Where Y'Eat: Raising A Glass To Honor An Icon

May 23, 2013

When the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience honors Leah Chase this weekend, it will be using a potent symbol of hospitality to toast one of the city's enduring examples of what hospitality is all about.

Wine has been a spiritual symbol through the ages, and it’s also been used a status symbol for those who can afford the most expensive bottles. But for plenty of people I know, wine is also a simple yet persuasive symbol of hospitality.

To see what I mean, take a stroll down my block in Mid-City on a spring evening, just a little bit after normal office hours and when the weather is fine. In doesn’t happen every evening, but on the right evening, people pushing strollers or walking dogs or returning from a jog are hailed from porches by their neighbors, who wave wine glasses like signal flags. Up they come, dogs, babies and all, and an ad hoc meet-and-greet is afoot right there between the potted plants and porch swings.

You could do the same with a can of beer or, for that matter, a glass of lemonade. But there’s something to the ritual of wine — the semi-full bottle waiting on the sill, the tendered glass, the decision to uncork another — it adds structure to the simple act of hospitality... structure and maybe a little symbolism of welcome.

If the porch scene is a small expression of this wine symbolism, the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, or NOWFE, draws it on a much larger, citywide scale. This annual, five-day wine festival is now in full swing, and it has the trappings common to the wine festivals everywhere. There are seminars, parties, wine dinners, a charitable wine auction and wine tastings — both exclusive and enormous. All the details are online at nowfe.com.

But one key distinction of our own wine festival here in New Orleans, is the way it entwines with this city’s identity as a great American food destination. Food is everywhere on hand during festival events — especially the Grand Tastings, which sprawl across the Conventional Center. And it’s New Orleans restaurant culture, with equal parts tradition, playfulness, rigor and, perhaps above all, welcome, that imbues the local festival with its distinctive spirit. Our restaurant culture may not be the biggest or the most avant-garde, but we have hospitality nailed.

Lately the New Orleans Food & Wine Experience has been recognizing this culture in a new way. Since 2010, the festival has bestowed its Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality award. The first went to its namesake, Ella Brennan, matriarch of the Commander’s Palace branch of the famous Brennan restaurant family. This year it goes to Leah Chase.

She’s well known, but a refresher is helpful. Born in 1923, Mrs. Chase broke into the French Quarter restaurant business during World War II, when the draft opened jobs normally denied to black women. She later applied what she learned to her family’s po-boy shop and barroom on Orleans Avenue and transformed it into the pride of the black restaurant community. During the height of the Civil Rights movement, this Dooky Chase Restaurant supported those who opposed racial segregation. As she ran her business and raised her family, she nurtured a legacy of leadership and community. She encouraged and supported countless artists. And, Leah Chase still makes one of the world’s great gumbos.

So if we understand wine as a symbol of hospitality, this year, the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience is using a powerful symbol to toast an icon. Learn more at nowfe.com.