It’s a backstreet restaurant, the epitome of the corner joint in a city that was once full of them, and eventually the world would beat a path to its door.
But long before Willie Mae’s Scotch House won culinary acclaim, and before its post-Katrina rebuilding became a rallying point, Willie Mae Seaton herself had achieved a different sort of prominence, both respected as an African-American businesswoman and lauded as an inspiration among regulars at her 5th Ward restaurant.
“It all flowed from Ms. Willie Mae’s character and personality,” said Kern Reese, the Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge who began frequenting Willie Mae’s as a young law school graduate in the 1970s. “She was a very strong-willed lady. She wanted to run her own business, she was devoted to her family, and she had a gift in the kitchen for making people happy. That’s what people responded to.”
Seaton died Friday at age 99, her family said Monday.
The restaurant she started nearly 60 years ago is now on the map for many visitors to the city, and crowds queue up at lunchtime for a taste of the famous fried chicken, smothered pork chops and other soul food staples.
Her great-granddaughter now runs the restaurant, and last year she and her family expanded with a second Willie Mae’s on St. Charles Avenue, near South Carrollton Avenue and a world away from the original.
The national accolades started coming along just before Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, the James Beard Foundation honored Seaton with its America’s Classics Award, which recognizes restaurants that “serve quality food that reflects the character of their communities,” and the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi gave the restaurant its Guardian of the Tradition award that same year.
“She never sought any of that out. It was just always about the food for her,” said chef John Besh, one of her longtime admirers. “In the face of adversity she did so much, not just for her family, but to show how food can bring us together, and that resonated with a lot of people.”
‘A neutral ground kind of place’
Seaton was born in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, not far from Jackson. She moved to New Orleans in 1940, at age 24, when her husband got a job in a local shipyard, according to an oral history conducted with the Southern Foodways Alliance.
She would have four children, and she held many jobs to support them, including cab driver, laundress and beautician. By 1957, she opened a bar in a former shotgun house at St. Ann and North Tonti streets. She and her family lived under the same roof.
As she began cooking for her bar customers, the business evolved into a restaurant. Its stature in the community would rise over the years even as the neighborhood around it deteriorated.
“It was not the best of neighborhoods for a while, but it didn’t make a difference there. It was a neutral ground kind of place,” Reese said. “People from all walks of life would be in there. You came to eat, to talk, to find fellowship; you could talk across the aisle there about anything. It felt like you had come by someone’s house and they asked you to stay for dinner.”
While the food was the draw, it was Seaton herself who gave the restaurant its distinctive character.
“She ran a place people could identify with, and most of all they could identify with Ms. Willie Mae,” said Jim Thorns, a photographer and appraiser who counted himself as a regular at Willie Mae’s Scotch House for 30 years. “What a woman. Our group met there every Thursday and talked about everything, and she was always in the mix.
“She didn’t have a formal education, but she had a natural intelligence. She had ingenuity. When a problem came up, she found a way to solve it and go on.”
A beacon of hope
The levee failures after Katrina presented problems of a different magnitude, of course. Seaton was 89 when the flood wrecked her business and home and emptied her neighborhood of residents. Soon, however, some of the chefs who had toasted her legacy just a few months earlier banded together to help her rebuild.
The Southern Foodways Alliance championed a national fundraising drive, and chef John Currence, a New Orleans native who runs acclaimed restaurants in Oxford, Mississippi, marshaled the volunteer effort to put the old restaurant back together piece by piece.
When Willie Mae’s Scotch House reopened in 2007, her great-granddaughter Kerry Seaton-Stewart took the reins.
“Rebuilding it was like a beacon of hope in this neighborhood that felt hopeless, and when it reopened that’s exactly what it became,” Currence said.
He spent a good deal of time with Seaton during the rebuilding, and he said he was inspired to keep the project going by her own example. “She was a model of humility,” he said. “She was a driven person, and her drive was to put her best on people’s plates every day.”
A funeral will be heldFriday (Sept. 25) at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, 1923 St. Philip St., with visitation beginning at 9 a.m.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.