Monday, January 20, 2020

Crawfish Boil 2020: Who was Leah Chase?


            Leah Chase, the famed New Orleans chef and restauranteur, is featured prominently on the poster for the DGA Friends and Family Crawfish Boil poster. Chase was a household name in New Orleans for her role as a chef and civil rights pioneer. We thought it might be a good idea to provide a little background on her and her remarkable life.

            Chase passed away on June 1, 2019 at the age of 96.  Born in New Orleans, Chase grew up in Madisonville, Louisiana, the oldest of 11 children. When she was a teenager, Chase moved back to New Orleans to complete high school—since Madisonville did not have a high school for students of color. 

            After graduation, she worked a variety of jobs including for a local bookie and as the manager of two amateur boxers. She also worked as a waitress at the long-defunct Colonial Restaurant in the French Quarter. In 1946, she married Edgar “Dooky” Chase, a local musician whose parents owned a street corner stand in Treme that sold lottery tickets and po’ boys. In the ensuing years, Edgar and Leah began converting the stand into a full-service restaurant. Leah took over the kitchen and combined her experience helping out on her family’s farm growing up and her time spent in the service industry to create a menu deeply rooted in the New Orleans culinary tradition.


            During the Civil Rights era, the restaurant, now named Dooky Chase after her husband, hosted African-American and white leaders. Local civil rights leaders A.P. Tureaud and Dutch Morial often met at Dooky Chase to plan protests. In the upstairs meeting rooms, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders organized the Montgomery Bus boycott based on the work of Baton Rouge activists. All the while, Chase participated in these discussions and served everyone gumbo and fried chicken. The Chases hosted voter registration campaigns, NAACP meetings, and a myriad of other activities. Police and city authorities, meanwhile, refused to interfere with the meetings or close down the restaurant. The restaurant served as a neutral ground for city authorities and activists and shutting it down would only enrage the community further. 

            Over the years, Dooky Chase Restaurant began a local institution in the African-American community of New Orleans. The Chases patronized local artists and musicians, hanging their art in the restaurant and invited them to play. The restaurant also became known for its Holy Thursday tradition. Leah Chase would prepare her famous gumbo z’herbes—a meatless gumbo made from various greens—and fried chicken.  Chase found that food had a remarkable power to bring people together. As she explained, "Food builds big bridges. If you can eat with someone, you can learn from them, and when you learn from someone, you can make big changes. We changed the course of America in this restaurant over bowls of gumbo. We can talk to each other and relate to each other when we eat together."  



            Dooky Chase Restaurant flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Leah Chase, now in her 80s, lived across the street in a FEMA trailer for over a year while she and her family worked to raise money to rebuild the restaurant. After reopening, Chase and her family ran the restaurant under limited hours to prevent Chase from overworking herself. She won about every culinary award imaginable both in New Orleans and across the country. She was the inspiration for the Disney film The Princess and the Frog. Chase famously stopped Barack Obama from trying to add hot sauce to her gumbo. 

            Chase was a New Orleans legend, not only for her food, but for her activism, belief in civil rights, her support of local artists and musicians, and her unwavering belief that food could bridge the differences between people.   

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

DGA Crawfish Boil 2020!

It's that time of year again--time to officially announce the 2020 DGA Family and Friends Crawfish Boil!


In the coming weeks, we'll have hotel and restaurant recommendations, suggestions of how to have a great time in New Orleans (before and after the Crawfish boil obviously), band announcements and bios, and explainers about crawfish and how to eat them. 



See you March 7!  

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

King Cake Season!


Cake to celebrate these guys? Sure, why not? 

King cake season lasts from January 6 until Mardi Gras. Why January 6? January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the visit of the Three Magi (or Kings) to the infant baby Jesus. The first king cakes appeared in France during the Medieval period as a way to celebrate this important moment in the Christian calendar. They soon became an important feature of Carnival (otherwise known as Mardi Gras). 

When the French came to New Orleans in the early 17th century, they brought their holidays and traditions with them. Explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville landed on the coast about sixty miles south of present day New Orleans on March 2, 1699—the day before Mardi Gras. The holiday and the subsequent French colony stuck. 


