Lena Richard was "a Martha Stewart before there was a Martha Stewart."
The quote from Liz Williams, president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, is an apt comparison, for Richard was a chef, caterer, restaurateur, frozen food entrepreneur, cooking teacher, cookbook author, wife, mother, grandmother — and host of her own cooking show on New Orleans television, a singular achievement for an African-American in the segregated South of the late 1940s.
"She's important because she stepped out on the water when there was no guarantee it would hold her up," says food historian Jessica B. Harris, author of "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America." "She was the first, an extraordinary first.
"The television thing she did makes her phenomenal," Harris says. "To be that person on-air in New Orleans at the time was extraordinary. ... She did and created so much stuff, she made a path."
Richard "was an inspirational leader,'' agreed Toni Tipton-Martin, the Austin, Texas-based author, community activist and creator of "The Jemima Code," a pop-up exhibit, blog and upcoming book exploring the legacies of African-American cooks. "She operated her restaurant in a manner to bring along the next generation."
That intent was made clear in the preface to Richard's cookbook, "New Orleans Cook Book."
"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,'' Richard wrote.
She was born Lena Paul in New Roads, La. (Many sources list the year as 1892 but the New Orleans Times-Picayune, in its notice of her death from a heart attack on Nov. 27, 1950, gives her age as 51.) She began her career as a domestic — "like so many others of her time," wrote Harris in "High on the Hog." Her employers, the Vairin family of New Orleans, sent her for culinary training first locally and then to Boston at the school founded by Fannie Farmer.
Lena Paul returned to New Orleans after graduation in 1918 and began catering, according to Karen Trahan Leathem, author of "Two Women and their Cookbooks: Lena Richard and Mary Land," a guide to a 2001 exhibit sponsored by Tulane University's Newcomb College in New Orleans. She married Percival Richard and opened the first in a series of restaurants. The cooking school opened in 1937.
Her cookbook was published in 1939 as "Lena Richard's Cook Book." Aided by Clementine Paddleford, the New York Herald Tribune food writer, Richard landed a contract with Houghton Mifflin, which re-issued her work in 1940 under a new title, "New Orleans Cook Book."
It was also around this time, in the early 1940s, that Richard left New Orleans, first to cook at an inn in Garrison, N.Y., and then in 1943 as chef at the Travis House in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.
"But the city that inspired her creativity pulled her back, and she returned here to become a television cooking show pioneer," Leathem wrote.
Television was in its infancy in the late 1940s. Few people had television sets. Ashley Young, who curated an exhibit, "Lena Richard: Pioneer in Food TV" for the Southern Food and Beverage museum, said there are no known clips of the 15-minute program. The show, called "New Orleans Cook Book," aired twice weekly in 1949 and 1950.
Williams rues the lack of a video record: "If we had kinescopes … she would be all over YouTube."
Yet, Richard's various ventures touched many in The Crescent City, said Young, a Pittsburgh resident and doctoral candidate at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Richard was an African American woman who made a name for herself in the Jim Crow South, said Young, adding, "She not only worked with an elite white population in New Orleans, she used that leverage to make a change for the African-American community."
Creole cooked red beans
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 3 to 3 1/2 hours
Makes: 8 servings
Adapted from Lena Richard's "New Orleans Cook Book." Ashley Young posted this recipe and others on a blog related to a Richard exhibit at New Orleans' Southern Food and Beverage museum. Smoked or fresh ham shank can be used. Young's big tip? Patience. Slow cooking will transform the texture of the beans from firm to "gloriously mushy" in 3 to 3 1/2 hours, she says.
2 cups dried red beans
2 quarts water
1 large onion, diced
1 green pepper, cored, seeded, diced
½ pound pickled meat or ham shank
3 tablespoons shortening
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1. Soak beans overnight in a large pot or bowl in enough water to cover by 2 inches. Drain. (You can skip the soaking, if you like. The beans will need to cook about 30 minutes longer.)
2. Pour the beans into a large pot along with the 2 quarts water; add remaining ingredients, except the salt, pepper and parsley. Heat to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, with the lid slightly askew, until beans are soft and soupy, 3 to 3 1/2 hours. With 10 minutes of cooking time, add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and pepper to taste. Just before ready to serve add parsley; taste for seasonings.