by Kevin Allman
Among the things that should be tops on the bucket list of any New Orleanian is a Holy Thursday pilgrimage to Dooky Chase for a bowl of Mrs. Leah Chase's gumbo z'herbes. Also known simply as 'green gumbo,' gumbo z'herbes is prepared at Mrs. Chase's restaurant only once a year -- on the Thursday before Easter. Francis Lam, a writer for Salon, explains gumbo z'herbes well:
What it is, though, is incredible: a subsistence-farm's-worth of greens, between seven to 11 types, stewed together until they dissolve and all their flavors melt into one another. So it can be an interesting vegetarian dish, but you know that's not how this is going to end up going down. This recipe is from the great Leah Chase, one of the great Queens of Louisiana Creole cooking, and taught to me by Sara Roahen, the woman who made me love New Orleans like it were my own home. Miss Leah's gumbo z'herbes is a Lenten dish, eaten specifically on Holy Thursday to anchor a body for the Good Friday fast. And so, along with the seven greens, it's got seven meats, so it really shouldn't be attempted much more often than once a year. "Leave things be special," Miss Leah said to Sara.
Special indeed. Upon arriving at Dooky Chase today, we weren't handed a regular menu, but a special one listing only two dishes: gumbo z'herbes and fried chicken. It also had a personal note about the food by Mrs. Chase:
The number of greens must be uneven: 5-7-9 or 11. Here at Dooky's, we use nine (9): mustards, collards, red swiss chard, beet tops, cabbage, carrot tops, spinach, kale and watercress.
And here's a sad iPhone photo of the dish, which doesn't do it (or Dooky's) justice:
The greens are so thick they nearly drape across the bowl, rather than fill it. Underneath is the usual bed of rice, studded with more kinds of meat than is customary in a gumbo: chicken, two kinds of sausage, ham and who knows what else. On the side were two pieces of perfect fried chicken and plates of both garlic bread and cornbread. Again, Francis Lam describes it better than I could:
... so complex, so bulky with ingredients, two bites are rarely ever the same: one minute it's beefy and tender, the next it's intensely vegetal and finishing with smoky, porky goodness and a hit of cayenne that warms the back of your throat.
Once the room was full and people had their meals, Mrs. Chase came out of the kitchen to say hello. Actually, the first thing out of her mouth at our table was "Aren't you going to eat that chicken?" (There was one piece left.) "If you're not, we'll box it up and send it home with you. It's good at home, too."
Mrs. Chase said she and a nephew had been hard at work on the gumbo z'herbes at 11 p.m. the night before, getting all the ingredients ready. She wore a bright green commemorative T-shirt that said "Holy Thursday at Dooky Chase's" on the back.
"This is one of the most special days of the year," she said.
MRS. LEAH CHASE, AT HER RESTAURANT, DOOKY CHASE, ON HOLY THURSDAY.
If you want to attempt Mrs. Chase's recipe (you know it won't be as good, but whatever), NPR got her to write down a basic template. Or you could "leave things be special" ... and just wait until next year.