built at the Jahncke Shipyard. But what her father loved best, was farming.
“His big thing was growing things. When he would plow, he’d make those long rows.”
They grew greens, string beans, bell pepper, potatoes and eggplants, and lots of okra and onions, she said.
“Sometimes all we had for supper was grits and sautéed onion. Now they call them ‘caramelized’ onions,” she said. “Everything I’ve grown up with has become sophisticated.”
Her father also hunted, rabbit mostly, but not for sport, she said. “He killed only what he needed to feed us.”
They would fish, mainly for perch. When she visits now, she notices there are few places “to put in a line for a little perch.”
He asked his children to pray for him to have work, and when he worked, his treat was to buy them Camay soap and good sardines.
“The same soap we washed clothes with, we washed ourselves with,” she said. “But we never had acne.”
“We were poor, but I don’t think we knew we were poor. We went on living and enjoying it,” she said of her childhood.
There are fond memories associated with their times on the river. She remembers the boat races on the river on the Fourth of July.
“The regattas were our entertainment.”
The Tchefuncte River “is a mighty thing,” she said, with undercurrents that could easily take a swimmer out to Lake Pontchartrain. There was one part of the river where “non-Catholics would be baptized.” They would go and watch. “Father would punish us for laughing. ‘That’s their religion,’ ” he told them, and it was to be respected.
Chase attended St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Madisonville, where the Sisters of the Holy Family taught black students up to junior high. It was on one corner and on the other was St. Catherine’s, the school for white students.
“We passed every morning,” she said.
Growing up in a small town was good, she said. The people were good, even though there was segregation. She said that was the times, and that was the law.
“There was no Catholic high school for blacks” in St. Tammany, and “Daddy was more Catholic than the pope.” So she was sent to live with her aunt in New Orleans to attend the high school the sisters ran there, St. Mary’s Academy.
She returned home after graduation, but there was little work available to her in Madisonville, except housework.
“I wanted to do a little bit more,” she said. “I wanted a little better.”
She moved back to New Orleans, where she met her husband, Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., and they married in 1946. They have four children, 16 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.
Chase will make another trip to the north shore in April to pick “pepper grass.” It will be used in her famous Gumbo Z’herbes. She recently saw some growing “close to the ground like fern.”
It’s the ingredient that adds “a lemony taste, it put some zip into” the traditional dish that’s served each Holy Thursday. She remembers people with a knife and flour bag digging up the plant.
Her people used five, seven or nine greens, always an odd number, for the gumbo. She grinds the greens to prepare the gumbo each year. They will feed as many as 700 people that day at Dookie Chase’s Restaurant. It’s the “last big meal” before the Good Friday fast, she said.
At 92, Chase said longevity seems to run in the family. Her Aunt Lucy Lange recently died at 105 “with a good mind. She was a long-liver.” She wished they could all be there to see her receive the award.
“I thought we were going to never be grown.”
She said Madisonville is different now: “It’s so modern.” She’s glad to see the growth and prosperity of the community.
“Things had to change” she said of legalized segregation. But she’s not one to blame.
“You do what you can, depending on the times.” But it’s good to see change.
“For people to grow and be able to use all their resources; you have to educate every child, black and white,” she said.
“I don’t harp on the past; I build on the past and go ahead. So for me to see Madisonville grow, it’s beautiful.”
Chase said she is thankful to return home to receive the first Native Son award.
“To see me receive this award, it’s beautiful. Because it means people have changed. It means someone learned something different.”