Willie Mae Seaton
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
2401 Saint Ann St.
New Orleans, LA 70119
Honey, and I just love me some red beans. This is a red bean city here. – Willie Mae Seaton
For nearly fifty uninterrupted years, Willie Mae Seaton presided on Saint Ann Street in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, first as the bartender at Willie Mae’s Scotch House and then, following an expansion, as the establishment’s chef. At one point in its history, the Scotch House topped out at five employees, including Willie Mae’s late daughter Lillie, but the proprietress eventually scaled back. “I don’t like no big, big restaurant,” she explained. Just prior to Hurricane Katrina, Willie Mae’s son, Charles, and her grand-daughter, Kerry, tended to the 28 customers the restaurant could accommodate at one sitting, while Willie Mae herself, at 89 years old, fried chicken to a stunning crisp, seasoned red beans with garlic and pickle tips, and simmered okra and tomato into summery gumbos. The following conversation occurred about eight months after Katrina. Willie Mae was staying with her good friend Hazel Mae White at the time; meanwhile, a few blocks away, Chef John Currence and an army of volunteers spent weekends rebuilding the flooded Scotch House—along with Willie Mae’s attached home—using funds donated through the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Listen to this 1-minute audio clip of Willie Mae Seaton talking about learning to cook. [Windows Media Player required. Go here to download the player for free.] What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
SUBJECT: Willie Mae Seaton with Hazel Mae
LOCATION: Miss White’s home on Ursulines Avenue, New Orleans
DATE: July 2006
INTERVIEWER: Sara Roahen, writer and SFA member
Willie Mae Seaton: This friend of mine [Hazel Mae White], I’ve been knowing her for about 50 years and she is here by herself and she told me I could come and stay with her you know. I like going about and taking care of my business, so that’s why I’m back over here [staying at Miss White’s house, since Hurricane Katrina].
Sara Roahen: Well this is a nice place.
I’ve been here [in New Orleans] since 1940. Yeah, I raised my children here, but Mississippi is my home—right this side of Jackson; uh-hmm.
How have you been getting by here? Have you been cooking?
Oh I cook for she and I every day and she just loves that, yeah. There’s food for us every day and we buy groceries you know. I’m not at the point where just—I got to lay on people’s legs you know. I’m not at that point.
What have you been cooking?
Oh everything—[Laughs] stew, red beans, butter beans, string beans, smothered chops, smothered chicken, fried chicken, veal chops, cabbage. I just cook for she and I and she just loves that.
Did you learn how to cook in New Orleans or in Mississippi?
Oh no baby—Mississippi. I’ve been cooking all my life. I had four children I had to cook for. I had to work and I had to cook. And my daughter could cook good as me. She worked in the restaurant with me until she passed away.
I know that you’re famous for your fried chicken but I always liked your gumbo. You make okra gumbo?
Yes. We make okra and filé, both of them. In separate pots.
What did you put in the filé gumbo?
Oh the same thing but the okra.
[Sounds of coffee being served]
This looks like some good strong coffee.
Well taste it and see how you like it.
Yeah. [Laughs] I like how strong it is. It’s chicory, huh?
Uh-huh, I like chicory. I don’t like pure coffee.
Miss White: I don’t either.
What brand do you use?
Miss White: That was—I use Community Coffee. And if I don’t—when I can get it—then uh…
Miss White: CDM—that’s a little stronger you know. Yeah, that’s an old coffee too in New Orleans. But Community Coffee, my grandma used to use that.
She did, in Morgan City?
Miss White: Yeah. And they used to get their coffee, but it would be green coffee. You put it in a—we used to use a skillet, ‘cause it was deep enough, and you put it on the stove and you stir it—‘cause it used to be green—until it gets dark, and then let it cool. And we used to grind—we had a hand grinder. I remember that and I’m 82—83 years old. I guess that done played out now. Uh-huh.
I was wondering [speaking to Willie Mae], did you always serve food at the Scotch House? Or was it a bar first and a restaurant later?
Bar first and then I added the restaurant. Yep, I stayed there for a good while and a lot of people tried to get that corner. But I went there and the place was so run down that’s the first thing I went to doing–fixing it up and—.
Do you remember what year that was?
In ’60—’50—’57 I believe.
So first you just had the bar. Did you serve food in the bar?
Oh I could have, but I didn’t have any place to…we used to send around there by Dooky’s. You know where Dooky Chase is? We used to send around there and get food. Yeah, we had patronized her [Chef Leah Chase] baby before I opened my place.
When you were growing up who taught you how to cook?
Oh I just watched my parents you know. My grandmother partly helped to raise me because my daddy died when I was six years old. And so my mother came back home you know and I was the only child and I just went from there—just watching them and I did like a little child and tried to learn how to cook and do this and do that. So when I come here, the food was a little different. It’s Creole cooking that they said; well it didn’t take me no time to learn how to do that—what kind of seasoning and all to put into it you know. So and everybody—everybody eat my food—black and white—and the little white guy sometimes would hold the platter up to my son and said, ‘well you don’t have to wash it.’ Set it back on the chair—be so clean you know. [Laughs] Baby we just oh Lord, I have just a bunch of the precious(est) customers. Oh I have top of the line. Ask her—see that big old box over there?
