Over a decade before Julia Child’s The French Chef appeared on TV, a Black woman chef hosted her own, very popular cooking show on WDSU-TV in New Orleans. At a time when families were just beginning to own televisions, Chef Lena Richard’s show was so popular that it aired twice a week.
Richard started working as a cook as a teenager for the wealthy Vairin family who employed her mom as a domestic servant. When their cook left, Alice Vairin gave Richard a trial run as cook and was so impressed that she hired her on the spot. Vairin later sent Richard to cooking schools, first locally and then at the prestigious eight-week Fannie Farmer Cooking School in Boston.
In addition to her television show, Richard’s storied career included launching a catering business; stints as head chef at the Bird and Bottle Inn in Garrison, New York, and the Travis House Restaurant and Inn, in Colonial Williamsburg; two of her own restaurants in New Orleans, Lena’s Eatery and Lena Richard’s Gumbo House; a cooking school; a frozen food business; and a best-selling Creole cookbook, New Orleans Cookbook.
Joining me to help us learn more about Chef Lena Richard are two guests: Chef Dee Lavigne of New Orleans, owner of Deelightful Cupcakes and Assistant Production Producer for the Sunday Morning News Food Segment on WWL-TV4; and Dr. Ashley Rose Young, Historian of the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Episode images Courtesy of Newcomb Archive, Vorhoff Library Special Collections, Tulane University.
Kelly Therese Pollock 0:00
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please, tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.
Today's story is about chef Lena Richard. Chef Lena was born in New Rhodes, Louisiana on September 11, 1892, one of six children of Francoise Lorenz and John Pierre Paul. After the family moved to New Orleans, Lena's mother worked as a domestic servant for the wealthy Vairin family. Lena began to accompany her mom to work and assisted the family's cook with various tasks while her mom worked elsewhere in the house. When Lena was 14, Elise Vairin hired her to work part time in the mornings making the children's lunches for school, and after her own school day ended to help the household staff in the evening. In the summer, Lena worked full time for the Vairins, and she decided that in order to make more money, she would keep working full time and would go to school in the evenings. When the Vairins' cook left, Elise Vairin asked Lena to do a trial run. Elise was so impressed with Lena's cooking that she hired her on the spot to cook full time for the family, and soon signed Lena up for local cooking classes. In 1918, when Lena was 26 years old, Elise Vairin sent her to the Fanny Farmer Cooking School in Boston. Every white woman in the eight week program had to give permission for Lena to attend before she could be allowed in. One of the most valuable things that Lena gained from the program was the realization that her culinary skills were already advanced, and that there wasn't much the program could teach her, especially about cooking things like meat, soup and sauces. In fact, her white classmates asked her for advice on cooking Creole recipes. Lena saw them trying to copy down what she was saying, and had the idea to someday write a cookbook. Upon her return to New Orleans, Lena opened a catering business. In the 1920s, she married Percival Richard. Their only child, a daughter named Marie graduated from Xavier University with a degree in Home Economics. In 1937, Chef Richard and her daughter opened a cooking school to train young African Americans with culinary skills that would help employ them in the Jim Crow South. Richard self published the over 300 recipe "Lena Richard's Cookbook" in 1939, and it was an immediate success. After New York Herald food writer Clementine Paddleford praised the book, Houghton Mifflin republished it as the best selling New Orleans cookbook. Richard's wasn't the first cookbook to focus on Creole cooking; but it was the first to be published by an African American chef. One of her goals in writing the book was to record the African American cooking traditions in New Orleans in a way that was accessible to anyone who wanted to cook. While on a book tour, Chef Richard was recruited by Charles and Constance Stern to be the head chef at The Bird and Bottle Inn in Garrison, New York, where she cooked Southern dishes like her Shrimp Soup Louisiane. In 1941, she returned to New Orleans to open her own restaurant, Lena's Eatery, a New Orleans style restaurant that was called "the most talked of place in the south". In 1943, Charles Rockefeller of the John D. Rockefeller Foundation, recruited Chef Richard to be the head chef at the Travis House Restaurant and Inn in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg. During war time, there were often military personnel and special guests at the Travis House, and Chef Richard's cooking impressed them all, including Winston Churchill's wife and daughter, who went back to the kitchen to exchange autographs with her.
