2. Lena Richard (1892-1950) was born in the small town of New Roads, Louisiana, about 35 miles upriver from Baton Rouge. She moved to New Orleans as a teenager, where she and her mother worked for a wealthy white family. The family was fond of Lena, and sent her to a local cooking school, then to Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School.
(A photo from Toni Tipton-Martin)
She returned to New Orleans and made a name for herself. She ran a catering business, a cooking school, and several small restaurants. In 1940, with a push from James Beard, her New Orleans Cook Book was published (still available).
Lena, shown with a copy of her cookbook
During World War II, Lena’s reputation was such that the Rockefeller Foundation lured her to Colonial Williamsburg. After the war, she returned to New Orleans and opened her Gumbo House.
In 1949, Lena became one of the first TV chefs, appearing on the local New Orleans station, WDSU, twice a week until her unexpected death in 1950.
Why is Lena Richard important? First, she was indeed one of the first TV chefs. In our time, TV plays an even more important role in American cooking of all types. In earlier times, cooking skills were learned largely through apprenticeship, i.e, watching Mom or Grandma at work in the kitchen. But with the societal transformation that has either permitted or required women to work long hours outside the home, along with an increased emphasis at school on extra-curricular activities, those traditional family apprenticeships have broken down.
Those same time crunches have also prompted households to rely more and more on takeout food and processed foods that require no more skill than pressing buttons on a microwave. The bottom line is that TV has now become one of the primary ways we gain cooking knowledge. If we can’t watch someone in three dimensions in the kitchen, we can at least watch others cooks in two dimensions on the TV. We don’t get to smell or handle the food, but at least we get to see what it looks like.
Sunny Anderson, doing her thing on the Food Network
Second, Lena Richard is an example of the importance of cooking as a force in the economic independence of many African Americans. New Orleans during her lifetime was hardly a model of racial tolerance. In the year that Lena was born (1892), Homer Plessy was arrested in New Orleans for violating the city’s segregated railway practices. In the subsequent case, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ignored Plessy’s rights under the 13th and 14th Amendments, and legalized segregation.
And then ten years after Lena Richard’s death, little Ruby Bridges found out, as a six-year old, how much her fellow citizens hated her, as they stood outside the school every day cursing at her.
But in the midst of such a horrible time, Lena Richard managed to build up her own business, and to help others as well. There’s a subtle but unmistakable hint of this in the introduction to her cookbook:
“My purpose in opening a cooking school was to teach men and women the art of food preparation and serving in order that they would become capable of preparing and serving food for any occasion and also that they might be in a position to demand higher wages.”
It’s that “and” part of the sentence that caught my attention. I like the feisty use of “demand” higher wages. Not “request” or “seek” or “ask,” but “demand.” Lena Richard was not only an entrepreneur, but in her own way, a social force. Think of it: A woman running her own business in a day when women were supposed to stay home and cook for hubby. A black woman on TV, in a day when everything, even the public latrines, had to be segregated. A successful black woman, training new cooks to “demand” higher wages, in a day when the white media was content to present hard-working African American cooks as “Aunt Jemima”
In that context, Lena Richard’s career seems all the more amazing.