Willie Mae's restaurant is known as Willie Mae's Scotch House. What's a Scotch House? Is that like a pub or speakeasy?
You're close. In 1957, Willie Mae Seaton opened her first establishment in New Orleans. It was a small bar, but when her beer license didn't arrive on time, Willie Mae had to make do. Since she had a liquor license, she focused on whisky and created a signature drink, which was a combination of Scotch and milk. Thus the Scotch House was born. When she decided to open a restaurant, she just never changed the name from Willie Mae's Scotch House.
Willie Mae Seaton, an only child, was born just outside of Crystal Springs, Miss., in 1916. Living out in the country, her family raised corn, peanuts, potatoes and many different vegetables and sold them in Jackson, the state capital. And, of course, there were chickens. She learned to cook early on in her mother's kitchen. The food was based on recipes handed down from generation to generation, and nothing was written down.
In 1940, she moved to New Orleans with her husband L.S. He had found work at the local shipyards and she got a job driving a cab, a position she held for six years before opening up the restaurant on the corner of St. Ann and North Tonti streets in the Treme -- a logical and smart choice. Since that time, Willie Mae, who lived next door and raised four children, has been manning her six-burner stove and graciously accepting lots of well-deserved praise. In May of 2005, the restaurant was named an American classic by the James Beard Foundation, the nation's highest culinary honor.
Before Katrina, Willie Mae arose every day at 5 a.m. to prepare the red beans, butter beans, cabbage, breaded pork chops and fried chicken for which she became famous. Everything was ready when the restaurant opened at 11:30 a.m. Closing would come after the last lunchtime diner was finished, usually around 5 p.m. The restaurant was perpetually full even though she never advertised and only agreed to do an interview with The Times-Picayune in 1999 if the newspaper promised not to print her address and phone number. Only a small metal sign hung outside -- no awnings, menu or schedule of hours -- to let folks know that culinary paradise was behind the door.
You would think this would be a pretty demanding routine, but Willie Mae had no plans to retire before the storm flooded her restaurant. She still has no plans to retire. In fact, she's overseeing the restoration of the restaurant. Many volunteers from across the United States have been working hard to redo just about everything. Willie Mae had no flood insurance when Katrina hit, but restaurateurs and food lovers from everywhere seem to have rallied to her side. Last winter, a group from Montreal organized charity lunches and raffles that raised nearly $5,000, although it will take many more thousands to reopen the restaurant. The most recent estimate is $250,000, and at last counting, $53,000 had been raised.
One group that has led the way in helping Willie Mae is the Southern Foodways Alliance from the University of Mississippi, a member-supported organization of more than 600 chefs and academics, writers and diners whose mission is to "document and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the American South." The group worried about the loss of so many of New Orleans' wonderful restaurants and decided to save one -- Willie Mae's. The group has raised more than $30,000 and has sent dozens of workers from as far away as Florida, New York and Colorado to New Orleans to clean up, gut and rebuild the restaurant. John Besh, chef and owner of Restaurant August, provided meals for the volunteers and hired Willie Mae's great-granddaughter, Kerry Blackmon, whose job it was to greet and seat eager customers. The group's Web site, www.southernfoodways.com, is full of information about the work its members and volunteers have already done and what it plans for the future.
Willie Mae is eager to be back behind her stove. The plan is for the restaurant to reopen by late fall.
Clarification: Two weeks ago we ran a correction of factual errors that had appeared in Blake Pontchartrain's column. What we failed to point out was that the errors were made in the editing process and not by Old Blake who, of course, knows it all.