A gumbo for Lent and a heart for people
by Jeff Young
In the heart of Tremé — a historic New Orleans neighborhood dating back to 1812 and recognized as America’s oldest African-American neighborhood — sits a restaurant that has hosted countless celebrities (such as the Jackson 5, Hank Aaron, Ray Charles, Ernest Gaines, and Quincy Jones) and a plethora of presidents, prime ministers, and prelates. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both dined there. The list of royalty that have graced the dining room would be far too long to note here. None of these esteemed guests came to marvel at the restaurant’s architecture or admire its decor. They came for the food and to experience the heart of the chef who prepared it.
Chef Leah Chase, affectionately known to many as “Miss Leah,” has not only served royalty, but through her service you could say that she has become royalty. She is known the world over as the “queen of Creole cuisine.” And thanks to the magic of Disney, Miss Leah Chase was “transformed” into royalty with the release of The Princess and the Frog in 2009. Miss Leah was the inspiration behind Princess Tiana in that animated film.
Miss Leah loves people; that’s her secret. She believes that all the world’s problems could be solved over a bowl of hot gumbo and some fried chicken. That’s not just wishful thinking — there is deep wisdom in Miss Leah’s approach to food and hospitality. She’s seen a lot. She is familiar with the difficulties of human life, but as a woman of faith, she understands and lives the reality that we are all children of God on our way home. Her response to difficulties and evil is inspiring. She looks to do what she can right then and there to help — to alleviate the suffering, feed the hungry belly, and really see the person in front of her, listening to his or her story.
Her response to the human condition is an open stance of hospitality. She does what she can and trusts God to take care of the rest. It’s no wonder that Dooky Chase’s Restaurant was instrumental in bringing an end to segregation and furthered the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. And it’s no wonder that celebrities, presidents, and royalty come from all over the world to dine at Miss Leah’s table.
By the time you read this, Miss Leah will be 96. The last time I checked, which was just a couple of months ago, you could still find her in the kitchen at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. She may not be standing over the stove stirring the pots herself, but she’s overseeing the cooking and encouraging the cooks. Toward the end of each meal shift, she delights in going into the dining room and visiting with the guests, because they — we — are the reason she does what she does.
In 2014 I was privileged to interview Miss Leah for a “food and faith” radio show I was co-hosting. Miss Leah is not only a practicing Catholic, but also is the perfect example of someone who gets the connection between food and faith. We interviewed her at Dooky Chase’s, and she fed us.
Jesus loved to eat with people.
One story she told has stuck with me. She told us of a conversation she had with her priest-friend. She confided in him that she was afraid to die. She said she knows that God loves everybody, and that she has tried to do what she thought God would want her to do, but then she found herself wondering, “What if I got it wrong? What if he wanted me to do something else?”
Her friend assured her that God loved her and she was doing exactly what God wanted her to do. “How can you be so sure?” she asked. The priest responded, “Leah, you are cooking. And Jesus loved to eat.”
Jesus loved to eat with people. He loved to feed people. Jesus reached the heart of people through his heart of open hospitality. Miss Leah has adopted this characteristic of Jesus so well, and it’s one I want to emulate in my life this Lent and beyond.
There is a special dish that Miss Leah prepares at the restaurant only once a year. It’s called Gumbo z’Herbes. It means “Green Gumbo” or “Gumbo with Greens.” In New Orleans, traditionally this dish is meatless and can be served on Fridays in Lent. Miss Leah makes her Gumbo z’Herbes for Holy Thursday, and it does contain meat. People from all over make a trip to Dooky Chase’s each year to eat it. I’m sharing a meatless version of this gumbo with you here. It’s perfect for Good Friday or any Friday during Lent. Make it to share with those you love.
✓4pounds assorted greens (try to use at least 7bunches of the following: collards, mustard, turnip, spinach, chard, kale, arugula, parsley, carrot tops, radish tops, watercress, and curly endive)
✓Sea salt to taste
✓½ teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
✓½ teaspoon cracked black pepper, or to taste
✓½ teaspoon of each of the following: dried thyme, dried oregano, and dried basil
✓8to 9cups of water, enough to cover the greens
✓1cup butter (or bacon grease or regular olive oil)
✓1cup all-purpose flour
✓2cups chopped yellow onions
✓1cup chopped bell peppers
✓1cup chopped celery
✓2cloves of garlic, minced
✓2bunches of green onions, chopped
✓½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
- If using fresh greens, wash them thoroughly and remove and discard any hard stems.
- Place the greens in a large stainless steel stockpot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, add the seasonings (sea salt, cayenne, cracked black pepper, dried thyme, dried oregano, and dried basil), and stir well.
- Cover, reduce heat, and allow to simmer for 30 minutes to an hour. You want the heartier greens to soften.
- Once softened, remove from heat, drain, and reserve the cooking liquid.
- Once drained, chop the greens fine, allowing them to cool a bit if necessary. If using frozen greens, cook them according to package directions with the seasonings, drain, and reserve the cooking liquid.
- Make the roux by pre-heating a large heavy-bottomed stainless steel pot over medium heat.
- Add your oil of choice (butter, bacon grease, or reg-ular olive oil — not extra-virgin, as it will burn). Once heated, add the flour and stir constantly until the mixture turns the color of dark chocolate. Be careful not to burn it.
- Add the onions, bell pepper, celery, and garlic and stir vigorously to mix well. Continue to cook, stirring often, until the vegetables have wilted and the onions become translucent, about 10 minutes.
- Add the greens, 1 bunch of green onions, and the bay leaves. Stir well, then add the reserved liquid from cooking the greens. Stir well to incorporate. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 90 minutes.
- Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Before serving, I like to add extra butter to the pot, roughly 4 tablespoons (or maybe more!). Serve in deep bowls over white rice. Have the extra green onions, parsley, and filé powder available for guests to garnish their individual bowls. We also like to have a couple of different hot sauces on hand … just in case.