Chef Richard's scalloped oysters were a particular favorite and diners left comments in a review book that said things like, "Your gifted fingers have given the oyster a soul, and to be scalloped by Lena, the oysters' prayer." Chef Richard returned to New Orleans again a few years later. Around 1945, she started her own frozen food business, with dinners prepared and packaged in New Orleans, to be shipped around the country, and eventually to South America as well. In 1949, Chef Richard opened Lena Richard's Gumbo House in one of the city's African American neighborhoods. Even some white patrons defied segregation laws to eat Richard's cooking. The Gumbo House was a true family affair with Lena's husband, daughter and son- in- law, all involved in the management and operation of the restaurant. Chef Richard was known to the patrons of the restaurant as Mamma Lena. Also in 1949, Chef Richard's TV showed titled "Lena Richard's New Orleans Cookbook debuted as one of the first shows on New Orleans WDSUTV. It was the first cooking show featuring an African American chef, and it was on the air over a decade earlier than "Julia Childs, the French Chef". The audience for the show was mixed; but the majority were white women who, like the women at the Fanny Farmer Cooking School decades earlier, wanted to learn from Chef Richard the secrets of Creole cooking. Tragically, in 1950, at the height of her career, Chef Lena Richard died of a heart attack at the age of 58. Joining me to help us learn more about Chef Lena Richard, are two guests: Chef Dee Lavigne of New Orleans, owner of Delightful Cupcakes and assistant production producer for the Sunday morning news food segment on WWL TV4, and Dr. Ashley Rose Young, historian of the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Thank you both for joining me today. I'm really excited to talk about Lena Richard. I think this is a super just incredible story and more people really need to hear about it. So I thought we could start the conversation maybe just by talking a little bit about how each of you sort of got into her story, learn learned about her, you know, sort of got excited about about thinking more about her. So Chef Dee if you want to start just talk a little bit about that.
Chef Dee Lavigne 7:50
Of course. So I think back in 2016, I met Miss Elizabeth Williams. She's the founder for the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. And we were walking through the museum and she says, "Hey, have you ever heard of Chef Lena Richard?" And I'm like, No, you know, didn't really pay too much mind. It's like, this is a museum. It's full of people stuff, right? But no, I've never heard of this lady. So okay. Just like all you should really, you should really look into or, you know, this is who she was, and that kind of thing. And so I was like, okay, and that's pretty cool. Of course life takes over. I didn't have hours to dedicate to looking at who Lena Richard was. Later, she said, "Hey, I have an intern that's doing some things about Chef Lena Richard. I don't know it's something about a podcast. Maybe you want to do it? I don't know. But I gave her your information." And I'm like, okay, so yeah, that's great. And that was the day I met Ashley. She introduced to me what their concept was, what they were wanting to do. And that was to have an actual voice. for Lena, Richard, because, obviously, at this point in time, there's no physical voice recordings of her and they asked me to be her voice. I will say I was extremely nervous. And I wasn't sure if that was something that I could do. Of course, you don't want to mess it up, right? Like, how can I do this, and I really don't want to mess this up. But it was they gave me some really, really good information. And, you know, I did as much research as I could possibly do to find out more about who she was. Granted, we're both from, you know, live in New Orleans. We have a lot of similarities, but I wanted to make sure, you know that I was representing her as best as I could. And that was definitely my introduction to Chef Richard. Later, obviously I did Cooking Up History summer series with the Smithsonian that just happened in this past August, was my run and I got the opportunity to cook one of Chef Lena Richard's dishes, which was shrimp bisque, and it came out awesome. So, I mean, ever since then, I have really been kind of intertwined my life with Chef Richard's life and how they parallel and there are so many similarities between myself and her, that it's almost it's, I think the only thing would really make this even more over the top of some, some type of way, you know, I could look through my genealogy and we would be related. That's the only thing I feel like would really kind of, you know, put this over the top for what I've learned about Chef Richard in her life in her journey, and in my own.
Kelly Therese Pollock 10:46
Yeah. Now you make me want to, like follow that family tree. And it's got to be there somewhere. So Ashley, you've been thinking about Chef Lena Richard for a while. Can you talk some about sort of how you how you got into her story?