One of the judges brought me that big old box and him and his wife took me out for dinner for my birthday and they always give me a big cake for my birthday. The judges and the lawyers and the district attorney being in there—oh baby; they’ve been in my place—and the Mayor will come all the time. You can look up and see him coming through the door anytime.
How is the Creole cooking different from Mississippi cooking?
Well they puts a lot of seasoning. You see in Mississippi, we—we raised garlic; we had garlic but I never put garlic in my food—just onion, bell pepper, celery and that you know. I love garlic, me. I put a little garlic in everything like my gravies and things, and it gives a good flavor. And then garlic is good for your health.
What about red beans? Did you have red beans in Mississippi?
Oh not—no, not too many—black-eyed peas was mostly you know—and butter beans, but red beans, that’s—that’s a Louisiana dish.
Miss White: It sure is. ‘Cause you can't get it in Texas—not no red beans. They used to could. They used to go over there— getting them around Beaumont and Houston. I used to send red beans to my people in Beaumont. In fact if I go over there I’d bring six—seven packs. Well they wasn’t but 59-cents a pound then. [Laughs]
They don’t have red beans like we have them. Honey and I just love me some red beans. This is a read bean city here. That’s it. If you don’t have no red beans you just out. And I cooked red beans Monday—I cooked them every day, but I cook the big lima beans on Mondays and Wednesdays. And every occasion I cook black-eyed peas, but them red beans—if I don’t have—oh I know better than not put no pot on the stove not unless I have red beans. Every day. [Emphasis Added] That’s my big seller.
In Morgan City did you grow up with red beans Miss White?
Uh-huh. Yes, we growed up with red beans. Red beans, butter beans and I had—my mom used to like a little white bean and I liked the big ones. The small tiny, tiny—just like a pea—she liked them and I liked the big ones. It was two kinds. Camellia—they got two kinds—the small ones and the large ones.
And was Camellia brand always around?
Miss White: We’d have them.
New Orleans—Camilla—if you ain’t got Camellia beans—no red beans taste like the Camellia beans [Emphasis Added]. And I will not buy nothing but Camellia.
What kind of meat do you put in your beans?
All different kinds, but I liked the pickle tips with the little gristle bone. Oh I like that for my seasoning. Well I have pickle meat too and I can—sometimes I—if I got ham hock I throw in but you can't—you can't cook that and give it to the customers because you can never cook enough of that, but honey they satisfied with a little piece of the meat you cook. I tell you, garlic plays a big role here in this city—garlic. Oh garlic is good. Garlic is good for everything. It’s seasoning good, it’s good for your health, and this is a garlic place baby.
Do you also put celery and bell pepper in your beans?
Oh yeah. I puts all that seasoning in it—garlic, onion, bell pepper, and celery—put all that in the beans. Yeah, and I have never since I opened my restaurant had one customer to bring a plate back and said there was something wrong with it. Never. I takes time—time is consuming when you—you’re cooking. And I don’t try to rush my food. I gets up at 5 o’clock every morning—5:30 I’m down there in my restaurant and putting my beans on. I make my coffee, I get my paper and I sit down and drink my coffee and finish my paper while my beans is cooking. I know exactly—
Miss White: It takes time to cook some beans.
One time I had about five of us working
there, but I cut down. I do not like no big, big restaurant, and my restaurant
I can seat—seat 28.
What—how did you come up with that name Scotch House, the Scotch House?
Well when I first went into business I had applied for my license. I had got my liquor license but my beer license hadn't come and like they—like the—the—federal people and all, the tax people, they’d come around and check to see you know what—nosy you know. And they came around and I didn’t have my beer license and they looked in my box and they saw my beer and they told me to take it out of there. I couldn’t sell it ‘til I got my license you know. I had a couple of guys around the bar there drinking beer you know, and they stopped me from selling it ‘til my license come. I had applied for one now and had paid for it but they just hadn't sent them yet. So they [the customers] said that ain’t no big thing; they took the license for your beer. You got your liquor license up there; we’re going to buy all the scotch on the bar, and they started drinking the scotch. They run an ad in the paper—we got a paper here called the Louisiana Weekly; it’s still on the market. And they run an ad in there and they named my place that—Willie Mae’s Scotch House—my customers.
Your customers ran an ad?
My customers ran an ad. They paid for it. Yeah, yeah. Had no problem baby. The policemen have to come meet me. I’ve been on that corner since ’57. I never been held up; I never had to call the police for an incident happening in my place—no fight or nothing, and they just think it’s remarkable. And a lot of times baby I didn’t have nobody in there but me and I’d stay in there ‘til 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the morning. And then my last customer would say you got to get on out of here now; you know what I mean? Sometimes I’d be in there an hour by myself and whatnot—nobody never bothered me.
So your daughter worked with you?
She worked with me before she passed on. That’s who was running the place. We had about—there was five of us in there ‘cause like I said I used to cook and they used to have all kinds of sandwiches and I had to cook that out.
What was your daughter’s name?
Lillie. Oh she was brilliant. Oh they loved her. She was so friendly and warm; oh she just would put her arms around the guys and told them—.
How old was she when she passed away?
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.