Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Leah Chase - One Bowl of Gumbo at a Time

Chef Leah Chase in her kitchen at Dooky Chase Restaurant, New Orleans, LA
Photo by Cheryl Gerber NOLA 
One of the most iconic dishes from New Orleans, Louisiana representing Creole cuisine is seafood gumbo.  With the mighty Mississippi river going through the heart of New Orleans pushing water straight into the Gulf of Mexico, it creates an array of treasures from the sea which define much of New Orleans Creole and Cajun cuisine.  

Just as iconic is a woman who doesn’t need much of an introduction.  She’s the undisputed Queen of Creole that might as well have the title of Queen of Hearts.  Born in Madisonville, Louisiana, she possesses magical culinary skills and a big heart with which for over seven decades, has been cooking for many of the Civil Rights leaders, the rich and famous, musicians, poets, novelists, visitors, American presidents, world diplomats, blacks and whites, and anyone with an appetite for good, home-cooked, creole food in her legendary restaurant Dooky Chase.   

Mrs. Leah Chase came into the business when she married jazz musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase II.  His parents owned a corner stand that sold lottery tickets and homemade po’boy sandwiches.  Mrs. Chase worked in the kitchen during the 1950’s, and over time, Leah and Dooky took over the stand and converted it into a restaurant establishment.  Leah presided over the kitchen and was the visionary of home-cooked creole food.  She was not formally trained yet her hospitality only matched the service. She quietly served at a time when tensions in the south were brutal and the Jim Crow laws became the canon for segregation, discrimination, and cruelty.  

At Dooky Chase’s, one bowl of gumbo at a time, Mrs. Chase fed the hungry for equality, the hungry for the right to vote, the hungry for a right to live and raise families in a society of equal justice for all.  She fed the Civil Rights leaders in the 1960’s that would front the fight to end racial injustices and violence.  Her restaurant became the meeting place where strategies would be planned by Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Riders, and student activists.  Dooky Chase was the only place where the black communities in New Orleans could meet despite the “secret meetings” being illegal.  Quietly, congregated to take a stand against the oppressors, gumbo and fried chicken became the nourishment that would become the Civil Rights Movement.  

Much of the celebrating in New Orleans revolves around food.  Therefore, New Orleans was the destination for my birthday in November.  I had the honor of celebrating with Mrs. Leah Chase and my loved ones.  The gumbo she made that day was extra special with a  generous serving of blue crabs and gulf shrimp.  The heartiness of the stew is the story of the triumph to make the world a better place.  Her voice and loving heart touch you in a way that will forever prompt you to aspire to become a better person.

Of course, we talked about food and how it shapes us today.  Food creates memories and eventually becomes the tool of communication between cultures and races.  Best of all food becomes a tool for peace.  Because you can’t sit down for peace talks without good food.  Mrs. Chase is a defender of women’s rights.  We talked about what it means to be a woman and a part of the system today where women have come a long way in human rights.  And speaking of culture, she mentioned the Oaxacan mole negro, and how much she loves the Mexican indigenous foods and the deep south tamales of Veracruz.  She loved meeting Vijay and told him to bring her a plate of traditional Andhra Indian food on our next visit.  So I made a promise to return for another bowl of her creole seafood gumbo.   
Chef Leah Chase & Leticia Alaniz
Photo by Vijay Marrivada

- “You think creole gumbo is special?  Food is precious and we must treat it like that.  And I love a person that loves food and comes from so far away to visit me to try my food.  I know you and I have a connection thru food so that makes you special."   

Leah Chase tells it like it is.  I will forever treasure her words which did make me feel very special in her kitchen in New Orleans. 

Mrs. Leah Chase has been honored with numerous awards and accolades:

James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award (2016)
NOLA Award Best Fried Chicken (2014)
James Beard Foundation Who's Who of Food & Beverage (2010)
Southern Foodways Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award (2000)
Honorary Degree Tulane University
Honorary Degree Loyola University New Orleans
Honorary Degree Johnson & Wales University
Times-Picayune Loving Cup Award (1997)
Honorary Degree Our Lady of Holy Cross College
Honorary Degree Madonna College  

Among her other projects are a televised cooking show devoted to Creole cooking, and is the author of several cookbooks:

  • The Dooky Chase Cookbook (1990) 
  • And I Still Cook (2003)
  • Down Home Healthy : Family Recipes of Black American Chefs (1994)

Written by Leticia Alaniz
© 2018

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Tree Within / Árbol Adentro - A Byzantine Mosaic In Honor of Octavio Paz

A Tree Within / Árbol Adentro
Byzantine Glass Mosaic by Leticia Alaniz © 2018
A pattern of design made from thousands of tiny brilliant cut glass, stone, shells, gold, or ceramic pieces has been the subject of awe and admiration in many cultures.  The physical presence of a mosaic mural has been since time immemorial a system of pictures to tell stories and convey histories.  It has been the art of eternity which explores vibrant, colorful and energetic pasts.  

Among the many design elements is the tree of life.  It’s a concept that symbolizes the beginning of life and the origin of everything.  For thousands of years in almost all cultures, religions, mythologies, and philosophies, the tree has been an icon and a theme that we encounter in daily life.  As a sacred symbol, it has mystified and has been the subject of celebration of deities and is a direct link to the divine and the mythical cosmologies.  

The tree has roots that reach deeply into the depths which take nourishment from Mother Earth and thru its upward reaching branches it absorbs light from the sun.  A tree symbolizes generations of families that grow and create new fruit to begin a new generation.  Trees have a cycle of life that regenerate with the seasons making it a symbol of immortality, rebirth and the duality of life and death.  The grandness of a tree connects all forms of creation, heaven, the underworld, and knowledge that resides in our past, present, and future.

In his poem Árbol Adentro / A Tree Within, Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz created a metaphysical metaphor of an inverted tree which grows within his body. With its canopy and leaves up in his head, the words depict an illustration of desire inspired by the beauty and presence of a woman.  The poem establishes that “Its roots are veins…”  The branches stretch out into the inner depths of his nerves and the body’s extremities, “Thoughts are its tangled foliage…”  The poet describes an escalating passion that ends with a metaphorical touch “Whose glance sets it on fire…” provoking the love and the other person’s presence to be inflamed with desire.  The themes of the tree suggest a sexual encounter with the pomegranate seeds in reference to a man’s seed, “Day Breaks / In the body’s night…”  Its an acknowledgment of his need for the love of the woman.  In the final lines, the poem entices the other to come closer and, “Hear the tree speak.”

Mexican Poet Octavio Paz
There is no doubt that Octavio Paz left his mark on the world of poetry and is a force to be reckoned with.  Just the same, his poetry has greatly influenced me in the creation of my own art, photography, and writings.  As an homage to his poem Árbol Adentro / A Tree Within, I created this mosaic tree in Mexican and Venetian smalti tesserae glass in the tradition of the ancient Byzantine art.  With branches of pure gold smalti tesserae and cobalt blue representing a life cycle.  Red as a symbol of blood and earth reaching up to the trunk and the branches feeding life to the tree giving it a sense of timelessness and eternal life.  
Filmmaker & Artist Leticia Alaniz
© 2018
Mexican Huipil Crafted & Designed by Poet Natalia Toledo
A Tree Within

A tree grew inside my head.
A tree grew in.
Its roots are veins,
its branches nerves,
thoughts its tangled foliage
Your glance sets it on fire,
and its fruits of shade
are blood oranges
and pomegranates of flame.

Day breaks

in the body's night.
There, within, inside my head,
the tree speaks.

Come closer - can you hear it?

Octavio Paz

© Leticia Alaniz 2018
All Rights Reserved