Ashley Rose Young 11:01
Yes, of course. So it really does go back to Liz Williams, like Dee said. So I was the first intern at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. This was when I was an undergrad, and that was in 2009. And that internship changed my life. I ended up writing my senior history thesis on historic Creole cookbooks and kind of the language and visual culture of describing the city's cuisine and how some people were marginalized in those narratives, mainly African American women, indigenous people, recent migrants, and I was really kind of thinking about those racial dynamics, the gender dynamics in those works. And then I ended up applying to graduate school to continue studying the food, culture and economy of New Orleans. I got my PhD from Duke University in History. And I'm, I'm currently on my way to publishing my first book on the Food History of New Orleans. And so going back a little bit to my first year in grad school at Duke, I was still connected to Liz Williams. She's a really important mentor of mine. And she said, You know, I called her one day and I said, "Listen, I'm looking for some summer research, you know, do you have any leads?" And she said, "Have you ever heard about a chef named Lena Richard?" And I said, "No, I, I haven't heard about her." And at that time, I really didn't know much and Liz didn't really know much. All she knew was that there was a chef, who was on WDSUTV, the first TV station in New Orleans, around 1950. But beyond that, we didn't really know much about her story. And so I said, "I'm going to apply for research funds, and I'm going to come to New Orleans in the summer of 2011 and start going through the archives, right and start looking into this story and, and go to the WDSUTV station archives and see if there are recordings. So, you know, there has to be information, right." And what we discovered was that, in fact, there wasn't that much information on her life. There are no recordings of her time at WDSUTV. She did start her program in October of 1949. And WDSUTV itself started in December of 1948. So about 10 months after it premiered her program, her program showed up. And so you know, it's just been a journey ever since of trying to find people to share oral histories, to share memories of watching her on television, of contacting her extended family to see if they have anything, recipes, images, just the smallest memories of of her and trying to revive that history. And so part of the story for me has been trying to find out ways to share what we have discovered about her with the broader public. I was able to do an exhibition at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in the spring of 2012. And when I got to the Smithsonian, first as an intern, and then as a historian for the American Food History Projects, I really set out to bring Lena Richard's story to that museum. And we started to incorporate her image into the food history exhibition. And then we recently opened up an exhibit that highlights her story with seven other women entrepreneurs who have made inroads in business and that's when I was able to connect with Dee when we worked with the Side Door podcast, which is part of the Smithsonian. And we told the story of "America's Unknown Celebrity Chef". That's the title of the episode. And I remember meeting Dee and it was just amazing when we first had our conversation, a call on the phone and I heard that New Orleans accent and I just thought this is this is it. This is fantastic! And Dee, as you can tell from just hearing her voice is such a wonderful person. And as I started to learn about Dee's personal journey as a chef, and as someone who's on TV in New Orleans, teaching the broader New Orleans community how to cook, I mean, the parallels between Dee's story and Chef Lena Richard's story are kind of just astounding. I mean, I'm getting chills just talking about it.
So a beautiful kind of effect of doing this research is building relationships with people in New Orleans, and Dee is certainly one of those people that I'm just so grateful to know. And I think as Dee said, I feel like the connections between her and Lena Richard are just going to keep growing. I mean, honestly, we may end up finding in a few years time that you are somehow distant relatives, and I just kind of love, I just love that the connectedness of all this and the importance of women's networks. You know, I'm not from New Orleans. But through my research in the time I spent there every summer in grad school during the doing research and getting to know the New Orleans community, getting to know Dee and Liz Williams and so many other women in New Orleans and across the country, it really takes a whole village to, to kind of resurrect Lena Richard's story and and build it up again so that we can honor and celebrate everything that she did in the Jim Crow South.
Kelly Therese Pollock 16:25
Yeah, so one of the sources, of course, that we do have for her is her cookbook that she published, first she self published and then it was picked up by a publisher. So Chef Dee, you said that you were able to cook one of her recipes. Can you tell me you know, as a chef, what you can sort of learn about a person from their recipe and from the way they write a recipe and what that experience is like.
