The Food Almanac: Monday, January 7, 2013

Happy Birthday, Leah Chase!


The Twelfth Day of Christmas
Although some calendars say that yesterday evening was the Twelfth Night of Christmas, for some reason that observance is tonight in New Orleans. It comes on the evening of the Feast of the Epiphany or King Day, commemorating the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. Here, the date has greater importance than in most places, because it not only ushers out the Christmas season but commences Carnival. The official deed is performed by the Lord Of Misrule at tonight's ball of the Twelfth Night Revelers, one of the oldest organizations in the New Orleans Carnival hierarchy. Its characters and rituals predate New Orleans by centuries in Europe. Shakespeare wrote a play about it. 

The central ceremony at the Twelfth Night Revelers ball is the cutting of the king cake. The debutantes in attendance at the ball each have a slice of king cake, each with a silver bean inside--except one. She is the Queen, and her slice has a gold bean. (It's supposed to be a surprise, but she probably knew about it in advance.) 

The king cake spread from there to become one of the culinary icons of New Orleans. It's not long before an icon graduates to an obsession, then to commercialization. King cakes have indeed spun completely out of control, being available everywhere throughout the Carnival season. Variations on king cakes have begun spreading out into the Christmas season, and I've even seen them made in green for St. Patrick's Day. 

The New Orleans-style king cake is a ring of sweet yeast dough--often made in the style of brioche--decorated with coarse granulated sugar colored purple, green, and gold--the colors of Mardi Gras. Sometimes the dough is braided, with cinnamon between the layers. The cake is frequently topped with white icing, and some versions are filled with fruit or custards. An essential ingredient is a small plastic baby. The person who gets the slice with the baby inside is required by tradition to give the next king cake party. Hundreds of thousands of them are baked and shipped throughout the year to people elsewhere who want a piece of New Orleans culture, but don't know (or care about) the tradition behind it.

Our Legendary Culinarians
Today is the ninetieth birthday anniversary of Leah Chase, the reigning queen of Creole cooking in New Orleans. She was born in 1923 in Madisonville, and came to New Orleans in 1937. Miss Leah, who made Dooky Chase restaurant into a mainstay of local dining, started her cooking career at the old Coffee Pot restaurant in the 1940s, and she keeps at it today. In fact, one of her cookbooks is very appropriately entitled And I Still Cook. Her most recent cookbook is another one of her favorite lines:Listen, I Say Like This. Dooky Chase is back open at last, serving mostly lunch and early dinner. What a wonderful lady. To know her (or even to just meet her) is to love her.


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