‘Fabulous’ Lena Richard: In Jim Crow times, a Black woman chef from New Orleans built a food empire

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·21 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Chef Lena Richard, her arms stout from decades of stirring and whisking, hoisted her suitcase packed with cane syrup, brown sugar, Louisiana pecans and 10 pounds of dried shrimp and got ready to leave for New York City. It was July 1939, and she was traveling from New Orleans, her home, intent on cooking Creole specialties so delicious the entire country would take notice.

She already had some dishes in mind. She would make her split chicken baked with mushroom, her fried crab croquette coated in cracker crumbs, and her okra gumbo spiked with cayenne and swimming with a pound of shrimp and a half-dozen crabs. She had to haul along her key ingredients. Who knew what she would find beyond Louisiana?

Richard had the top catering business in New Orleans at a time when many other Black women she knew toiled as domestic servants. The wealthiest brides swooned over Richard’s “boast” dishes. The year before, 400 white socialites had packed a French Quarter auditorium to watch Richard cook and flash them her effervescent smile. The event made Richard, according to the national Black newspaper The Chicago Defender, “the first member of the race ever to address an audience of white women” in New Orleans. She had enjoyed more success than almost any Black woman in the city.

“If no other colored women could get places I certainly could,” Richard wrote a few years later in a brief autobiography.

But Richard was weighed down with more than a suitcase. She felt constrained by the bigotry of Jim Crow Louisiana. The white newspapers wrote about Richard but qualified her achievements by noting in headlines that she was a “negro.” The writers called her “Lena” but referred to white people by their titles and last names. And when she walked onstage to teach those 400 white women her recipes, a reporter for The New Orleans Item said it was just like when the enslaved “Negro cook instructed white daughters of her master.”

Richard was also in debt. She had spent $1,200, the equivalent today of $23,500, to self-publish “Lena Richard’s Cook Book,” which she called her life’s work in book form. And she owed the printer money.

In the month Richard spent in New York, she sold 700 copies of her cookbook, enough to pay every penny she owed her printer.

More important, she charmed her way into the pages of The New York Times, which reviewed her self-published cookbook. She was invited to the test kitchen of The Herald Tribune, and the paper’s eminent food writer, Clementine Paddleford, devoted an entire column to Richard, calling her “one of New Orleans’ ace kitchen performers.”

This series explores the unseen, unheard, lost and forgotten stories of America’s people of color.

When Richard arrived in New York, she was a New Orleans chef. By the time she left on Aug. 7, 1939, she was on her way to becoming “a national celebrity among gourmets,” as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram would declare her a year later.

Richard became one of the most successful Black entrepreneurs of her day, leveraging her talent into a multipronged enterprise that included the cookbook, restaurants, cooking schools, retail frozen food and television. Food historians say she was almost certainly the first Black TV chef in the United States. Yet she never became a household name.

Never Been Told: A new USA TODAY project aims to fill in the lost history of people of color

‘First martyr of voting rights': How a Black man’s death in 1965 changed American history

USA TODAY is telling Richard’s little-known story with the help of the newspaper stories that recorded her accomplishments, her personal archives at Tulane University’s Newcomb Institute in New Orleans, and an unpublished 1944 autobiographical sketch she wrote while working at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Publisher Houghton Mifflin picked up her cookbook in 1940, revealing the secrets of New Orleans cuisine to every cook in the country. Richard served politicians and film stars as the chef of the prestigious Bird & Bottle Inn in upstate New York. Colonial Williamsburg recruited her to run its Travis House restaurant, where she fed the British high command and met Clementine Spencer-Churchill, wife of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. She was a frozen food pioneer, sending her turtle soup, shrimp Creole and shrimp remoulade from New Orleans to cities across America. And in the last two years of her life, Richard hosted a twice-weekly local television show.

“She was original in that she made those opportunities and found them and used them for herself. There is a uniqueness and genius to her that needs to be celebrated,” said food historian Jessica Harris, whose book “High on the Hog” is the basis of the Netflix series on Black food and culture.

No matter how far she rose, Richard never forgot where she came from. When she made food for weddings and debutante balls, she sent it off to white-owned Garden District mansions in Black-owned taxicabs. She ran a string of restaurants in African American neighborhoods at a time when Black people could not dine in many white-owned places. For her fellow Black cooks, she developed a rigorous culinary school to sharpen their skills so they could demand higher wages.