Chef Dee Lavigne 16:48
So definitely from her recipe, especially with this dish, I could tell that she was big on flavor. And when you start to look at recipes and recipe development, you know, you kind of look engaged to see okay, well how many onions did they put in how much celery how, you know, just kind of looking at ratios to ingredients and hers are just so small, minimal, very minimal, but she achieves an incredible amount of flavor. And that is definitely something to kind of, you know, really look at and say, Okay, wait a minute, like, I would imagine, I needed like a whole onion to achieve some of the flavor that I've met. And you know, one of the interesting things is with the shrimp bisque recipe, she used like two teaspoons of onion juice. So when you think about an actual teaspoon, and the flavor that an onion provides, you look at how much stock you're going to add and all the other ingredients like there's no this is going to get lost, there's no way like maybe she needed like a half a cup of onion juice. But no way this, the flavors were really subtle and bold all at the same time. And I think that comes just naturally through time. And that's what I noticed with a lot of her recipes is they take time, which is something that we kind of don't have the luxury of today, you know, I need to get that dish out, I need to get it made, I do not have time to let that simmer for eight hours or four hours or however long. And, you know, that was one of the things that she used to help build flavor in her recipes. So I mean, just reading through her cookbook, and thinking about my own culinary journey. She she's a master, creative Master Chef really, really far beyond her time far beyond.
Kelly Therese Pollock 18:41
That's fantastic. And you can still get the cookbook today, right? Like anybody listening could could go pick up a copy of this.
Chef Dee Lavigne 18:47
That is correct. I mean, the first copy I got was on Amazon. They've done you know, there's a couple of publishers that have done like reprints of her cookbook, but I actually have the pleasure of owning one of her original cookbooks, which is not that easy to find. And if you do find one, you will be amazed that you know a cookbook or book of that size would be more than $1,000 because that's kind of the pricing where it's running. But I am I'm still excited that I own a copy of it just to not only have a piece of history to hold in my hands. But you know, this is a piece to me of New Orleans history. This is female. This is women in power like there is no I I'm holding it I always tell people I have it and it stays in the plastic. That's where it needs to be. No way you are not getting a reprint of this. You know it's there's very few left. But yeah, I I'm just I'm grateful. You know I'm honored to be able to even have it, just to know that I found out to me just in time, right? When I think about my life and how I wish I had known about her, maybe when I was seven, and I started cooking, or, you know, eight or even going into my teenage years and trying to figure out what I wanted to do, you know, how would it have molded my career a little bit differently. But I mean, at this present time, I feel like me learning about Lena Richard was right on time.
Kelly Therese Pollock 20:27
So Ashley, you mentioned there aren't a whole lot of other archival sources, and it's mind blowing and sad that there are no actual footage of the cooking show that she did. But you mentioned oral interviews. Can you talk some about like who you were able to connect with and talk to and what sorts of things you learned about Lena Richard from those?
Ashley Rose Young 20:48
Sure. So going back again, to the summer of 2011, I came to New Orleans, you know, just finished up my first year of graduate school and at Duke in the History Department. And I found that there wasn't really much archival material. Now at Tulane University in the Newcomb Archives, there is a Lena Richard collection. And her granddaughter, Dr. Rhodes, who is a retired professor of law donated what she had to Newcomb to preserve the family history that included some guest books from Lena Richard's restaurants, a few family photos, some newspaper clippings about Lena Richard's career, but it really all fits in one archival box. And you know, that's basically the width of a mailbox that you would have in your front yard or on your house. It's not, it's not a substantial amount of material. So with that material, I comb through that word by word to see what I can garner about her personality, her ambitions, but really, there's not a lot there. So we turn to oral history interviews. And what I did through Liz Williams in the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, we launched this Lena Richard oral history project. And I went around the city to some of the retirement homes. And I would go in, you know, I was 23 years old. And I would go up to the front desk and say, "Hey, I'm here. I'm a historian in training. I'm here to see if any of your residents might remember a chef named Lena Richard. She had a television show on WDSUTV that started around 1949 or 1950. Do you think these people if they remember her might be willing to chat with me?" And there were women there who remember watching her show on television and remember her reputation. There's another woman I talked to, Virginia McIlhenny of the McIlhenny family of the Tabasco sauce. So Virginia McIlhenny, she was one of the favorite interviews that I had, because she really did have these vivid memories as a young bride in New Orleans who came from an upper middle class, upper class family who had a television at that time, which you know, not many people did. By the