When she made roux for her shrimp-and-sausage gumbo (one cup peanut oil and eight tablespoons flour) in her joyfully elegant restaurant in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, Leah Chase, who died on June 1 at age 96, stirred very slowly with her wooden spoon until it blended to the color of café au lait and could bind together all the diverse ingredients. So, too, did the binding magic of her roux and her smile extend to people.
During the 1960s, local civil rights leaders gathered regularly at Dooky Chase’s, the art-filled epicenter of Creole cuisine that she and her husband founded in the 1940s, to meet not only with Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, but also with members of the white political and social establishment who were dedicated patrons.
“Food builds bridges,” she liked to say.
And thus she transformed not only New Orleans cuisine, but also its political and social life with a smile as radiant as her bread pudding and with a sense of humor as spicy as her gumbo – which she once protected with a slap on the hand when Barack Obama tried to add Tabasco sauce without tasting it first.
Isaacson, a former editor of Time, is a professor of history at Tulane University; his most recent book is Leonardo da Vinci.