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Sunday, May 26, 2013

The NOLA Chronicles Part 6: A Tale of Two Cities With Beignets and Willie Mae's

Our last day in NOLA felt as if it was a study in contrasts.  We spent the sunlit morning strolling about the fabled French Market in the French Quarter and stopped for beignets and chicory coffee at the famous Cafe Du Monde.  Cafe Du Monde has been rocking an endless stream of tourists 7 days a week, 24 hours a day since 1862.  We wedged our way in and scored a steaming platter of those square, sweet, powdered-sugar covered doughnuts and large, eye-opening cafe au laits.  Those beignets were little bites of sweet heaven amidst all of the touristy madness.  If there was any residual concern all these years later about whether New Orleans had recaptured its tourists, this maddening scene confirmed otherwise: NOLA is most assuredly open for business and doing fine.

Our last meal in town later that same day was a look at another corner of the Big Easy. I didn't have a lot of time to prep for our NOLA trip as far as isolating places I wanted to visit, but there was one joint that was unfailingly on my radar: Willie Mae's Scotch House.  Willie Mae's was opened by Willie Mae Seaton many moons ago on St. Ann's Street, near the historic Treme neighborhood.  I don't entirely understand how the wards work in NOLA, and researching the area where Willie Mae's resides revealed several articles that said it was in the lower Ninth ward, the Seventh ward and the Fifth ward, so let's say I can confirm it's on St. Ann's street.  Many articles say the restaurant is in the Treme neighborhood, a claim our Willie Mae's server denied, saying I was moreso in the neighborhood when I was at Louis Armstrong Park at the St. Louis Cemetery.  Whatever the specifics of the location, this much was clear: the entire area was devastated by the levee breeches and resulting floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina and it has been a long road to recovery for most of the area's residents and businesses; a road many of them are still on.  Willie Mae's was one of those businesses nearly destroyed by Katrina.  Volunteers from the (clearly amazing) Southern Foodways Alliance gathered to rebuild Willie Mae's after Katrina in the original location and the restaurant stands today in its humble glory.  I was almost driven to visit Willie Mae's, certainly for the said-to-be spectacular fried chicken, but also because she and her business stood as sorely-tested survivors of Hurricane Katrina.  Today, Willie Mae is in her 90's, and her great granddaughter Kerry Seaton holds close the secret recipes and continues the tradition of doling out that famous chicken.

When we arrived, I wasn't even sure it was even open until I saw a group of diners leaving.  We entered the smallish, wood-paneled dining room and took a seat near the door.  The setting may be no-frills, but clearly Willie Mae's is far from a best-kept secret, as evidenced by the multiple awards and certificates adorning the walls.  There are photos of Willie Mae being featured on the Food Network and receiving her James Beard award.  Soon, the supposed holy grail of fried bird arrived in front of us.  We took our first bite of that caramel-colored, nearly artistic latticework of fried skin that wrapped juicy, spicy meat and it was indeed Fried Chicken Shangri-La.  Sure, the accompanying peas and creamy macaroni and cheese were quite tasty, but it was all about the bird.  We lost ourselves in it and once done, agreed with many others who dare say it...it
was the Best Fried Chicken We Had Ever Had.  When we left, we found ourselves standing in front of the restaurant and on an unexpectedly lengthy wait for a cab.  We met a lovely couple from Martha's Vineyard who we agreed to share the cab with.  While we chatted with them, I stood absorbing the sights and sounds of the nearby streets.  The surrounding neighborhood still showed not only some scars of Katrina, but also continuing scenes of rebuilding and rebirth.  Some houses were still shuttered and marked with the spray-painted X, but others were getting new renovations while children played and neighbors gathered and chatted on porches.

The survival and resulting rebound of New Orleans may just be the most soothing, comforting and attractive quality of this southern city to me.  There are many cities I adore, but I always feel a kinship with the ones who crawl out of powerful adversity and regain not only their identities and culture but also a new-found determination to stand together and strong in
even the most unimaginable of circumstances.  NOLA is clearly that and to me, as lively and vital as ever.  I left utterly spellbound by her many charms, and hoped to return again and again.

Won't bow, don't know how.

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