time Lena Richard's program was up and running, there were maybe 40,000 TVs in New Orleans, but just a year prior there was probably only a handful. So this is a really new medium and the people who could afford TVs were predominantly white, although some African American community members did have access. Lena Richard's family, for example, had a TV. Mrs. McIlhenny was sharing how she would sit in front of the TV with a pen and a notepad and she would watch Lena Richard making Grillade a la Creole and she'd be taking notes because she didn't know how to cook. No one had ever taught her how to cook, so Lena Richard was the authority. She was the go to person to learn how to make Creole cuisine. I mean, she had that reputation in the city as the best. Her cookbook was known as the best Creole cookbook ever written. She was known for her cooking schools. Prior to her television show, premiering she hosted cooking schools for white women and Black women. These were done separately because this was during racial segregation. And so she was someone who I really enjoyed chatting with. I also got to chat with Marie Matthews, who, when she was a young woman would work as Lena Richard's sous chef, both at her restaurant, The Gumbo House, but also at WDSUTV for her cooking program. So Lena Richard worked with her daughter Marie, but then also a young woman in the neighborhood named Marie Matthews. And so she got to share over the phone with me some memories, early memories of what it was like to work at WDSUTV. How wonderful of a person Lena Richard was. You know, but when I interviewed her she was older. Many of these women were in their 90s. And so they were reflecting back decades and decades and decades. And so over time, their memories, you know, they lost some of the sharpness, they lost some of the specific details, but the theme that kept emerging over and over again, was just how kind and generous and what a wonderful cook she was. I mean, people would just say, after the TV show came to a close, after they were done filming for the day, the cameramen and the producers, and everyone would just descend upon the set, and stuff their faces with the delicious food that she that she had made on set that day. So those are just a few examples of the interviews I was able to do that were that were really memorable.
Kelly Therese Pollock 25:48
Chef Dee, I wonder if you could reflect a little bit on the the challenge of being a Black woman chef in New Orleans, even now and what that would have been like, for Lena Richard, in the early 20th century. You know, this was, as Ashley has said, this is still during segregation, and Jim Crow South, and you know, what, what that might have been like.
Chef Dee Lavigne 26:08
I mean, I can only imagine the difficulty that she would have had to be to be in charge of any kitchen, at that time here in the city. You know that that was one of the things that was considered a man's world. Women could cook, but you were cooking in a housekeeping capacity; you were not in a career established type of scenario, when it came down to female chefs here, here in the city of New Orleans. I mean, even now, we do have more, and we have a lot of them. But the recognition is still it's still, you know, it's not there compared to a man, you know, or having male chefs in our industry. I've been trying to figure out, you know, really trying to see what is it that we could do to shed more light on female chefs? You know, but I feel like sometimes it's, it's a, you know, it's an either or, it's not a both, you know, so it has to be that this, this woman is on top because she can outshine a man, right? Or because she's better than a man. And I never really wanted that comparison. I feel like two people can be equally as great whether they're men or women. But unfortunately, women in our society are not given that type of recognition. And when, as a female chef myself, when I think about the sacrifices that I have to make as a woman that men don't, you know, does that make me even more capable? In some scenarios, I would say yes, but at the same time, you know, we're both doing the same job. I feel like women need a little bit more focus, especially women, the female chefs that have families and kids and you know, you're doing other things. There's only so much you could spread yourself out, right. But one guy could dedicate his entire career, you know, to making this Michelin star restaurant and get all the greatest fame and recognition in the world. And you can have a female chef that is out- cooking everybody in the city, and barely make a news article, or, you know, people outside of New Orleans may not even know who she is. And I feel like the disparity there between the two, it's so great. You know, I want to try to figure out how we can make everybody be equally as great. We don't have to choose one or the other. And I think everybody should get the same recognition. But I mean, thinking about Chef Richard in that time, you know, it's one of those things that you know, a woman's place is in the kitchen, but it's not in a professional kitchen, right. So you can cook at home all day, you can babysit, you can do all those things. But as far as you know, leave that to the men, you know, and when I think about classical French cuisine, you know, that's heavily male influenced. And of course, being a half French and Spanish and Italian city, you know, we're nicely mixed with the gumbo melt of things. They're all still male dominated, even in all those industries. So I almost feel like if she had not kind of been an entrepreneur, or had that entrepreneur spirit, we probably wouldn't even be talking about her in the capacity that we are today.
