It’s that time of year again: the end of Lent and the special meals of Easter. For 88-year-old Leah Chase, the doyenne of soul and Creole cooking in New Orleans, that means gumbo z’herbes on Holy Thursday.
“Oh I’ve doing this quite a few years,” Chase says, unable to say exactly when she first started serving this one-day-only continuation of an old New Orleans custom at her Dooky Chase restaurant. “I just know the Creoles of color had this as a tradition forever and that’s what we do.”
What it has come to mean over these “quite a few years” is a restaurant tradition that brings hundreds of people back year after year for this special dish on this special day. Some live in New Orleans, but many travel from out of town. “I have one person who’s bringing 26 guests,” Chase says. “And another who’s invited 30.” What started as a local community tradition has become a national attraction, which means that getting in is a real challenge.
Longtime gumbo z’herbes devotees know to book way ahead and they have. Parties of 12, 16, 20 are not unusual for Holy Thursday at Dooky Chase, and they fill up the place. But Chase says that if you want to come, you should: Just plan on coming after 2 p.m and before 6 on Thursda . “And I try to make enough so there might even be a little left over for Good Friday,” she adds.
The Leah Chase gumbo z’herbes is made according to some strict rules. “It has to be made from an uneven number of different greens,” she says, adding that no one ever told her why. “And this year it’s nine. Even numbers would be really bad luck. You know those Creoles had their own rules. Me, I put in ham and chicken as well, along with two kinds of sausage and some veal brisket stew to add flavor.”
Chase has done this for so many years that she has long since figured out where to get her uneven number of different greens. After all, when you have to make gallons and gallons of the stuff, you’d better know some reliable vendors.
“I get a lot of them from the Crescent City Farmers Market, and a lot from my nephew in the country,” she says. “I need all of them, because I’ll make 30 gallons or so on Wednesday and on Thursday I’ll make another 40 or 50 gallons more.”
She’ll serve it with bread by the cup for $7.50 or by the bowl for $13.95. So, if you’re interested and don’t mind a late lunch, head for Dooky Chase, 2301 Orleans Avenue, on Thursday. It’s a real scene.