When Richard died in 1950, the television station that produced her show, WDSU, ran a tribute the next day. Her show went on with a new African American cook, Amanda Lee, who continued to make Richard’s recipes. The family kept her last restaurant, the Gumbo House, open until 1958. But eventually, Richard’s cookbook went out of print. Newspapers stopped mentioning her. And the chef once hailed as “nationally famous” was largely forgotten for the next 50 years.

“For whatever reasons, she has not appeared with the prominence she so clearly deserves,” Harris said.

From working for white women to teaching them

Richard was born Lena Paul to Frances Laurence and John Peter Paul, in either 1892 or 1893. Early details of her life are hard to confirm. Although Richard wrote in 1944 that she was “born and reared in New Orleans,” most other records say she was from New Roads, 120 miles north of the city.

She learned to cook by watching her mother, who worked in the houses of white New Orleans families. Richard was 14 when she visited a cousin employed by the Vairin family in a mansion on oak-lined Esplanade Avenue. The cousin fell ill, and Richard finished the work. The “mistress” of the house, Alice Baldwin Vairin, took notice and offered Richard a job before and after school. The next academic year, Richard switched to night classes and worked for the Vairins during the day as a maid.

When the Vairins lost their cook, Richard was given the job.

Melvin McNair: In 1972, he helped hijack a plane to escape US racism. 'I am at peace with what I did.'

David Ruggles: The man who rescued Frederick Douglass was 'soul of the Underground Railroad'

Adina De Zavala: Meet the ‘Angel of the Alamo’ who saved a landmark of Texas history in 1908

“Mrs. Vairin was amazed that I could prepare such good food since I was so small,” Richard wrote in her autobiography. “I was 19 years old at that time and weighed only 99 pounds.”

Domestic employment was one of the few jobs available to African American women in the early half of the 20th century. The pay was low. The hours were long, and many workers were not even given Sundays off. And the job forced Black women into near-constant contact with white female bosses who frequently were racist.

“Most of the time, when a woman could get a job doing something besides domestic work, she did. Cooking was considered better than cleaning,” said historian Rebecca Sharpless, author of “Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960.”

Vairin, whose four daughters all graduated from New Orleans’ prestigious Newcomb College for women, took an interest in the education of her young cook. Once a week, Richard was given a day to read cookbooks and test new recipes.

Vairin enrolled Richard in local cooking classes and sent her to demonstrations. In 1918, she dispatched Richard to Boston for an eight-week course at Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery, founded by the famed cookbook author Fannie Farmer.

Richard was unimpressed by the school.

“I learned things about new desserts and salads. But when it comes to cooking meats, stews, soups, sauces and such dishes, we Southern cooks have Northern cooks beat a mile,” she told Paddleford for the 1939 Herald Tribune column. “That’s not big talk. That’s the honest truth.”

Richard did leave Boston with an idea.

She cooked gumbo for her fellow Fannie Farmer students. She saw the white women watch closely as she bound flour and fat into a roux, stirring constantly until the normally pale mixture turned chocolate brown. She saw them frantically scribbling down what she said as she tossed in onions, which sizzled as they released their water and cooled down the roux.

“I think maybe I’m pretty good,” she said. Someday, Richard thought, she should write a cookbook.

Richard married Percival Richard in 1914. After 14 years working for the Vairin family, Richard left in the early 1920s to be her own boss. She launched a catering business, relying at first on clients recommended by Vairin, who were among New Orleans society’s most elite members.

She also opened her first restaurant, a neighborhood spot called the Sweet Shop, inside her modest house in Tremé, a historic African American neighborhood. A few years after the 1929 stock market crash, Richard took a job as a chef at the stately Orleans Club, an exclusive organization for white women who remained wealthy during the Great Depression.

At the insistence of her friends, Richard started a cooking school in 1937. She had high ambitions for the students. Her fellow African American cooks would get the same caliber of instruction she had received in Boston. Graduates of the Lena M. Richard Catering School were issued a formal diploma attesting to their “diligent application” in subjects such as “the art of plain and fancy cooking.” The elaborate commencement for the school included dinner, a lecture and games of bridge and whist. Admission to the graduation ceremony was 25 cents, and the money was used to finance Richard’s cookbook.