Kelly Therese Pollock 29:33
Well, and in the capacity we are today, but in the capacity of why don't we know more about this person. So Ashley, I wonder if you could reflect a little bit on that: about why, you know, here's someone a chef, a Black woman, a chef who is on TV, this is way before Julia Child is on TV. Like why? Why don't more people know about Lena Richard, why, why is this a story that we sort of have to uncover again and again?
Ashley Rose Young 29:56
It's the unfortunate nature of archives. In institutions historically, that were run and operated by white staff, predominantly white staff, who were concerned with preserving the history of white men in particular. So women in general are marginalized, often in our archives, and women of color are even more so. It is so difficult to find the stories of women of color in traditional archives. And then when you add in the element of food, right, in this stereotype that Chef Dee just mentioned, this idea that women, quote, unquote, belong in the kitchen. And when that's said, they're referring to the domestic space. There is this inherent bias, and this idea that domestic life and labor is not something that historically was thought of as something to preserve, right for future generations. Obviously, historians have been working against that; historians in women's studies, historians who are looking at domestic and cultural life, who see value in domestic life and labor. But then for Lena Richard's story, we see that she moves far beyond the home kitchen, out into the public sphere in the entrepreneurial space. She was really quite different than many women who were working in food service at that time who were working in domestic capacities, right. Many Black women in New Orleans, for example, were working as cooks and home home chefs and domestic workers. But Lena Richard was, she opened eateries, she ran her own catering business. She had a chef's degree, she had a culinary degree, from the finest cooking school for women at that time in the country, the Fannie Farmer Cooking School in Boston. She was incredibly credentialed. And she brought that back with her, and with tenacity that I can't even try to comprehend, you know, struck out on her own. And she used her connections with this elite family that she worked for as a young woman, the Vairin family to build up her clientele among elite white women in particular. And just through her fantastic, flavorful cooking, as Chef Dee described it, you know, she won them over with her cooking, and also her personality and just grew her businesses from there. But we lose track of that, because, you know, there might be articles in the local newspaper celebrating her and praising her. But you really it's hard to find those materials, and even the historically Black newspapers that would have longer articles about Lena Richard's success; those newspapers today, many of them haven't been digitized and made available online. So they're very difficult to search through. Whereas the Times Picayune, you know, these white predominantly white newspapers run and operated by white individuals with articles written by white individuals, those archives have, or those newspapers have been preserved. They are digitized, they're keyword searchable, it's very easy to go through them and find information on people. But that's not the case with African American newspapers. That's beginning to change. There's more and more funding out there to to make those archives accessible, specifically Black newspapers, and other, you know, community centers that have preserved Black history or history of marginalized communities. But there's still so much work to be done. And that's partly what Dee and I were trying to do, what the Southern Food and Beverage Museum is doing, what the Museum of African American History and Culture is doing, what the Museum of American History is called the American History is doing. We are working to shed light once again on these stories, which by no means were forgotten. I would never want that to be the narrative that, you know, that's not true. You know, Lena Richard's community in New Orleans remembers her. They remember her impact. They continue to share stories of her around the dining room table. That history is very much alive in her immediate family and in her community. But outside of that, when you kind of expand the scope to the outskirts of New Orleans into the country, that's when we start to lose the thread. And that's not to say her story wasn't shared nationally. Her cookbook was sold nationally; her name appears in newspapers from New York to Alabama to California; her name was out there; people knew who she was, even though her program wasn't broadcast nationally. It was a local TV program, but her cookbook was sold nationally. And so she had a reputation across the country. But again, the nature of archives is such that those stories weren't preserved in the same way as the stories of white men who might have been in politics or white men who were stars in television programs, or white women who were stars in television programs.