The king cake, however, did not take hold until the early 1870s. French immigrants brought their king cake recipes with them and in classic New Orleans fashion, a new tradition merged with the old to create something wonderful. It took until about 1950 for the king cake to become a popular staple of New Orleans cuisine. In the past decade or so, king cakes have really come into their own. Popular interest in all things New Orleans grew after Hurricane Katrina and next day shipping have allowed king cakes to be shipped across the country, spreading their influence and deliciousness.

Is that the baby Jesus there?

Now let’s talk about the cake itself. The King cake began as a circular bread dough topped with sugar with a bean inside. Over the past several hundred years, however, the king cake has evolved into a sweet cake covered with sugar and icing. The dough, previously hollow, is now braided and stuffed with cinnamon, cream cheese, or other fillings.  The colors atop a King cake are the same as the ones of Mardi Gras—purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.  

King cakes also feature a small plastic baby hidden somewhere in or underneath the cake. Tradition holds that the person who finds the baby is responsible for buying the next cake. Some claim that the baby represents the baby Jesus and that McKenzie's Pastry Shoppes, a New Orleans area bakery, were the first to put the baby in the cake. In 1990, McKenzie's owner Donald Entringer Sr. denied that the baby had anything to do with Jesus. He told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “I've heard people say it's supposed to represent the Christ Child, but that's not true. Why we picked this, I don't know. It was cute. It was just a trinket that happened to be a baby.” Whatever the truth may be, watch out for the baby when you bite into your first slice of King cake.



Unsurprisingly here at DGA, everyone has their own king cake preferences. Bill is a big fan of the King cakes from Butter Krisp Diner in Covington. He prefers homemade king cakes and ones filled with strawberry cream cheese. 

Benson has a lasting affection for the king cakes once made by McKenzie’s. Luckily, the Tastee Donut chain in-and-around New Orleans purchased McKenzie’s old recipe and sells them at their stores. McKenzie’s consists of a simple brioche without cinnamon or filling. There’s only colored sugar topping the cake. 


Matt prefers the Mandeville Bake Shop because it's near his house, though the best one he’s ever had came from Randazzo’s. 


Doug’s favorite king cake is whatever one appears at his house. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmas Eve Bonfires

           The French, Spanish, German, Haitian, West African, Caribbean, Vietnamese, and other ethnic groups that have settled Louisiana in the past three hundred plus years have fused together to create a culture unique to Louisiana. In honor of the Christmas season, let's talk about a Louisiana tradition: Christmas Eve bonfires. 



             On Christmas Eve, and more generally in the month of December, residents of Louisiana who live along the Mississippi river, especially between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, construct bonfires on the earthen levees that surround the river. Most of the time, the levees protect the surrounding homes from flood waters. These areas of high ground also make them prime locations for the construction of bonfires. Tradition holds that the bonfires are intended to help Santa Claus—or as the Cajuns call him Papa Noel, because of course the Cajuns have their own name—find his way to the homes of residents of Southern Louisiana. Louisianans construct wooden pyramid like structures, with smaller support logs that give them the appearance of fences. This is the typical appearance for one of these structures, but over the years people have become more artistic in their creations. Many pay homage to Louisiana’s culture, taking the shape of famous plantation homes, paddleboats, or even the ubiquitous crawfish. St. James Parish, located about 30-40 miles upriver from New Orleans, has the heaviest concentration of bonfires, especially in the towns of Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina. Lutcher even hosts the annual Festival of the Bonfires at Lutcher Recreational Park where they feature live entertainment, food, local crafts, and of course, bonfires. 


            The origins of the Christmas Eve bonfires are not entirely clear. French and German immigrants settled in St. James Parish in the early 18th century. One theory holds that these settlers continued European traditions of holding bonfires on or around the winter and summer solstices after they established themselves in Louisiana. These original pagan practices were incorporated into Christian beliefs as a way of smoothing the way for conversion. The historical record, however, does not support the claim of a widespread practice of bonfires until the 1920s and 1930s. Groups of young men formed bonfire clubs, where they cut down trees, stripped them of their branches, and dragged them to the levees. After constructing the pyramid-like structures, people filled with rubber tires and other flammable materials. After World War 2, the bonfires grew in popularity due to the development of St. James and the surrounding river parishes. And in a rare victory for environmentalism in Louisiana, local governments banned the burning of rubber tires and other toxins—recognizing that they were bad for people’s health. Now these events serve as important cultural and communal events. As with many of Louisiana’s great traditions, they provide an opportunity to listen to music, eat delicious food, and for people to come together as a community and celebrate the holiday season.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Christmas at the Roosevelt

The Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans is known for many things--the famous Sazerac Bar, Domenica, the hotel's pizza and Italian restaurant, among others.

