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On New Orleans visit, Obama makes time for gumbo

President Obama's visit to New Orleans Thursday lasts barely four hours, and includes a stop for some soul food at the famed Dooky Chase.

By Staff writer / October 15, 2009

President Barack Obama visits the Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in New Orleans's Lower 9th Ward Thursday.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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Leah Chase, a matron of New Orleans cuisine, thinks President Obama is looking too skinny. Despite those midday burger runs, all that basketball and pondering of the geopolitical tides burn up a lot of calories.

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So, nothing like a visit to New Orleans to put some meat on dem presidential bones.

Ms. Chase, one of the most beloved chefs in a city that loves chefs, has served Mr. Obama gumbo before. Though no lunch plans were originally included in a trip Thursday that some New Orleanians have criticized for being too short, the White House has now changed that. As a result, the president will take in some gumbo and fried chicken from Dooky Chase, the name of both Ms. Chase's restaurant and her husband.

(White House social secretary Desiree Glapion Rogers, New Orleans-born and a two-time Zulu Queen, greased the wheels for the quickie take-out order.)

"I know he likes gumbo, so there will be gumbo; I know he likes shrimp Creole, so there will be shrimp Creole; I know he likes fried chicken, so there will be chicken," Chase told the Times-Picayune.

Obama visits New Orleans for 3 hours, 45 minutes Thursday to talk recovery at a town-hall meeting at the University of New Orleans and visit the first – and still only – school to open in the Lower Ninth Ward after the devastating 2005 storm.

But in a foodie town, it’s vittles that ultimately bind contracts and heal wounds. Amazingly, the city boasts more restaurants today than before hurricane Katrina – a testament to the recuperative power of gumbo and how rebuilding things makes you mighty hungry.

And let’s face it, this president, for all the hectoring about his European ideals, eats like an American. His aide, Reggie Love, says Obama “eats pretty much anything, from chicken wings and barbecue and ribs to grilled fish and steamed broccoli” – and cheeseburgers, of course, according to The New York Times.

Ray Charles, who would come early in the morning to sample Leah Chase’s fare, wrote “Early in the Morning” about Dooky Chase. Her food is classic New Orleans, a mixture of Sicilian, French, and Italian. Shrimp Clemenceau, an unlikely but successful casserole of sautéed shellfish, mushrooms, peas, and potatoes, is a no-brainer, but her fried chicken, veal, grits, grillades, and court bouillon are also out of this world.

Dooky Chase (on Orleans Avenue, in Mid-City) is a favorite stop for politicians, including former President George W. Bush, who visited New Orleans 15 times after the storm. As with most New Orleanians, Katrina – or “The Thing,” as many now call it – became intensely personal. The restaurant devastated, the Chases lived outside it in a FEMA trailer for more than a year and reopened as soon as they could.

When candidate Obama stopped by during the campaign, the Times Pic’s David Hammer documented a slight change in allegiance for the octogenerian chef as she sat Obama down to do some real eating.

"You're too frail, baby. I have to fatten you up," Mr. Hammer reported Chase saying. "Long the hostess for visiting politicians, Chase, who is struggling to get her iconic restaurant back to full strength after Katrina, said she just might replace her old friend President Bush with Obama," Hammer wrote.

OK, so Obama and New Orleans are sympatico on the subject of real food. The tension this time seems to be around the president’s quick visit. In a town that likes to linger and absorb the world from the kitchen-table vantage point, getting up and leaving too fast is considered by some to be, well, a little bit rude.

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