New Orleans hearts fried chicken

Willie Mae, the matriarch of Creole cooking, lost everything in Katrina. Now the 91-year-old is frying drumsticks again, thanks to John Currence and other top Southern chefs.

Published April 21, 2007 11:55AM (EDT)

In New Orleans, most people have long since lost their sense of urgency about the state of emergency Hurricane Katrina left behind, and on a midweek afternoon in March, there were long, slow-moving lines everywhere you went: at the still-understaffed post office; in front of the many taco stands that have sprouted up post-storm; in front of the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters, where people were filing billions of dollars in damage claims. The only place where impatience was palpable was in the line of cars that was pulled over so a presidential motorcade could pass.

John Currence was in line at Lowe's. Wearing his trademark bandanna and work boots, the chef-owner of City Grocery in Oxford, Miss. (and recent nominee for a James Beard Award, the country's highest culinary honor), looked every bit the construction crew chief he'd become over the last year and a half. Along with hundreds of donors and volunteers recruited by the Oxford-based Southern Foodways Alliance, Currence has led the effort to restore Willie Mae's Scotch House, a local restaurant and culinary landmark in the historic Treme neighborhood that was all but destroyed by flooding post-Katrina.

While the revival of Willie Mae's Scotch House may have all the hallmarks of a made-for-TV movie -- young white chef celebrated for his updated interpretations of Southern cuisine returns to his native city to aid one black matriarch of Creole cooking -- as anyone rebuilding in New Orleans will tell you, it's hard to feel like a hero on your 400th trip to the hardware store.

Indeed, for Currence, the campaign to save Willie Mae's -- which finally concluded earlier this month after more than a year of work and upward of $200,000 in private donations -- began not as an attempt to memorialize Southern food but as a way to battle the helplessness the chef felt watching his city waste away. "This is about me and New Orleans," he said. "This is about helping a friend in need."

For decades, the self-determination of New Orleans has been undermined by the economic imperatives of its tourism-based economy -- and even before Katrina city planners and politicians were confounded by the question of how to take the ruins of something old and precious and turn it into something new yet timeless. Such paradoxes have only been exaggerated since the storm. The ups and downs of the SFA's efforts have formed a kind of Cliffs Notes on post-Katrina reconstruction: Expenses will be grossly underestimated; pledges of aid will never materialize; contractors will be impossible to find and will disappear before work has been finished (and after they've been paid); new appliances will be bought, looted, then replaced for a second time; and just when you've fooled yourself into thinking you're in the homestretch, you'll realize you're just getting started.

Still, despite the pitfalls, from the start the Scotch House project gave people something that was absent from leadership on every level for months after the storm: a singular focus and a clear sense of purpose. Whether those efforts go down in the books as a fairy tale or, better yet, as a how-to, they remain emblematic of an entire region's recovery effort.

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Before the flood, Willie Mae's Scotch House had been frequented by in-the-know New Orleanians for almost 50 years; her wet-battered fried chicken, in particular, was the trump card of both city bigwigs and serious eaters from around the region, and the stark white "double shotgun" (Willie Mae lives in the adjoining side) remained a bright spot in an area better known for its urban blight. She burst onto the radar of the culinary elite in early 2005 when she was honored by the James Beard Foundation, an organization she'd never heard of prior to receiving its American Classic Award.

Less than four months later -- just two weeks after the storm, when the city was officially closed off to all residents -- police found her sitting in a folding chair in front of her flooded home with nothing but the clothes on her back and the Beard medal in her bag. She had evacuated to Houston with her children, but snuck away from them and back into the city by herself. ("I know I didn't have no business coming back in here by myself, but that's what I done," she says in "Above the Line: Saving Willie Mae's Scotch House," Oxford filmmaker Joe York's documentary about the project, revealing a sauciness that was still well intact.) The Beard medal was the breadcrumb that allowed friends from the Southern Foodways Alliance back to find her.

In the past, Willie Mae's business practices were as old school as her cooking: There was never a payroll, just the promise of a full plate -- and even now, Willie Mae's secret recipe for fried chicken exists only in her memory. (Not even the team of chefs who showed up to help cook during the Scotch House's grand reopening were allowed to watch as she made more batter.) To Currence, such habits are both charming and also cause for concern. "The way that she does business is going to have to change pretty dramatically -- [Willie Mae's] is going to be a destination place now, and she's going to have to adjust." And therein lies the irony of life in New Orleans post-Katrina: The entire enterprise of preserving a tradition necessitates that you have to ask a 91-year-old woman -- whom you love in large part because of her old-fashioned ways -- to change.

Certain cultural aspects of New Orleans -- such as its architecture -- have been saved because, not in spite, of a lack of resources to do things any differently, and bringing Willie Mae's up to code while saving its aesthetic essence required a commitment to the future, as well as a serious stubbornness on Currence's part. (How to explain to a 91-year-old eager to get back to the kitchen that she needs to be patient while a wheelchair ramp is added to the back door?) "Now, the central air system alone is worth more than the entire building was before the storm," Currence says.

When work on Willie Mae's started in January 2006, volunteers and chefs from across the Southeast showed up in droves and were feted by five-star chefs; early work site lunches included rabbit po' boys served on white linen tablecloths by Restaurant August's John Besh. But as initial sponsors backed out and early time estimates turned from five weeks into an equally unrealistic five months, expectations had to be adjusted across the board. On the work site, rabbit po' boys gave way to tallboys bought from the aptly named Busy Bee corner store.

"Honestly, after a while, it would probably have been more cost-effective to take the $1,000 each person spent coming here and paid for more contract labor, because it'll be the country's most expensive fried-chicken joint," said Southern Foodways Alliance associate director Mary Beth Lasseter. Like many flooded New Orleans homes, Willie Mae's old shotgun double on St. Ann Street suffered as much from time and termites as it had from the five feet of water it took on after the storm. "But bringing all these people here to see firsthand what happened was a deliberate decision on our part. It's been the subtext throughout, honestly: How can we use this project to keep the plight of New Orleans in the public eye and yet still keep people's spirits up? Telling that story without being dishonest and still hopeful -- that's been real tricky."

"If you'd told us in the beginning how much it was gonna cost and that it would require Currence coming down here all those hundreds of hours and that it would take more than a year, I don't know that we would have made the same decision," said Lolis Elie, a New Orleans writer and SFA member who was largely responsible for first bringing Willie Mae's cooking to the attention of his colleagues. "Luckily, we backed into this without all the facts."

Scale and proportion have always had a strange relationship in New Orleans -- in any other city, six boys with brass instruments marching down the street might not stop traffic, but here it happens almost every weekend. A fully dressed fried oyster po' boy is occasionally served up so tall that in another city it might require a building permit. So by New Orleans' peculiar logic, it made perfect sense to have an entire region's culinary community focus their efforts on one little old lady's corner restaurant -- even if, or maybe especially if, it was in a neighborhood most of them had never frequented before.

Still, as red tape and ruin wore down the sense of collective rage that was felt across the Gulf Coast after Katrina -- a rage that for many was impetus enough to start the rebuilding process -- individuals were forced to find more personal reasons for overcoming doubt and facing the drudgery that starting over demands.

Louise Terzia, a museum director from Little Rock, Ark., had spent much of her childhood in New Orleans and has always maintained deep ties to the city. For her, working at Willie Mae's was like a salve on an open wound. "It's a reconciliation, I think," Terzia said. "We're dealing with 150 years of racist policies and politics and greed, and we're trying to deal with all that now on top of everything else in New Orleans, and it is profound. I don't know if there's a right way to put this, but I grew up having these wonderful black women working for my family, and I loved them like they were my own family, and I felt like I was somehow honoring them by working at Willie Mae's. These women had been a part of my life, and I loved them dearly, and there's never been a way to recognize them, but helping Willie Mae felt like helping them."

For Bill Smith, chef-owner of Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C., the reasons were straightforward. "One of the things you love about New Orleans is that you have these old favorites, and sure, we feel a sense of urgency about them now that they're imperiled, but saving them is not just for historical purposes -- they're just things you don't want to lose. I am glad the Southern Foodways Alliance is so scholastic about recording it for the books, but that's not why I'm there. I just want it to be there the way I like it."

Ann Cashion, another Beard winner and chef-owner of Cashion's Eat Place and Johnny's Half Shell in Washington, D.C., held a fundraiser for the Scotch House last year shortly after relocating Johnny's into the space formerly occupied by La Colline, a Capitol Hill institution for more than 20 years. That process in turn made her more sensitive to the changes being made at Willie Mae's. "To say to [Willie Mae], 'We're going to redo your place, and it's going to be better' -- I don't think that's what she necessarily would want, or what people would want."

