Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Long before the days of food-centric television channels devoted exclusively to preparing food in the home, many amateur cooks pored through the pages of their favorite cookbooks, experimented with new recipes and hoped for success. Others relied upon on family and community networks to garner tried and true recipes and foolproof cooking techniques. Radio broadcast cooking programs provided a new medium for exchange in the 1920s and 1930s. Even then, listeners could only use their imaginations to envision the dishes that they were hearing about and follow along as best they could. It was not until the 1940s, when cooking programs transitioned to television, that food lovers could actually watch recipes being created in front of their eyes.

Lena Richard became one of the first African Americans to have a self-titled program on television, and was likely the first African American to have her own cooking show, Lena Richard's New Orleans Cook Book. The 30-minute show premiered on October 20, 1949 on New Orleans' first television station, WDSU-TV.

By the spring of 1950, WDSU television cameras had been steadily broadcasting footage of Richard’s show throughout the Crescent City. According to advertisements in The Times-Picayune, the cooking show aired twice weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:00 PM, featuring Richard and her assistant, Marie Matthews. During the program, Richard guided television audiences through her cookbook, New Orleans Cook Book, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1940.

The Times-Picayune August 8, 1950
The Times-Picayune August 24, 1950

Richard, who was African American, was also an acclaimed chef. Too often in the mid-twentieth century, the identities of the top chefs of New Orleans’ world-renowned restaurants remained anonymous. They were the creative genius hidden behind the swinging doors of their kitchens. Often, those men and women were African Americans. Richard, therefore, was unusual: she was a black female chef who captured public attention. While unusual, she was not alone. In fact, Richard was at the forefront of increasingly popularized black cooking traditions. Her cooking show appeared just one year after Frieda De Knight’s cookbook, A Date With A Dish (1948), later renamed The Ebony Cookbook (1962), and was soon followed by Mary Land’s Louisiana Cookery (1954). Like De Knight and Land, Richard played a principal role in the emerging black cooking scene in the late 1940s.

To my knowledge, the early television programs on WDSU-TV were not recorded, so footage of Richard’s show likely does not exist.  However, one can imagine that she featured tantalizing recipes from her cookbook such as “Stuffed Pork Chops” and “Ham and Potato Croquettes." This past summer, I had the privilege of speaking with some early pioneers of WDSU television who fondly remember tasting Richard’s cooking after her program aired. I imagine that after a long day working at the studio, these flavorful dishes were a much needed respite in the fast-paced and experimental world of early television.

WDSU-TV broadcast live for the first time on December 18, 1948 from the Municipal Auditorium. In 1948, many New Orleans residents had never seen a television set, but by mid-1950, an estimated 40,000 televisions were up and running in the city.  Although there is no footage of Richard’s cooking show, we still have her cookbook to explore and learn from. The recipes contained in its pages are simple and effective, drawing upon the flavor of quality ingredients to produce rich and complex dishes.

Image courtesy of the Newcomb Archives, Tulane University

Over the following weeks, I am going to share my experiences cooking from Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book, which has recently been reprinted by Pelican Publishing Company. 

Although I love to cook, I do not claim to be an expert in the kitchen or a guru of New Orleans-style cooking.  In addition, I am not trying to recreate the exact conditions in which these dishes were made. I will often resort to modern cooking conveniences such as electric stove tops, non-stick cooking spray for baking, and store bought chicken stock. However, I do not wish to spoil the integrity of these recipes and intend to follow their instructions to the best of my ability. All in all, I am simply seeking to better understand Richard and the individuals who cooked from her recipes or watched her on television in the 1940s and 1950s.

I am truly looking forward to this project, which will lead up to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum’s opening of the Lena Richard: Pioneer in Food TV exhibit on Saturday March 10, 2012.  Ready your sturdy soup pot, trusty wooden spoon and preferred cooking fat because we are going to start off with a classic New Orleans dish: red beans and rice!

1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to reading about your cooking adventures!