New Orleans Own, Chef Lena Richard 1892-1950
When I was a little girl I was always in the kitchen watching my Mama and Momo, it didn’t matter what they were cooking either. It was something about being in that kitchen with them, seeing the passion and love in their eyes as they cooked and baked in a hot small kitchen. I didn’t know then, but I was in a actual in cooking class, being an obedient student, handing, measuring, mixing and pouring all their ingredients together that magically turned into something delicious.
Mrs. Lena’s story reminded me of how blessed I am to have shared such a sacred space with my Momo over the years. I can see the two of us now in the kitchen making sweet potato pies.. Me saying, “Momo the whole stick of butter?” “Child put that butter in that bowl” she would say with that soft voice of her’s. We had good times.
When I came across the story of Lena Richard’s I felt so proud of her, my Mama, Momo and the rest of the women before me. Her story starts out just as mines, their’s, in the kitchen helping her mother and she turned that into a legacy for her family and ours.
As I read I felt a sense of pride, I felt encouraged, renewed and hopeful. Her story made me realize that I am on the right track and I have to keep pushing on, believing and knowing I will accomplish my goals. I felt my head raise up high and my chest stuck out as if she was speaking to me through her story.
She did it, she paved a way in spite of all that was going in her era. I’m pretty sure she did not get credit for all she contributed to New Orleans cuisine and culture, but she made sure she left her mark on the culinary world. I’m so proud to be a part of her history and culture.
Once a little girl in the kitchen myself who went on to own a restaurant and catering business, I am ecstatic to share her story with you! I hope you enjoy reading about Mrs. Lena Richard as much as I did.
Lena, who was African-American, was also an acclaimed chef. Too often in the mid-twentieth century, the identities of the top chefs of New Orleans’ world-renowned restaurants remained anonymous. They were the creative genius hidden behind the swinging doors of their kitchens. Often, those men and women were African-Americans. Lena, therefore, was unusual: she was a black female chef who captured public attention. While unusual, she was not alone. In fact, Richard was at the forefront of increasingly popularized black cooking traditions. Her cooking show appeared just one year after Frieda De Knight’s cookbook, A Date With A Dish (1948), later renamed The Ebony Cookbook (1962), and was soon followed by Mary Land’s Louisiana Cookery (1954). Like Frieda and Mary, Lena played a principal role in the emerging black cooking scene in the late 1940s.
Lena Richard was “a Martha Stewart before there was a Martha Stewart.”
The quote from Liz Williams, president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, is an apt comparison, for Richard was a chef, caterer, restaurateur, frozen food entrepreneur, cooking teacher, cookbook author, wife, mother, grandmother — and host of her own cooking show on New Orleans television, a singular achievement for an African-American in the segregated South of the late 1940s.
She’s important because she stepped out on the water when there was no guarantee it would hold her up,” says food historian Jessica B. Harris, author of “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.” “She was the first, an extraordinary first.
“The television thing she did makes her phenomenal,” Harris says. “To be that person on-air in New Orleans at the time was extraordinary. … She did and created so much stuff, she made a path.”
Richard “was an inspirational leader,” agreed Toni Tipton-Martin, the Austin, Texas-based author, community activist and creator of “The Jemima Code,” a pop-up exhibit, blog and upcoming book exploring the legacies of African-American cooks. “She operated her restaurant in a manner to bring along the next generation.”
Lena operated several eateries in New Orleans throughout her career. She opened her own restaurant, Lena Richard’s Gumbo House on February 19, 1949. A newspaper advertisement for the grand opening of the Gumbo House captured readers’ attention and tempted their appetites by naming “gumbo file as the house specialty.”
The restaurant was located at 1936 Louisiana Avenue, and was very much a family operated business. Lena’s son-in-law, Leroy Rhodes managed the restaurant, her husband, Percival ensured the property was in top shape, and her daughter, Marie managed the finances. Even during Jim Crow, this restaurant served both black and white clientele, capturing the customer loyalty of a variety of New Orleans residents with Lena’s famous dishes.
That intent was made clear in the preface to Richard’s cookbook, “New Orleans Cook Book.”
In 1939, she self-published more than 350 recipes for simple as well as elegant dishes in Lena Richard’s Cook Book. Her smiling face radiates from the kind of ladylike portrait one might expect to find cradled inside a gold locket worn close to the heart. A year later, at the urging of Beard and food editor Clementine Paddleford, Houghton Mifflin published a revised edition of her work. This book, however, contained a new title and preface, and that precious cameo-style photograph was gone.
She was born Lena Paul in New Roads, La. (Many sources list the year as 1892 but the New Orleans Times-Picayune, in its notice of her death from a heart attack on Nov. 27, 1950, gives her age as 51.) She began her career as a domestic — “like so many others of her time,” wrote Harris in “High on the Hog.” Her employers, the Vairin family of New Orleans, sent her for culinary training first locally and then to Boston at the school founded by Fannie Farmer.
Lena Paul returned to New Orleans after graduation in 1918 and began catering, according to Karen Trahan Leathem, author of “Two Women and their Cookbooks: Lena Richard and Mary Land,” a guide to a 2001 exhibit sponsored by Tulane University’s Newcomb College in New Orleans. She married Percival Richard and opened the first in a series of restaurants. The cooking school opened in 1937.
She died in 1950, leaving her mark as an entrepreneur and businesswoman, playing a large role in the preservation and promotion of 20th-century African-American cooking in New Orleans.
In a very real sense, Lena Richards helped defined New Orleans and Louisiana cuisine in the twentieth century.
I am captivated by her story and so very proud
Here are a few of her recipes:
- 2 cups sifted flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon each ground nutmeg and cinnamon
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 egg, well beaten
- 1 tablespoon melted butter
- 1/2 cup milk
Sift flour once, measure, add baking powder, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon. Sift together, three times. Combine sugar and egg; add butter. Add flour, alternately with milk, a small amount at a time. Beat after each addition until smooth. Knead lightly 2 minutes on lightly-floured board. Roll 1/3-inch thick. Cut with doughnut cutter. Let rise for several minutes. Fry in deep, hot fat until golden brown. Drain on unglazed paper. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired.
Number of Servings: 12
Creole cooked red beans
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 3 to 3 1/2 hours
Makes: 8 servings
Adapted from Lena Richard’s “New Orleans Cook Book.” Ashley Young posted this recipe and others on a blog related to a Richard exhibit at New Orleans’ Southern Food and Beverage museum. Smoked or fresh ham shank can be used. Young’s big tip? Patience. Slow cooking will transform the texture of the beans from firm to “gloriously mushy” in 3 to 3 1/2 hours, she says.
2 cups dried red beans
2 quarts water
1 large onion, diced
1 green pepper, cored, seeded, diced
½ pound pickled meat or ham shank
3 tablespoons shortening
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1. Soak beans overnight in a large pot or bowl in enough water to cover by 2 inches. Drain. (You can skip the soaking, if you like. The beans will need to cook about 30 minutes longer.)
2. Pour the beans into a large pot along with the 2 quarts water; add remaining ingredients, except the salt, pepper and parsley. Heat to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, with the lid slightly askew, until beans are soft and soupy, 3 to 3 1/2 hours. With 10 minutes of cooking time, add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and pepper to taste. Just before ready to serve add parsley; taste for seasonings.
Make sure to order her cookbook, it’s on sale at Amazon.