Richard then teamed up with Aphra Vairin Morris, the daughter of her former employer, to open a second school for “brides and bridesmaids and matrons of many years of married life who want to delight the men of their family by the age-old way of the kitchen,” according to a story in The New Orleans States newspaper. The tuition for a dozen two-hour lessons was $10, roughly $200 today.

Zella Palmer, a food scholar and director of the Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture at New Orleans’ historically Black Dillard University, sees deep roots in Richard’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“African women are the queens of the market in any country in Africa. That doesn't go away just because of slavery. It’s culture, a memory,” Palmer said. “You had to figure out a way to survive.”

The nation takes notice

Richard spent two years and one month shaping her recipes into a book with her only daughter, Marie, by then a home economics student at New Orleans’ Xavier University. By 1939, Richard had enough money to publish “Lena Richard’s Cook Book.”

“The secrets of Creole cooking which have been kept for years by the old French chef are herein revealed,” she wrote in the introduction. “To the ordinary homemaker Creole Gumbo, Court Bouillon, Crawfish Bisque, Grillades a la Creole, are no longer dishes prepared in secrecy by French chefs, to be eaten by the rich.”

Richard dedicated the work to her former boss Alice Vairin, who died in 1931 and “whose kindness, advice and assistance have made this book possible.”

When Richard returned from her New York trip to promote her cookbook, she met Lee Barker, a scout for Houghton Mifflin. He was interested in her book. After tasting her cooking, he was sold.

Houghton Mifflin reissued her book with the title “New Orleans Cook Book” on July 30, 1940. Glowing reviews ran in the newspapers of Oakland, Nashville, Fort Worth, Des Moines, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Lexington, Rochester, Pensacola, Chattanooga, Los Angeles and Indianapolis. Even The New Yorker magazine noted the publication.

The year 1940 had already been good for raising Richard’s profile. She had done a photo shoot in May with Clarence John Laughlin, the New Orleans-based surrealist photographer who had worked for Vogue. His photographs are held today in the permanent collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, among others. Prints of Richard are in the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Bob Kendrick: The fascinating story of the Negro Leagues and the man keeping the history alive

Carlos Bulosan: Author’s critique of America gave Filipino migrants a voice

After the mass-market publication of the cookbook, things got even better. In September 1940, Charles and Constance Stearns were turning a 1761 inn in Garrison, New York, into a restaurant called The Bird & Bottle Inn. The plan was to serve food so compelling it would draw New York City diners 55 miles north. They had already hired a chef, but the couple asked Richard to come for a one-month trial. She arrived, cooked for a party of 50 before the restaurant was officially open, and by her third day in Garrison she was appointed chef at The Bird & Bottle.

“After emancipation, there was a period when African American women were highly coveted by restaurants,” said food historian Adrian Miller, author of “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.” By the 1940s, Miller said, more Black male chefs were taking jobs as restaurant chefs.

Richard filled the menu of The Bird & Bottle Inn with her New Orleans specialties. The most popular items were her shrimp soup Louisiana, a New Orleans-style shrimp bisque made without cream, and a chicken stuffed with oyster dressing. The New Yorker declared the chicken “fabulous” in an August 1941 review by “Soubise,” a pseudonym for staff writer Katharine Rowland Cooke Blow.

As the Stearns intended, the Bird & Bottle attracted famous diners such as actress Joan Crawford, conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, actors Veronica Lake, Henry Morgenthau Jr., architect of FDR's New Deal, and John. D. Rockefeller Jr.

After 18 months, Richard had an “accident,” which she mentioned in her 1944 autobiographical sketch but did not describe, and decided to go home to New Orleans. But her influence on The Bird & Bottle Inn lingered. In 1948, the Stearns canned Richard’s shrimp bisque and oyster dressing and sold it by mail, although she did not get credit for the recipes. When The New York Times wrote about the canned goods, it said the dressing was “an old New Orleans recipe.” And as late as 1958, the Bird & Bottle was still featuring New Orleans fare.

Around the time Richard left the Bird & Bottle, the Stearns brought in a consultant, whom they met through their friend Lucius Beebe, the journalist, gourmet and bon vivant who chronicled New York’s upper-crust “café society.” The new hire was an up-and-coming caterer from New York City who had just published his second cookbook, albeit with a press far less prestigious than Houghton Mifflin. His name was James Beard, and he would become one of the most influential figures in American food. It is not known, however, if Richard and Beard worked together at The Bird & Bottle Inn.

