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Willie Mae Seaton's Legacy: A Restaurant That Defines New Orleans


Willie Mae Seaton lives on in the memory of excellent meals. She died Friday at 99. Even in a city famous for its food, the fried chicken she sold in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans stood out. NPR's Lynn Neary begins with a man who describes just what that chicken tasted like.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: The first time a friend took John T. Edge to Willie Mae's Scotch House, he felt like he'd been given a gift.

JOHN T. EDGE: As I recall, there were six or eight tables. That's about it. And you ordered from a simple sheath menu.

NEARY: Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, says Willie Mae Seaton served up food like veal chops and white beans and, of course, her famous chicken, cooked according to a well-guarded recipe.

EDGE: This was basket-fried, deep-fried chicken, and it was as good as anything I've ever eaten. And it was that crust. It was that fusion of skin and crust, the moment which they became one. And when you bit into it, there was a burst of juice, there was a subtle heat. It was beautiful.

NEARY: Seaton's restaurant on St. Ann Street began as a bar, but once she started cooking, her customers wanted more. By 2005, her chicken had become so famous, she was honored with a James Beard Award.


WILLIE MAE SEATON: I want to thank each and every one of you all that made it possible for me to win this award. I'm so full, I can't say nothing.


NEARY: Just a few months later, Hurricane Katrina hit, and Seaton was evacuated to Houston. Though she was well into her 80s, she made her way back to New Orleans and the police found her at her devastated restaurant. She had the Beard medal with her so the police contacted the foundation, which got in touch with the Southern Food Alliance. A campaign got underway and volunteers began to rebuild Willie Mae's Scotch House. In a 2008 interview with NPR, Seaton's friend Lolis Eric Elie remembered opening day.


LOLIS ERIC ELIE: We had two James Beard Award-winning chefs in the kitchen. We had a James Beard nominee, John Currence, waiting tables. Based on that kind of firepower, this is the best restaurant in America that day.

NEARY: As important as the food was, John T. Edge says Ms. Seaton will always be remembered for something else.

EDGE: She cared about her community, and that's what defined her place. That's what's defined her tenure, and that's what matters, is the way that restaurant served Treme, the way that restaurant served New Orleans, the way that restaurant served her family.

NEARY: The restaurant is still going strong, led by Willie Mae Seaton's great-granddaughter. Lynn Neary, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.