At Christmas time, the Roosevelt becomes a winter wonderland in the heart of New Orleans. Take a look at the video below to see the hotel transform itself.


Watch this video to see the Roosevelt in all its Christmas glory.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Christmas at the Gaylord Texan


            The Gaylord Texan is a mammoth all-inclusive resort located in Grapevine, Texas, just outside of Dallas. Its amenities include a 25,000 sq ft spa, indoor and outdoor pools, five acres of gardens, a seasonal water park, a convention center, four restaurants, a bar, an on-site night club, and a cafĂ©. The Gaylord has over 1,600 guest rooms and 152 suites. The Texas themed atrium includes a replica of the San Antonio Riverwalk. 

            At Christmas time, the Gaylord offers a host of holiday activities for families. The highlights begin with ICE! a holiday ice exhibit carved from 2 million pounds of ice. Kept at a chilly 9 degrees, the 14,000-square-foot exhibit hall features scenes from Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Carved over the course of several months by more than 40 ice sculptors, ICE! also features ice slides for participants to slide down. It also includes one-and-a-half million twinkling lights, 12,000 ornaments, a 52-foot-tall rotating Christmas tree, and a life-sized gingerbread house. 

            ICE!, however, is just one part of the Christmas experience at the Gaylord. There’s also the Lone Star Christmas featuring stilt walkers, singing cowboys, Santa and Mrs. Claus, balloon artists, snow-tubing, snowball making, ice skating, a Christmas carousel, Build-A-Bear, and a gingerbread decorating corner. The video below shows the Gaylord Texan at peak Christmas.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Celebration in the Oaks


            New Orleans City Park is known for its collection of live oak trees, Botanical Garden, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The live oaks are perhaps the most famous part of the park. Some are over six hundred years old and predate the European settlement of Louisiana. The park grounds themselves have a rich and diverse history. The area started out as a dueling ground where male residents of New Orleans could settle their disputes outside of the watchful eyes of city authorities. In the 1850s, a district court created the park out of land left to the city by a deceased plantation owner. By the end of the 19thcentury, the City Park Improvement Association was founded to begin transforming the land into the park that we know today. It was not until the 1980s, however, that one of the park’s most popular and beloved traditions came into existence: Celebration in the Oaks


            In 1984, the Botanical Garden was in need of a new fundraising campaign to fuel the organization’s growth. Mary Rodgers, the chair of the Park’s PR Committee, wanted to drape lights in the Park’s oak trees. However, the idea was too expensive for the time and instead the director of the Botanical Garden, Paul Soniat created a program called “A Tribute to a Christmas Tree” where local artists decorated Christmas Trees. They were displayed in a tent at the Garden. 

            The idea of decorating the oak trees in lights never went away. For a few years, there were small light displays around the Garden. Those in charge of the park believed that a larger light display would be popular, but it took several years for a plan to come into place. In 1987, the oaks at the front of the Park finally were covered in lights. A local energy company designed a way of powering the lights and underwrote the cost of the electricity. By installing the lights at the entrance to the Park, park management had created a whole other way for visitors to experience the lights—in their cars. Before visitors had to walk around the Botanical Garden to view the displays. Now with the lights spread out through the park, guests never had to leave their cars. This meant that many more people could see the lights at any given time. More lights and more people naturally meant growing the size and scope of the event. So Charles Foti, a local sheriff, organized the construction and installation of holiday exhibits including a “Cajun Christmas Village.”       



            By 1991, the Celebration in the Oaks received over 350,000 visitors. The popularity of the event led to the creation of additional garden areas and child’s play areas. Over the years, the Park has added a charity walk/run, guided tours, a miniature train, floats, and a host of other attractions. Like the rest of the city, City Park was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but the organizers of Celebration in the Oaks managed to pull off an abbreviated version in 2005 and as the city recovered from the storm, the celebration grew once again in scope. 

            Currently, the Celebration features nearly 600,000 lights, attracting over 165,000 people per year. The fundraiser provides 13% of City Park’s yearly operating budget. It opened on the Friday after Thanksgiving and closes on January 3. It’s a New Orleans holiday tradition that is not to be missed.