Thursday, December 15: “Are you Betsy? Betsy, get that belly outta my face.” I tug down my t-shirt, pull up my hip-huggers and grab an apron. I’ve driven 71 miles, past hurricane evacuation route signs and flapping pelicans, to Baton Rouge to help Leah Chase cater a party at the home of Donna and Dr. John Fraiche. The spectacular Provençal-style house is dressed in Dresden chandeliers, a Portuguese carved-wood, four-poster bed, floors and ceilings imported from France. There's a 2600-bottle wine cellar heavy with Burgundy. The Doberman bites me on the way in. Allegedly she wants to play.
Leah Chase is standing at a monstrous La Cornue stove. She’s heating crab soup and shrimp Creole, warming corn muffins, frying chicken. She dunks the breasts in eggs and evaporated milk, then flour, salt and pepper. She’s got Willie Davis, who works for the Fraiches but used to cook with Warren LaRuth, pounding the breasts in seasoned bread crumbs. She’s got her daughters, Leah and Stella, setting the buffet and laying out the seven-layer dip. She’s got me doing some of everything. “Betsy, put that right there for me . . . Watch it, baby! There you go, kiddo.” And she’s talking all the while. “I’ve been cooking 60 years. When I came to Dooky Chase, I waited tables. But you don’t go into this business unless you know something about the back part. It’s trial and error at first. You don’t know what the heck you’re doing.”
She’s got me dumping the oysters into a panful of Zatarain’s Wonderful Fish-Fri. “Whew! That’s too much. Take some off there.” I put a handful of oysters back in the strainer. “They’ll get too dark. See, they gotta be dry when I put ‘em in the grease, or they’ll be soggy.” I toss the oysters, praying they’re dry. “Frying is something I never mastered. To do it well, you have to keep doing it. At the restaurant, I always have someone else fry.”
“Get a little paprika and just tap it in there,” she instructs me. “That way they’ll come up a little golden.” Leah moves slowly back to the stove. “When I get back in this restaurant, I got to find me some people. I know I better get back there for Mardi Gras day. That’s for damned sure.” Her hand caked in Zatarain’s Wonderful Fish-Fri, she drops the oysters into hot oil. “At my age, you can’t waste time.”
Dooky Chase, the 64-year-old Creole-soul food house that 82-year-old Leah Chase ran, was located in the Tremé, across from the Lafitte projects. Featured in a song by Ray Charles, fêted by locals and visitors, a pioneer of ’60s-era integration where blacks and whites could eat together, it was a New Orleans institution. Now, “nothing’s at Dooky Chase. It’s sunk. It’s gutted out.” The Chases are trying to rebuild, but their homes were destroyed, and it’s a long drive from where they’re staying – 12 of them – under one Baton Rouge roof.
“Work is so plentiful now, it’s hard to get contractors to concentrate on one job,” says Stella. “I don’t blame them. Everybody lost everything.” FEMA installed two trailers for the family outside Dooky Chase. One of them's already been stolen. “That was an inside job,” Leah says. “You can’t blame the brothers across the street ‘cuz there are no brothers across the street right now.”
“Did you dip them in the egg wash?” she asks Willie Davis, who’s holding a bowl of pickle slices. “There’s no secret to cooking,” Leah says, turning the pickles out of the grease. “People say, ‘I can’t do it like you.’ Well, you’re not me, so it can’t come out like me.” The fried pickles are sharp and salty and addictive. “Those girls,” she gestures toward her daughters, “will do better than I did. They’ll have chefs, which is what you should do.”
Actually, it’s what they’ll have to do. Though Leah’s niece has worked with her for years (“She’s real good at desserts. I don’t like desserts. You have to be too accurate.”), neither of her daughters cooks. Still, the Chases are determined. “I have to go back.” Leah pours a bottleful of rum into her bananas Foster sauce, “boozing it up real good.” She plates the white-chocolate bread pudding. “They want me to stay here, sounds good,” she says. Baton Rouge has been generous to them. Strangers have brought furniture, leant cars. Leah’s been teaching classes at a local cookware store. “But if I leave that space, it will be . . ,” she makes a sound like a tire deflating and flattens out her hands. “So you go back and make a community. Everyone plants a little flower out front. I can’t leave the neighborhood. I have to build it back up.”
“I doubt it’ll happen,” says one of Leah Chase’s younger family members when I’m introduced to her at a party that night. The odds against Dooky Chase seem insurmountable. But if this is what Leah wants, maybe. Just maybe. “She’s so stubborn, no one can tell her what she can and can't do.”
Back at the Fraiches, between swearing that there was no meat in her beans, "just lots of thyme", and calling me a “foreigner” and telling me about a sliced pork chop and fried oyster sandwich with cold butter that’s her “all-time favorite thing,” Leah Chase had leaned in and said to me, “My kids say that’ll be on my tomb stone: ‘You do what you gotta do.’”