The domestic goddess of New Orleans
For 50 years, Willie Mae Seaton, left, rose every morning at 5am to prepare the finest Mississippi country food in New Orleans. Then came Hurricane Katrina. Here, she tells Carl Wilkinson why, 10
months on, food is the key ingredient in the city's regeneration
Sunday May 28, 2006
The waterlogged, hurricane-shattered
remnants of Willie Mae's Scotch House and Restaurant sit in the heart of a particularly quiet, devastated part of New Orleans. To get to it, you have to drive away from the touristy French Quarter - a
neon-lit, strip-bar-riddled region of town, which survived Hurricane Katrina largely intact - and directly into what appears to be a war zone. The Tremé district of New Orleans is a mess. Heaps of rubble and
piles of uncollected rubbish silt up the streets. Most of the homes are boarded up, forlorn and empty.
In the midst of this
stands Willie Mae Seaton. She's a fragile thing, a white-haired, 89-year-old great-grandmother who everyone, predictably, calls 'Momma'. You wouldn't necessarily know it to look at her, but Willie Mae is a
local institution, a minor celebrity, an award-winning chef, and a one-time lynchpin for an entire community. Before Hurricane Katrina struck the city eight months ago, she'd dedicated more than 50 years of
her life to feeding spectacular Southern soul food to a devoted - and sometimes celebrated - clientele. Willie Mae's Scotch House specialized in fried chicken, in pork chops, in red beans and gravy-covered
rice - country food she grew up preparing, cooking and eating in Mississippi. Everyone loved it. Everyone wanted it. 'We kept business,' Willie Mae says now, in her light, sweet Mississippi drawl. 'We had
lawyers and judges, black and white. Fats Domino and all the big shots came through here ... I can't keep them out of my kitchen, they have to come and speak to me. They're like family to me.' The Scotch
House was, in short, permanently full. 'The small room would have felt claustrophobic if the person seated three feet away from you at the next table didn't greet you when you sat, or ask you about your meal
when you ate,' remembers a regular. This, despite the fact that Willie Mae actively tried to keep her business low key; that she never advertised; that she only agreed to do an interview with the local
Times-Picayune newspaper in 1999 on the basis that they wouldn't print her address or phone number (because 'I didn't want the extra business'); and that all that marked the restaurant out on street level
was a small metal sign. There was no styling or awnings, no menu displays, not even a schedule of opening hours.
That small metal sign is pretty much the only part of Willie Mae's once-flourishing
business that endured Hurricane Katrina. It swings from an outside wall which is scarred by an improbable tide-mark. Inside, four feet of filthy water has destroyed the white linoleum and irrevocably buckled
the white paneling that lined the room.
But Willie Mae wants her restaurant back.
'I'm just dying to get back,' she says. She surveys the gutted remains of the room, the rafters and the stacks of
timber. She wants you to know how beautiful the Scotch House once was. 'It was a big place, that seated 30. I had eight tables here. Beautiful tables and chairs. I had nice furniture, baby. We kept it real
clean and neat.' Willie Mae is especially proud of the fact that in 50 years, she was never visited by the police - unless they were paying guests. 'I've never had problems with the board of health and I've
never been held up or had to call the police, which they say is remarkable. If the youngsters get loud in here all I have to do is step in and look. One look does it! I don't have to say nothing.' This is
even more impressive when you consider that the Scotch House is located a block away from one of the city's most notorious housing projects, and that even before Katrina, it was essentially a no-go area for
the local police.
Willie Mae Seaton was not born in New Orleans - but just outside Crystal Springs, Mississippi, in 1916. She grew up immersed in a rich Southern culinary tradition; a hand-me-down, oral
heritage of food, based on recipes and techniques that were passed from generation to generation, and that no one ever wrote down, because no one ever needed to. 'I'm a country girl,' she says. 'We used to
raise a little cotton, corn, peanut, potatoes and all kinds of vegetables. We'd get it out and fix it up good and then peddle it in Jackson, the state capital. I learnt to cook in my mother's kitchen and
I've been cooking all my life. We had a stove kitchen with a warm-up on top and those old iron pots.'
She was an only child. 'My mother's house is still there,' she says. 'I wish I had gone out there and
kept the house up. But age got me. When I do go back, we visit a little place by the road and get ham and smoked sausage. Oh, you could smell that and bacon cooking for miles! They had a lot of good cooks
out there where I came from.'