So it takes a lot of care, and effort and energy and a commitment to work with local communities to really highlight these stories in a way that is sensitive to that community's history, to the struggles of that community. And for me, it's key to work closely with New Orlinians and her family to tell the story together, because it's not my story alone to tell by any means. I have support and funding and the time to do the archival research. But I would never want to do that solo, because it's not something to do on your own. It's not like I said, it's not just my story to tell. I'm just a facilitator. I'm doing whatever I can to help local community members get the word out. And so I see myself more as a facilitator, right, or a person who can create a space, a stage, right, where people like Chef Dee from New Orleans, who are so connected to Lena Richard's story, can tell it in their own words. And so that's exciting to me as a historian to even, you know, be a part of that. So that's my two cents on archives.
Kelly Therese Pollock 36:19
I love it, you basically just said the thesis of this whole podcast, so I love it. So I could probably keep asking you both questions all day. But I just want to give you each a chance to reflect on anything else that you wanted to make sure we discuss that we haven't talked about yet.
Chef Dee Lavigne 36:37
Um, for me, I think one of one of my greater motivations, and one of the things that I really hope we could instill in girls, right? I want young girls to know that this is achievable, that it's possible. And there were trailblazers before you, whether you knew them or not. And, you know, I want to try to do my part in getting the word out that you can actually find out about them, you know, I don't want it to be this, this secret. There's no like, you know, underlying secret alliance of women that were all fantastic, and nobody knew, right? I want this to be forefront, you know. It's I don't want it to be looked down upon or, you know, kind of shameful in the fact that, oh, you're just going to be another woman that cooks, right, or another woman that does just whatever that women do, you know, that kind of thing. But it's one of those, you know, negative things in society that yeah, it's another thing that women do, but men get all the credit for, right. So I want to try to, you know, set out and make a statement to any young female, that it's possible, you know, it's always have that thing like, you can't beat the boys, right? You can't play with the boys. Well, I think we could all play together, right? Most of us all went to school together, we live together, we coexist together. And I think not having that separation, of showing one greater than the other, would allow them to be more free with what they're thinking and, you know, being able to move forward in society. So I look at it as an opportunity to really, really inspire young women and girls to do whatever it is you wanted to.
Ashley Rose Young 38:25
I love that Dee, I really do. And I, I see in you the heart of Lena Richard's story, the power of women's networks, and the strength of women when we come together and support each other. We share our knowledge, come together and just mentor people. I feel, you know, my historic subjects that I research, I feel like they're mentors to me. I've never met Lena Richard, I will never meet Lena Richard, but discovering her story has has really created a path forward for myself too that she faced so many barriers. And she she didn't back down. She She kept going in the face of racial prejudice, of sexism, of you know going north to school to the cooking school. That was an incredibly dangerous journey for a woman of color at the time for any person of color. And she was not deterred, but she had support. You know, when she cooked in Williamsburg, when she cooked in upstate New York, she went with her daughter, and her daughter was there for her. Her daughter worked with her. And there was also this other group of women, like I said, when she worked with the Vairin family, there wasn't there was a supportive relationship there. In spite of the racial tensions of the time, you know, deploying those white women's networks to grow her business and it took Richard's savvy to take advantage of those connections and grow that business. But again, it was women who at a time when racial tensions were really high found instead the commonality I think as women to push beyond those racial issues to help this aspiring chef and this wonderful entrepreneur, to build a business and build a culinary empire in the Jim Crow South. So that's just amazing to me. And when I'm having days where I'm struggling writing or I want to give up, I think about Lena Richard's legacy and, and just what an inspiration she is to me, and hearing stories from Chef Dee, knowing how Lena Richard has impacted Dee's life. And so many other women I've talked to who have said, I wish I knew about her growing up, and I want to know more about her now. And that just keeps me going right and keeps me thinking of different ways I might find out more information about her and things like that. So those are my two cents. Women's networks are powerful, lean into it, support each other, and together, we're stronger than we are apart.
Kelly Therese Pollock 41:01
Well, I love both of those. So thank you and Chef Dee and Ashley, I am so grateful that you joined me to talk more about Lena Richard, I think this is such an incredible story. And I'm so glad that I got to know her a little bit through this. So thank you.
Chef Dee Lavigne 41:18
Yeah, it's my pleasure.
Ashley Rose Young 41:20
Of course. Thanks for having us.
