By:Â Ashley Bode
There are several restaurants throughout the country that serve as cultural landmarks and sources of inspiration for all restauranteurs. Â Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse is the icon for California Cuisine and Farm to Table dining, Daniel and Le Cirque are the cornerstones of the French American culinary adventure and Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans owns the category of Soul food.
Soul food has its roots in the South, so it would be fitting that the center of the movement is located in the heart of the Bayou. Â In the 1950s, Leah Chase worked her way into her husband’s family restaurant, Dooky Chase, using her experience working in restaurants situated in the white dominant French Quarter. Gradually, Leah introduced both her take on Creole Soul Food and European style-dining etiquette into the segregated 5th Ward. Over the years, Dooky Chase’s not only grew in popularity but played an important role in African American culture. Important Civil Rights leaders, musicians, actors, politicians and locals dined side by side at the white lined tables eating Jambalaya, Sweet Potato Pie and Shrimp Etoufee.
After integration, Dooky Chase’s remained the same, but served to all citizens of New Orleans, proving that Soul Food crosses the boundaries of race, with its true definition speaking more to the heart of the cuisine. The acknowledgement that Soul Food represents a time, place and tradition, as well as a history of food culture keeps people coming back for second helpings. Â In her Oral History given for the Southern Foodways Alliance, Chase said, “They come [and say] Well, do you have Soul Food? Well, tell me where your soul is. If your soul is in China, I can’t help you a bit; if your soul is in Mississippi I can help you.”
Dooky Chase suffered immensely with the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, devastating the family inside and out, forcing the business to close temporarily and Leah and her family to live in trailers provided by FEMA. In 2007, Leah reopened the doors and continues to cook for hungry New Orleans residents and tourists that travel specifically to dine at her eatery. Even at 89, she shows little signs of slowing down, realizing her important role in a community broken and still, six years later, rebuilding.
When dining at Dooky Chase or flipping through Leah’s cookbook, a feat for someone who never measures ingredient, its noticeable that there is a difference in her cuisine’s style than that of more Northern Soul Food restaurants. Leah is known as “the Queen of Creole,” so it could be inferred that her staples might not be the same as those at the now-closed Edna’s in Chicago. Â Like Soul Food expert Donna Pierce points out, “Southern and Soul Food aren’t exactly the same, but there are overlapping ingredients, preparations and flavors.”
Most people associate spiciness with Creole and often mistake it for Cajun, an entirely different cuisine that just happens to share geography. Â Creole cuisine has more European influence than most other soul food, mostly credited to the history of colonization in Louisiana, specifically New Orleans which is rich in French and Spanish traditions that were lacking in the plantations of Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. Fried Chicken, yams and Mac ‘n’ Cheese can be found on the Dooky Chase menu but the stars are the true Creole selections. One of the most noticeable identifiers of Creole food is a perfect roux, a slurry of flour and butter, lard or drippings, that is added to many dishes, including Gumbo and Etoufee; it is the source of the rich dark color found in Creole cuisine that is difficult for a novice to achieve and indicative of that European influence.
Make no mistake, while the cuisine at Dooky Chase’s and other restaurants throughout the Bayou focuses on Creole traditions, this is still soul food. These are the dishes that leave diners with a soul satisfying feeling once they are finished. They are the dishes that those native of New Orleans cherish and hold as a high standard. They are the dishes Leah Chase learned not in a culinary school, but through the words of her peers and predecessors. She too passes on these techniques and recipes by cooking from the soul and sharing nearly a century’s worth of true Southern African American experience, both struggles and celebrations.
Stay tuned to rest of our series as we further discuss the history of soul food and share the experiences of regional innovators and soul food experts throughout the United States.
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