In 2015, before I was hired full-time at any newsroom, Leah Chase sat down with me and told me her Katrina story.
It was a part of a partnership with NOLA.com and Loyola University, and by the grace of family and a few well-timed phone calls, I got the interview of a lifetime.
Almost 20 minutes into her Katrina story, one of her daughters stepped in and told her who I was: a Staes. She immediately warmed up and said my name with an accent as the old Creoles do.
“I’ll be darned, that’s your daddy!” she said. “Your grandfather used to come in here. He would sit at that bar, all by himself. He would say very little to anybody, just sat there and would relax after work. But he was very good people.”
After Katrina, like many, family photos were scarce. By chance, I had just taken a picture with my phone of my grandfather, who died before I was born, and showed it to “Ms. Leah”.
“That’s him,” she said. “He would drink a beer, and maybe when he got ready to go, he’d ask us to fix an oyster sandwich to take home to his wife.”
That’s when it hit me. I know what she said is true. My aunt tells stories of my grandmother shucking oysters, and half of them never making it to the table because she’d eat them along the way. Of course, he would get her an oyster po-boy. Of course, Ms. Leah would remember that.
There I was, literally at the table of a legend, crying because she was telling me stories of my family I’d never heard of until that day.
Leah Chase gave everyone she met something they never had before. No matter if you were a president or an average Joe, she found time to bless you with a few words. For some, it was a meal. For others, it was a realization of New Orleans and its people; knowledgeable, warm, inviting, with a lot of spunk and spice. For me, it was a better understanding of my family and who I was as a person.
I cried the day of that interview because she gave that knowledge to me, and I’m heartbroken now because it’s gone.
New Orleans will forever revere the Queen of Creole Cuisine. Her numerous accolades will always remain relevant, but her heart, her words, her very aura, is what we will all miss the most. We all just lost our grandmother.
Rest in Peace, Ms. Leah.