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode at UnsungHistoryPodcast.com. To the best of our knowledge all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__ ___History or on Facebook at UnsungHistoryPodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email Kelly@UnsungHistoryPodcast.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review, and tell your friends.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Chef Dee Lavigne is a New Orleans native born and raised in the 9th ward. She started baking and cooking at the age of 7. Being the middle sibling of 8, her mom would only allow her to use ingredients plentiful in the family kitchen, i.e., Flour, Sugar, Eggs, and Milk. With those items, her pastry bones were born. It wasn’t until she had taken a home economics class that she knew she was supposed to dedicate her life to food. In January of 2003, Chef Dee Lavigne Graduated from The Culinary Institute of America. After graduation, she chose a career in the retail food industry. Chef Dee worked at Whole Foods Markets for 15 years in the bakery department. During the course of her career, she and her husband expanded their family with two wonder boys Reynell Jr now 16, and Russell now 6.
In 2014 Russell was born, and she felt an overwhelming feeling to be home with her newborn and spend more time with Reynell (16), who was diagnosed with autism at age 2. After baking items for family, friends, and church members, she decided to start her own business, Deelightful Cupcakes, in July of 2016. Her business is steadily growing, and new and exciting things are happening all the time.
Chef Dee has been working with local TV Station WWL-TV4 as Assistant Production Producer with local Kit Wohl and Elizabeth Williams of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum for the Sunday Morning News Food Segment.
She has been featured on local News Channels Fox-8, WWL-TV 4, and WUPL-54 for her incredible Cupcakes, cookies, and cooking talent.
Chef Dee hosts a monthly Baking Demonstration in the Culinary Innovation Kitchen at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
Dr. Ashley Rose Young is a cultural and social historian of the United States. Her research explores the intersection of race, ethnicity, and gender in American food culture and economy. Her first book, Nourishing Networks: The Public Culture of Food in New Orleans, 1800-1950 (in progress), examines how daily practices of food production and distribution shaped the development of New Orleans’ public culture and reveal how power operated in unexpected ways along the networks that fed New Orleans. Young earned a Ph.D. in History from Duke University (2017), an M.A. in History from Duke University (2013), a B.A. in History from Yale College (2010), and was a visiting scholar at Oxford University (2009).
Young joined the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in September of 2017 as the Historian of the American Food History Project, one of the museum’s most celebrated curatorial initiatives. Her position is unique because it combines research and curatorial practices with public-facing products including exhibitions and a particularly strong focus on programming. She is the host and historian of “Cooking Up History,” the museum’s monthly cooking demonstration series, as well as the Smithsonian Food History Weekend cooking demonstrations. For these demos, she conducts fieldwork and archival research and also collaborates with scholars and culinary diplomats at organizations like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Embassy of the Republic of Haiti, and the Mexican Cultural Institute. Thus far, she has hosted 50 unique cooking demonstrations that have reached over 20,000 museums visitors. Young has shared the stage with celebrated chefs including Carla Hall of The Chew and Top Chef, Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook, and Aarón Sánchez of Chopped. In addition to hosting “Cooking Up History,” Young is part of the curatorial team for the exhibition FOOD: Transforming the American Table, which re-opened in October of 2019. She co-curated two of the four new sections of the exhibition and in the process collected and cataloged 90 unique food-related objects that are now part of the national collection. More recently, Young was a curator for the American Enterprise exhibition’s 2020 New Perspectives case, “The Only One in the Room,” which illuminates eight businesswomen and female entrepreneurs who broke through tremendous barriers in their industries to create, innovate and provide an opening for others to follow. She is also a member of the curatorial team collecting stories around COVID-19 and its impact on national and global food systems. In support of the museum, Young has engaged with various media outlets on multiple digital platforms including CNN and NPR, and has conducted outreach at academic conferences, in journals and on social media, and through invited talks.
In January 2021, Britannica recognized Young as one of the “20 Under 40: Young Shapers of the Future” in the category of Academia and Ideas for her work with the Smithsonian food history project and her scholarly research.
Chef Carla Hall and Ashley Rose Young on stage together during “Cooking Up History.” Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Last but not least, Young’s career path from the Ph.D. to the Smithsonian and her intentional pursuit of a dual career in history and public history has gained national attention as a case study of how Ph.D.s can find fulfilling successful careers outside of the academy. Several news media have profiled her story including The Chronicle of Higher Education.