I am an avid cookbook collector, and I was recently given a cookbook printed in 1939 and written by African-American and New Orleans native Lena Richard. The author profile states that Ms. Richard owned several restaurants and a cooking school in New Orleans and was one of the first cooks to ever host a cooking show on TV. Would you please give more biographical and professional information on Ms. Richard?
I would be delighted to tell you all about Lena Marie Richard who has been called the "Queen of Creole Cooks."
This remarkable woman was born in New Roads, but she lived in New Orleans for 40 years before her death at age 51. And during her lifetime she kept busy making people happy with her wonderful food. She ran a catering company, operated four restaurants at various times, taught cooking classes, and prepared food for a frozen-food company. From 1947 to 1949, "Mama" Lena, as she was fondly known, appeared on WDSU-TV on a cooking show -- Lena Richard's Cookbook -- that came on every Tuesday and Thursday at 5 p.m.
Lena got her start Uptown in the 1900s when her mother and aunt worked as a cook at the Garden District home of Nugent B. Viarins. Lena, a young schoolgirl, would meet her mother there where her mother often fussed at her for "fooling" with the food.
Mrs. Viarins -- grandmother of Bill Monroe, producer of Meet the Press -- hired Lena as a cook after Lena finished school, sending her to several cooking schools in New Orleans. Then she sent Lena to Boston and the Fanny Farmer School, from which she graduated in 1918. Returning to New Orleans, Lena opened her first catering business on Derbigny Street, and Mrs. Viarins sent her clients.
The cookbook you are privileged to own -- Lena Richard's Cook Book -- is a collection of 350 of her favorite recipes. It took about two years for daughter her Marie to assemble the recipes because, like many cooks, Lena had made them up or inherited them from older Creole cooks and committed them to memory.
Lena and her cooking played a role in the lives of the rich and famous. In the early 1940s, she was hired by Charles Rockefeller of the John D.ÊRockefeller Foundation to open the kitchen at Travis House in Williamsburg, Va. Two important visitors to the Travis House were Mrs. Winston Churchill and her daughter Mary. Dining there during a wartime visit of the British High Command, the impressed Mrs. Churchill asked for Lena's autograph.
Before Virginia, Lena had controlled the kitchen in the Bird & Bottle Inn in Garrrison, N.Y. There she attracted gourmets from everywhere according to the food editor of the New York Herald Tribune, Clementine Paddleford. And once, while catering a large reception at a grand home on Audubon Place, Lena was called in to meet the guest of honor who wanted her autograph -- Sinclair Lewis.
There are probably many who remember Lena Richard's Gumbo House restaurant on Louisiana Avenue. It was a family-owned and run establishment with Lena doing the cooking, daughter Marie the bookkeeping, Marie's husband managing, and "Papa" Percival Richard keeping everything clean. Always a popular place, the Gumbo House was especially busy on Sundays when some folks spent all day there. After she died on Nov. 27, 1950, the family kept it open until 1958.
The day she died, a woman from Los Angeles had arrived at the restaurant with luggage in hand. Having heard of Lena's cooking, the woman ordered "everything on the menu." The woman was still enjoying herself when Lena went home at midnight. Shortly afterwards, she died of a heart attack.
Years before, when Lena returned from schooling in Boston, she was interviewed by the paper: "When I got way up there, I found out in a hurry they can't teach me much more than I know ... when it comes to cooking meats, stews, soups, sauces, and such dishes, we Southern cooks have Northern cooks beat by a mile. That's not big talk; that's honest truth."
And if you ever tasted Lena's shrimp Creole, stuffed eggplant or scalloped oysters, you know she was right.