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 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.

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

Lena, 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.  Lena, 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 Frieda and Mary, Lena played a principal role in the emerging black cooking scene in the late 1940s.

To my knowledge, the early television programs on WDSU were not recorded, so footage of Lena’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 Lena’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 was the first television station in New Orleans, broadcasting live on December 18, 1948 from the Municipal Auditorium.  In 1948, many New Orleans residents had never seen a television set, but by the time Lena’s show was airing in 1950, an estimated 40,000 televisions were up and running in the city.  Although there is no footage of Lena’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 flavor.

Image courtesy of the Newcomb Archives, Tulane University

Over the following weeks, I am going to share my experiences cooking from Lena’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 Lena 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!