Ingredients were always fresh. Vegetables were plucked straight from the garden, and the meat was hand-reared to standards that would send your average organic aficionado
'When we killed a chicken out there, baby, we had a little house called the chicken house. We put him in there and fed him up for two or three weeks. We never took a chicken off the yard and
killed it. No, sonny. They'd kill a hog too and pack it in a barrel with salt and let it stay in there three weeks then take it out and wash it down with a little pepper. We don't get that kind of meat now.'
Willie Mae and her husband LS Seaton moved to New Orleans in 1940, when Willie Mae was 24, because LS had found work at the local shipyards. Willie Mae opened her first establishment 13 years later, in
1957. It was launched as a small bar, but when her beer license didn't arrive, and she found herself restricted by a license to trade liquor only, she focused on whisky, creating a signature cocktail which
was a combination of Scotch and milk. The first Scotch House was born. After a year or so, Seaton moved into a 'shotgun double' house and Willie Mae converted half of the house into another Scotch House bar,
while she, her husband, and the children lived in the other part. However, Scotch House customers would smell the food that Willie Mae cooked for her family, and beg her to make some for them, too. The
restaurant evolved from there.
Unlike many of New Orleans' elderly population who were left to ride out the storm, Willie Mae was evacuated by one of her sons before Katrina hit. It was only after the
water had been finally drained from the city that she returned.
'When they came here and started gutting, the damage was worse than anyone ever imagined,' says Kerry Seaton Blackmon, Willie Mae's
26-year-old great-granddaughter, who is the restaurant's waitress, and the closest thing the Scotch House has to a maitre d'. 'But it's a family business that I really don't want to turn my back on, and
that's why, despite all the destruction, I've come back to New Orleans. In the restaurant it was a total loss. They had to rip out all the floors, redo the electrical wiring and plumbing. Nothing could be
salvaged - everything was lost.'
Well, almost everything. 'When they were cleaning up,' says Willie Mae, 'I saw my old black skillets. They said they'd get me some new ones, but I saved them. There's
nothing like your old pots.' Willie Mae has cooked a great deal with those pots. 'Red beans, butter beans, meatballs and spaghetti, cabbage, veal chops with gravy, breaded pork chops and fried chicken.' All
of it was prepared to an exacting standard. 'I don't just throw it together, I take time to fix my food.'
Before Katrina struck, Willie Mae kept to a rigorous schedule. She would open her restaurant at
11.30 every morning, and she'd only ever close it after the last lunchtime customer had been fed - generally at around five. To ensure the food was ready, she would get up at 5am every day, and have her red
beans on the stove, by 5.30. 'All my food is ready by 11.30am and it ain't thrown together.' As gruelling as this regime was, Willie Mae had no plans to retire - or even slow down - before the hurricane
struck. 'God makes the plans for when I stop cooking. I work so much. I'm a workaholic. I never get tired.' Which is why Willie Mae is in the process of restoring her culinary institution.
While she, like
so many others, was not insured against the Katrina-induced flooding, an impressive amount of people are working to restore it, and to ensure her legacy endures. John Besh, the chef at August - one of New
Orleans' destination restaurants - is among Willie Mae's fans. At this year's James Beard Foundation awards (which were held in New York in May) New Orleans's restaurant community was collectively named
Humanitarian of the Year. This was partly in acknowledgement of the way the city's restaurateurs had banded together to feed the aid workers and police in the wake of Katrina - but more significantly
perhaps, in recognition of the way they're using food and Southern cooking as a tool for regenerating the city. Willie Mae, her restaurant, and her incredibly secret recipe for fried chicken, are considered
an absolutely essential part of this process. 'I look at Willie Mae as someone who has kept this culinary torch lit for years,' says John Besh. 'If you went to her restaurant, you were also going to her
Because of this, the restoration of the Scotch House seems to have been somewhat prioritized. Donations of fryers, stoves and other equipment have already been pledged. 'The first day we went down
to gut the building it was amazing,' says John Besh. 'Drivers rolled down their windows and yelled support to her. She's a very loved and respected person. By bringing back her neighborhood restaurant, we
also help bring back her neighborhood. It's incredible how many people are taking hope from this place.'
Willie Mae may look fragile but is evidently quite indomitable. 'God gonna put a lot of good things
to happen for me before I'm gone. When I get back in here and see my beautiful customers faces, that's when I'm going to get really happy.
'I cannot wait, baby,' she says.
'I cannot wait.'
Found at The Observer, a UK publication.