Willie Mae Seaton

26. Willie Mae Seaton (c.1914-2015) was born Willie Mae Johnson, near Crystal Springs, Mississippi, and learned to cook in her mother’s kitchen. In the 1940 Census, when she and her husband, L.S. Seaton (1915-1987 ) were living in Hinds Co., Mississippi, it says she completed the 4th grade.

Shortly thereafter, they moved to New Orleans. L.S. worked in the shipyards, and Willie Mae drove a taxi and became a licensed beautician. In 1956, she opened a bar in the Tremé neighborhood. She developed a signature cocktail with Scotch and milk, and thus Willie Mae’s Scotch House was born.

A year later, in 1957, she moved the bar to a “double shotgun” house. Patrons could smell the food she was cooking for her family in the attached kitchen, and encouraged her to open a restaurant. When the hairdresser in the front part of the building left, Willie Mae took over the space and opened a 30-seat restaurant.

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Willie Mae’s became famous for its wet-battered fried chicken. Like the nearby Dooky Chase’s, Willie Mae’s became something of a “go-to” place for civic leaders and visitors. She never sought publicity, however. When the Times-Picayune ran a feature on the restaurant in 1999, Willie Mae insisted that the address not be printed, and that there be no photos of her in the article.

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Willie Mae’s national reputation was sealed in May 2005 when, at the age of 91, she went to New York to receive the “American Classic Award” from the James Beard Foundation.

And then a few months later, the flood hit. Literally. Hurricane Katrina struck, and the resulting flood hit the neighborhood hard.

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A family being rescued on nearby North Miro Street.

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Floodwaters splashing around Dooky Chase’s, just a block away. (© 2015 Christina Gomez-Mira)

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Willie Mae’s, which wasn’t in as good a shape as Dooky Chase’s to begin with, was hit even harder.

Luckily, one of Willie Mae’s sons had taken her to Houston before the flood. But shortly thereafter, she returned on her own to inspect the damage. Like many people in New Orleans, she didn’t have flood insurance.

But she did have a fan base. Chef John Currence and the Southern Foodways Alliance raised about $200,000 and put in countless volunteer hours over the course of the next year to restore Willie Mae’s and get it up to modern code.

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During the repair and restoration work, Willie Mae cooked for the volunteers, but still wouldn’t let anyone watch her make her secret chicken batter.

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After the restoration, Laura Bush talks with Willie Mae’s grandson, Ronnie Seaton, Sr., as Willie Mae is escorted into the kitchen by Chef John Besh.

Willie Mae finally retired not long after the re-opening, and put her great-granddaughter, Kerry Seaton-Stewart, in charge.

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In Feb. 2014, the New Orleans City Council honored Willie Mae.

The bottom line is that after the flood, New Orleans lost about 100,000 people, mostly poor, and mostly African American, who have never returned, but the city has added hundreds of restaurants. It is hoped that keeping places like Dooky Chase’s and Willie Mae’s open will continue to have a positive effect on the rebuilding of the surrounding neighborhood.

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In late August 2015, about three weeks before Willie Mae’s death, President Obama had lunch at the restaurant, as part of his visit to the city on the tenth anniversary of the Katrina disaster.

Willie Mae passed away September 18, 2015. Her obituaries gave her age as 99. In both the 1920 and 1930 Censuses, her reported age (6 and 16) implied a birth in 1913-1914. Later records, including the 1940 Census, suggest that she was born in 1918. So she was somewhere between 97 and 101.

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Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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