Back in New Orleans, Richard resumed catering and opened a small restaurant called Lena’s Eatery. But she was soon lured back east.

Colonial Williamsburg, after closing for a few years because of wartime rationing, was ready to reopen in 1943. The manager of the Travis House, the historic center’s main restaurant, knew of Richard’s cooking at The Bird & Bottle Inn and hired her as the chef.

At that time, Colonial Williamsburg was filled with soldiers from nearby bases. The restored village taught civics courses so the young men headed to war would know why they were fighting.

“We opened the doors at 5:30 p.m. every day,” Richard told The New Orleans Item in 1949, “and between 300 and 400 boys from Camp Perry would come swarming in, along with other local customers. They ate like locusts.”

The demand was so high for Richard’s food that the Travis House had to open a takeout window.

At Colonial Williamsburg, Richard oversaw a banquet for the British High Command. She received notes of praise from distinguished international visitors. She sent a fruitcake to John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and received a gracious thank-you letter. Of meeting Spencer-Churchill, Richard said in a 1946 interview with The New Orleans Item: “I’ve got Mrs. Churchill’s autograph in one of my books – and she’s got mine.”

The last meal Richard cooked

Richard came home in the spring of 1945 and returned to catering. And she found a way to feed people around the country without leaving New Orleans.

Working with the grocer Bordelon Fine Foods, Richard made frozen batches of her grillades, okra gumbo and chicken fricassee. For the local market, she sold them in pints and quarts. For everywhere else, she packed them into 5- and 10-gallon containers, shipping them across the country on Pan Am and Mid-Continent airlines.

Frozen food had gained in popularity during the war, when it could be purchased without a ration coupon. It became more common after orange juice concentrate was introduced in 1946, around the same time Richard launched her frozen food business.

Richard opened a new school for Black cooks with a 10-week course at the Holy Ghost Church. In February 1949, she opened the Gumbo House restaurant, which employed her entire family. On opening day, Richard gave away 110 gallons of free gumbo. The restaurant became an extension of the Holy Ghost Church, and parishioners arrived after Sunday Mass and stayed until the early hours of Monday morning.

Richard’s final act brought her into the homes of thousands of New Orleanians. On Dec. 18, 1948, WDSU had become the first television station in Louisiana, broadcasting initially to a few dozen homes. A year later, the city would have 15,000 television sets.

Not long after the station went on air, Richard began hosting a cooking show, sponsored by Holsum sliced bread. “New Orleans Cook Book” featured recipes from Richard’s book and was on every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. WDSU heavily promoted the show in advertisements that starred the smiling Richard, whom they called “a nationally known Creole cook.”

On Nov. 26, 1950, Richard was working at the Gumbo House. She was always working. She even worked on Christmas Day. A woman from Los Angeles had traveled straight from the airport to try Richard’s food, Richard’s daughter Marie would tell The States-Item in 1979. The stranger ordered the Gumbo House’s entire menu, and Richard insisted on cooking everything herself for this enthusiastic customer. The woman, whose identity is unknown, was still eating when Richard went home at midnight.

Richard, who had high blood pressure, soon started coughing. She called her husband and her daughter, who lived next door. Around 2 a.m. Nov. 27, she said to them, “I am going home now and there are things I want to tell you.” But before she could continue, a heart attack ended her life. The Louisiana Weekly, the city’s African American newspapers, announced the news with a banner headline that read “‘Fabulous’ Lena Richard Is Dead.”

The legacy of Lena Richard

The first chapter of “Black Food,” the sprawling, joyful new book curated by Bryant Terry, is a benediction from the Rev. Marvin K. White that imagines the creation of the world as God cooking. It ends with a hymn to Black cooks who have too often been overlooked:

Rise and Flour, Hercules Posey.

Rise and Flour, James Hemings.

Rise and Flour, Edna Lewis.

Rise and Flour, Lena Richard.

Rise and Flour, Lucille Elizabeth Bishop Smith,

Rise and Flour.

