Lena Richard was a “Martha Stewart” long before there was a Martha Stewart. She was a chef, caterer, restaurateur, frozen-food entrepreneur, cooking teacher, cookbook author, wife, mother, and grandmother; as well as the host of her own cooking show on New Orleans television. This was a phenomenal achievement for a woman of color in the days of Jim Crow.
Having been born into a Catholic Creole family in New Roads, Louisiana on 11 September 1892, Lena Paul was baptized one month later at St. Mary’s Church as the daughter of Jean-Pierre (John Peter) Paul and Francoise Laurent (Frances Lawrence). After their marriage on 17 November 1881, Mr. and Mrs. Paul would bring into the world ten children. The family would eventually move to New Orleans.
Lena’s career began as a domestic assisting her mother and aunt after school at the Esplanade Avenue home of Alice Nugent Vairin. Aware of her contributions in the kitchen, Mrs. Vairin began paying Lena a salary when she turned fourteen. Upon finishing school, she was employed by the family.
Recognizing her natural talents as a cook, Mrs. Vairin sent Lena to cooking school locally and later to the renowned Fannie Farmer Cooking School in Boston from which she graduated in 1918. However, Lena did not believe her time there had a significant impact on her cooking:
“When I got up there, I found out in a hurry they can’t teach me much more than I know. I learned things about new desserts and salads but when it comes to cooking meats, stews, soups and sauces; we Southern cooks have Northern cooks beat by a mile.”
In the early 1920s, Lena began a catering business from her home and even opened a sweet shop on North Derbigny Street which served sandwiches, red beans, and watermelon. By the 1920s, she had also married Percival Richard. They later had one daughter, Marie Richard who would receive a Home Economic degree from Xavier University.
Throughout the 1930s, Lena moved her catering services to several different locations and opened a lunch house for laundry workers. By 1937, with the help of her daughter, Marie Richard Rhodes, she opened her first cooking school in the city. In 1938, Lena hosted cooking demonstrations for white socialites at Bethlehem Temple in the French Quarter.
As a result of the praise she received as a cateress and due to the constant request by housewives for her recipes, Lena decided to publish a cookbook. In 1940, Houghton Mifflin, with the endorsement of famous food writer James Beard, published New Orleans Cook Book by Lena Richard. It was received as the best Creole cookbook of its time and included a mixture of traditional New Orleans recipes as well as those created by Richard herself.
Within its pages she openly praised the African-American cooks who influenced her cooking and the cuisine of New Orleans. Recipes such as: Baked Stuffed Oysters, Court Bouillion, Crawfish & Shrimp Bisque, Turtle Soup, Gumbo Filé, Baked Turtle in Shell, and Baked Plantains are a few that made her cookbook so popular. Included also was a recipe for Calas Tous Chauds which consisted of cooked rice made into cakes then fried and covered with cane syrup, a dish handed down by her mother.
With the help of her daughter, Lena began conducting her cooking classes again 3 nights a week. Soon after she was lured to New York State to head the Bird & Bottle Inn with her signature dish of Shrimp Soup Louisiana.
Upon returning to New Orleans a year later, Lena Richard opened her first restaurant, Lena’s Eatery at 2727 LaSalle Street. Here whites and blacks ate side by side at a time when segregation laws were enforced in the south. An ad placed in the local newspaper for her restaurant sought to rally support for her business as well as the war effort of 1942. It urged readers to “Buy War Bonds,” “Save Your Waste Fats for the Government,” and “Buy War Stamps.”
Once again, Lena was enticed to leave New Orleans and head north, this time to Colonial Williamsburg as head chef of the Travis House. This move would bring Mrs. Richard national recognition. Here she cooked for many dignitaries, including Clementine & Mary Churchill, the wife and daughter of Sir Winston Churchill.
By 1945, Mrs. Richard was once again drawn back to her home town. She and her daughter returned to resume her catering business at 2710 Marengo Street and to set up a food-freezing business on Metairie Road.
The highlight of Lena’s career took place when she opened, Lena Richard’s Gumbo House, on 19 February 1949. Located at 1936 Louisiana Avenue (corner Danneel), it was a family operated business. Her son-in-law, Leroy Rhodes, managed the restaurant; her husband, Percival maintained the property, and her daughter, Marie Rhodes, managed the finances. Lena was simply known as “Mama Lena” by her customers.
Often, members of Holy Ghost Parish would eat dinner here after Sunday Mass. Customers could even purchase turtle soup, okra gumbo, grillades, chicken fricassée and beef stew by the pint and quart to take home.
In 1949, three thousand women of color entered the auditorium of Booker T. Washington High School to attend the Lena Richard’s Cooking & Baking School, the first of its kind.
In the late 1940s, Lena made history as the first black woman to host a weekly television cooking show on WDSU. Sponsored by Holsum Bread, it aired twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:00 p. m. and was broadcast from the Municipal Auditorium. Unfortunately, footage of her television shows no longer exists.
Suddenly, at the height of her career on 27 November 1950, Lena Paul Richard passed away. She had not been ill and died of a sudden heart attack just a few hours after leaving her restaurant.
Her funeral services were held at Holy Ghost Church and her remains were interred in Mount Olivet Cemetery on 1 December 1950.
Lena’s family kept the Gumbo House opened until 1958. Nearly 65 years after her death, Lena Richard’s Creole recipes are still being prepared by leading chefs across the country. She turned a common employment for women of color – cooking for white people – into a career and became an entrepreneur. It is important to remember that not until the 20th century would black women be encouraged to write down their recipes for publication. The first of these was Lena Richard.
Lena Richard’s Scrapbook, Tulane University (Newcomb College Center for Research on Women), Box 46; Four LA Women and Their Cookbooks 1930-1970, University of New Orleans, Thesis by Rachel Wolfe (scholarworks.uno) pages 11-19; www.chicagotribune.com, “Lena Richard carved Culinary Path for African-Americans” author: Bill Daley; www.slideshare.net/cooking with Denay/Lena-Richard; The Louisiana Weekly, 29 Sept. 1945 p.3 +02 Dec. 1950 p.1; The Times-Picayune (obituary) 29 Nov. 1950 p. 2.
Lolita V. Cherrie