For me, having grown up on the edge of the South with a grandmother from Georgia, simple Southern fare is reminiscent of home. But my grandmother (and I hope she never reads this) couldn't match what comes out of Willie Mae Seaton's kitchen. Seaton, in her late 80s, cooks without flash or pretension the kind of food, like fried chicken and pork chops, that she grew up eating in Mississippi. Over the 50 years that she's owned her Sixth Ward bar and restaurant, Seaton has become a master craftswoman of Southern cooking.
When I take someone to Willie Mae's Scotch House for the first time, they always hesitate at the front door. An old sign above marks the restaurant. Yet with no hours posted on the solid metal door and the drawn shades hiding any sight of what might be inside, it's not clear if the door leads to a restaurant or someone's home. It might look empty from the street, but on most days nearly all of the half dozen or so tables are full. The small room would feel claustrophobic if the person at the table 3 feet away didn't greet you when you sit and ask about your meal as you eat. At Willie Mae's, it's easy to feel like a visitor at a church social.
A walk past the kitchen and into a dark room with a long bar offers a glimpse of what Willie Mae's was like when people came as much for the scotch as the fried chicken. Black-and-white photos of smiling young couples hang beside the bar. Hand-lettered signs above the bathroom doors say "KING" and "QUEEN." A still-lit jukebox sits in the corner.
Things are quieter now at Willie Mae's Scotch House, which is probably how Seaton wants it. When The Times-Picayune interviewed her in 1999, she would only talk to the paper on the condition that they print neither the address nor the phone number of her restaurant (she didn't want the extra business). Despite her best efforts, Seaton has become famous over the last few years: The Washington Post spotlighted her restaurant, John T. Edge praised her cooking in his book Fried Chicken, and CBS' Sunday Morning brought their cameras here last fall. It's hard for Seaton to keep a low profile when people are saying she makes some of the best fried chicken in America.
Seaton's moist fried chicken is covered in a delicate batter, which clings to the bird like a second skin and builds up in spots like crisp bits of crumpled paper. A pleasant saltiness was the only seasoning I tasted, which made me glad I had ordered a big glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade. It's not intuition but skill that produces near-perfect fried chicken, and I've seen Seaton carefully examining individual wings and breasts before she sends them out.
The small menu at Willie Mae's also includes a tender pork chop with a sandy, copper-colored breading, stewed chicken on Thursdays, and white beans every Monday and Wednesday. The fried chicken and veal chop stand out from the rest, but everything is excellent. Dishes are served with rice and a choice of red beans or green beans. I would opt every time for the red beans, which can be spiced with the bottles of Tabasco, Crystal and Louisiana hot sauces on each table. The fried chicken can also be ordered as a plate with a salad and French fries, which are cut wide and taste like little slivers of baked potato. The waitress told me that Seaton makes desserts when she feels like it -- she was never in the mood, unfortunately, on the days when I ate there. In New Orleans, plenty of restaurants have survived for half a century. When I eat at those places, I always wonder what has changed over the years. As one chef after another moves through the kitchen, what new dishes have been created and what personal touches have been added to the classics? At Willie Mae's Scotch House, where the same hands have gripped the pots and frying pans since the doors first opened, you can be sure that the fried chicken, the red beans and the veal chops haven't changed in decades.