In this century, Richard’s story has begun to bubble to the surface. Newcomb College devoted half a 2001 exhibition to Richard. Jessica Harris, in her seminal 2012 book “High on the Hog,'' includes a small section on Richard. In the “The Jemima Code,” the 2015 compendium of African American cookbooks, Toni Tipton-Martin has an entry on “Lena Richard’s Cook Book.” And Ashley Rose Young, historian for the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, has mounted exhibitions on Richard and is working on a book with the chef’s granddaughter, Paula Rhodes. Still, most people in the food world know little about Richard, if they know of her at all.

Richard is frequently explained through the careers of white chefs and businesswomen who followed her. What if, asks the food historian Harris, we flip that lens? James Beard was the male Lena Richard. Julia Child was the white Lena Richard. Martha Stewart is the modern-day Lena Richard.

Chef Dwynesha “Dee” Lavigne, 44, a Black chef and culinary instructor born and raised in New Orleans, learned about Richard only five years ago.

“Having an iconic person like Richard in my young age definitely would have changed my career," she said.

Lavigne, like Richard a century before, found her own way in the culinary world. She teaches, she bakes and she appears regularly on a local New Orleans TV station. But Lavigne, even though she began cooking as a child, hesitated to make food her career. When she finally enrolled at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America she was older than the other students.

“When I started cooking at 7 years old, if I had known about Lena Richard I think that I would have jumped head in,” she said.

Knowing the full history of Black men and women like Richard, whose brilliance was stymied by the laws and prejudices of their era, corrects the record of the past. It can also change the present and the future.

Rise and flour, Lena Richard.

Recipe: Lena Richard’s Shrimp Bisque

Lavigne adapted Richard’s celebrated shrimp bisque recipe for the modern kitchen. Find more recipes at chefdeelavigne.com.

Chef Dwynesha "Dee" Lavigne recreates Lena Richard's shrimp bisque.
Chef Dwynesha "Dee" Lavigne recreates Lena Richard's shrimp bisque.

Ingredients

  • 3 pounds large, head-on shrimp

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil

  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour

  • 3 tablespoons medium chopped onion

  • 1 cup fresh chopped tomatoes (skinned and seeded)

  • 1 tablespoon chopped green bell pepper

  • 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

  • 1 full sprig thyme

  • 1 large bay leaf

  • 3 tablespoons chopped parsley (save 1 tablespoon for garnish)

  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper

  • 4 tablespoon unsalted butter

  • 6 tablespoons dried breadcrumbs (additional 3 tablespoons for topping)

  • 1 large egg, beaten

  • 2 teaspoons onion juice (see note)

  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

Wash the fresh raw shrimp thoroughly. Remove the heads of the shrimp, peel and devein saving the peels for later. Scoop out the heads, saving the scrapings to cook. Put the hollow shrimp heads in enough cold water just to cover them from drying out. Put the shrimp peels and scrapings from heads and two quarts of cold water into a small sauce pot to cook. Allow the liquid to come to a boil. Remove the pot from the heat and strain, saving the shrimp stock.

Prepare the roux: Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot over medium heat until hot. Test the temperature by sprinkling a little flour into the oil. If the flour sizzles, the oil is ready. Once the oil is hot, add the remaining flour, stirring constantly for about 3-4 minutes on medium heat until the flour browns and the roux begins to smell nutty. Then add onions and cook until caramelized. Add tomatoes, let cook for about 5 minutes and then add in the stock 1 cup at a time, all the seasonings (bell pepper, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, parsley, cayenne pepper, white pepper), and half the amount of shrimp cut in small pieces. Reduce heat to medium-low. Let bisque simmer for about one hour.

Meanwhile, finely dice the remainder of the shrimp. Heat butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add diced shrimp, breadcrumbs, beaten egg, and onion juice to melted butter and saute for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add 3/4 of the warm mixture to a food processor or blender until it is a fine paste. Leave the remainder of the stuffing in the pan to dry out and use as garnish to finish the bisque. Fill a pastry bag with the fine texture filling and stuff the shrimp heads. Place them on a parchment lined baking sheet side by side, sprinkle the tops with additional breadcrumbs. Put the heads in the oven when the bisque is 90% done. Bake the heads in a 400-degree oven until brown.

To complete the dish ladle bisque into soup bowls, sprinkle with crumble filling, 4 shrimp heads and chopped parsley. Serves 6.

Note: To make onion juice, squeeze a small piece of onion in a garlic press.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New Orleans chef Lena Richard built a Jim Crow-era food empire

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting