- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Willie Mae Seaton, a chef recognized nationally for her classic American food and whose neighborhood restaurant helped put fried chicken on the culinary map, has died.

Family friends on Monday confirmed Seaton died Saturday. She was 99.

Seaton managed Willie Mae’s Scotch House for decades before her health declined and her great-granddaughter, Kerry Seaton-Stewart, took over. Oxford, Mississippi-based City Grocery Chef John Currence, who along with the Southern Foodways Alliance helped Seaton rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, said Seaton had severe respiratory issues over the last couple of months and finally succumbed.

“I’m deeply saddened at the news,” Currence said. “I’m shocked. I just reached out to Kerry a couple of weeks ago to talk about coming for a visit. She will be missed. … We’re all blessed that her legacy lives on, on the corner of St. Ann and North Tonti. I’m proud that I was able to be there and be part of the effort that helped save what would otherwise, at this point, be just a memory.”

When asked to describe her food, Currence said it was “uncomplicated.”

“It wasn’t fussy. I always felt like I was sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table and had the feeling that if I was eating with my mouth open that she would come tell me about it,” he said.

NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune reports (https://bit.ly/1WeOA7R) Seaton was born in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, and moved to New Orleans during World War II. She held a variety of jobs, including that of licensed beautician, but what she wanted was to run a bar. In 1957, she turned her beauty shop into a bar, where the house drink was a mix of Scotch and milk.

Seaton cooked in the bar and her customers encouraged her to open a restaurant, the newspaper said.

That’s how Willie Mae’s Scotch House was born. It served smothered veal, white beans and pork chops. But it was her fried chicken that made her famous. She made it with a wet batter from a closely guarded recipe.

“She represents the passing of an era: the era of the neighborhood corner restaurant that serves really good food,” Lolis Eric Elie, a writer, journalist and food historian from New Orleans, said of Seaton, whose cooking earned her the James Beard America’s Classic Award in May 2005.

Located near Leah Chase’s well-known restaurant, Dooky Chase, Willie Mae’s Scotch House offered a different experience, Elie said.

“Ms. Chase’s restaurant wanted to give black diners the experience of eating at a fancy, white restaurant. Ms. Willie Mae wanted to give you the experience of eating at her grandmother’s house,” he said, noting that when you ate there, “you literally were eating in her house.”

The business was inside one half of a double house; she lived in the other until she no longer could stay there independently.

“Her death is a personal tragedy, but we’re lucky because the food continues,” Elie said.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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