The fact that Willie Mae survived not just the flood, but the painful interruption of her life for an additional year and a half since, is testament to a rare kind of resilience. As her daughter-in-law Carolyn Seaton put it, "A lot of the older ones left this world while waiting to get their place back together."

For John Egerton, an SFA co-founder and author of "Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History," it's a harbinger of hope for a 300-year-old city. "I find myself believing for the first time in a very concrete way that her presence there, her return -- and Leah Chase's return around the corner -- are like two lights that came back on in a real dark place," Egerton said. "For her finally to be able to walk into her own home again, and go to bed in her own bed, and get up in the morning and begin the day working in her restaurant -- to have all that happen has got to be a better sign of New Orleans' rebirth than anything else. I can't imagine a better symbol than if Louis Armstrong came in and ordered some fried chicken."

But much in the same way that since Katrina, the entire city of New Orleans has been asked to defend its right to exist, not everyone in town has understood the rationale of championing -- let alone improving upon -- a just-getting-by business in a less than vibrant neighborhood far off from the beaten tourist track. Brett Anderson, food critic for the Times-Picayune, says he has heard plenty of grumblings of doubt and skepticism along the way from people who resent the attention Willie Mae has received.

"I get calls all the time, 'Why all this help for her when everyone's hurting here?' -- as though there's something unseemly about coming to the aid of an elderly woman," he said. "From where I've sat and the ways it has been expressed to me, it's racism." Still, Anderson allows that such comments are generally made by people who have suffered enormous losses of their own. "Who knows what their emotional state is -- but they're slipping into a hurt that manifests as bigotry, which is as American as apple pie. No one down here knows if what they're doing is quote unquote worth it, but why, at the end of your life, would you [want to] see your entire life's work wither and die? Here's a woman who has lived through the civil rights era, and you have to imagine she has suffered injustice in her life, and in some ways the SFA is just trying to get her the credit she deserves. She deserves to see that place up and running."

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In Uptown New Orleans -- many parts of which stayed dry during Katrina -- the pace of the city's recovery has something approaching momentum: On Magazine Street alone, you can find gelato every four blocks, and specialty stores like the St. James Cheese Shop serve an eager, upscale clientele. On a Sunday morning in mid-March, a woman in line at Stein's, a new Jewish deli, whispered to her friend as she waited for her sandwich to be served on an H&H bagel: "This is so exciting -- it's like being in the East Village!"

But across town on the same afternoon, there was no mistaking Willie Mae's for any other place in the world. Looking natural though not quite yet at home, Willie Mae passed plastic plates around to family members and the crew of volunteers and without ritual or ceremony dropped chicken into a brand-new frying pan. Cameras trained in on her knotty knuckles as she stood with one hand on her hip and with the other held a drumstick up to her mouth. "I just want to see if the seasoning's right," she said.

Carolyn Seaton stood in the doorway, seemingly nonplussed by the commotion, and as she started listing other favorite menu items, it almost became a meditation: "Her shrimp -- real good. Her fried shrimp especially. Her pan-fried fish -- out of this world. Her chicken is good -- she got a different batter from anybody -- but she's got a good veal chop, too. And red beans, um-hmm, yes. Her pork chop ... everything she has is really good."

None of those items appeared on the menu of the Scotch House benefit held by the SFA on April 1, but servers working the event did wear "I Heart Fried Chicken" T-shirts as they passed out duck confit fritters made by Donald Link of Cochon (yet another Beard Award nominee). After a four-course dinner, one of which was prepared by Currence -- and before a screening of "Above the Line" -- Currence handed the keys to the new Scotch House over to Willie Mae. "I've made so many incredible friendships during this process, I'm almost looking forward to the next hurricane," Currence joked.

The next day, he, along with several chefs who showed up to lend a hand, joined Willie Mae and her son and daughter-in-law in the kitchen for the restaurant's opening day.

It's a challenge to keep a restaurant afloat in any city at any time. No one knows how much longer Willie Mae will be able to work in her new kitchen, or who might eventually take over for her at the stove. But even if the casual passersby, seeing Willie Mae standing proudly beneath the Scotch House sign, doesn't know anything about the long journey that got her back there, one hopes they'll know they've stumbled onto something special when they hear her call out to them, "Pass by again, soon, baby, and I'll take good care of you."

By Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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