Sunday, December 18: “My mother cooked for the president of the Cotton Exchange, so I knew black people were cooking in homes and restaurants like Broussard’s and Galatoire’s,” says Rudy Lombard. “I couldn’t name names, so I set out to discover who they were.” The result was Creole Feast, the first cookbook to focus on the African-American contribution to New Orleans cuisine. It was 1978. Rudy’s editor at Random House was a woman named Toni Morrison. His co-author was Broussard’s Nathaniel Burton, “the godfather of all the chefs in town.”
I’m at Elizabeth’s eating grillades with Rudy and his nephew Lolis Elie, the barbecue book author and Times-Picayune columnist. The veal-and-tomato gravy is laid on ground veal patties and a huge mess of grits. Lolis and I both graduated from Penn in 1985. “Black folks my age who had economic options went into business, engineering, education and law,” he says. “They did not want to cook.” Upward mobility isn’t the only strike against black-run kitchens in New Orleans now. There's also the problem of political will. “There are no restaurateurs on the mayor’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission. There are none on the governor’s commission.” A place like Dooky Chase, “is a cultural institution”, says Rudy Lombard, “and if the city – if the country – had any sense of responsibility, we’d make sure it survives.”
Lolis and I go to the Tremé to look at another such institution, Willie Mae’s Scotch House, the home, bar and restaurant of 2005 James Beard Award recipient Willie Mae Seaton, housed in a lath-and-plaster historical building on the corner of St. Ann and North Tonti Streets. “I’ve been on this corner 54 years,” Willie Mae adjusts her turban. She’s 89 years old. “I get in there and just cook the food,” she says. “Fried chicken, beans, meatballs, vegetables. Chops. You dip ’em in bread crumbs, then pat ’em dry. They love that. They love the soul food, baby.”
Neighbors stop their car outside. “You cookin’?” they ask. “We miss smelling all that good food.” The Heritage Conservation Network and Southern Foodways are co-sponsoring a volunteer rebuilding of Willie Mae’s. Today the architects are doing a walk-through. “You know how I got the name ‘Scotch House’?” she tells us. “The people came in and stopped me from selling my beer. And my customers said, ‘It’s no big deal. We can’t drink the beer, so we’ll go drink up the scotch.’”
A yellow ring encircles the Scotch House’s clapboard façade. The interior is strewn with dinnerware, placemats, furniture, food, trash. The walls and floors are stained with flood-borne crud. The place smells awful. Above the waterline, an altar hangs unscathed. Willie Mae keeps saying, “My son’s up in Houston. I gotta get him down here. I tell him people are deciding, looking. I want him down here, too.” I ask Willie Mae about her Beard Award. “Oh, baby, I wish I had brought it in my pocketbook. It was so heavy, though.” The architects are talking redesign and health codes. “I got my fryolater here, got my stove . . . All these years I been operating like that.” Lolis tries to explain the grandfather clause to her, “People are gonna be a lot more strict this time around.” “It’s gonna be rough to try and change everything,” Willie Mae says. “Everybody coming in here with their own ideas. . .”
An architect yanks free a torn piece of panelling. The clean-up isn’t the worst of it. The big problem is mold. Mold corrodes the electricity. It eats at the wood. The first thing to be done is demolition. “Take out the sheetrock. Expose the wiring. Then Borax, bleach.” Before the Heritage Conservation Network can put the flesh back on the building, its bones must dry out. I know some folks doing volunteer demolition with the grassroots group, Common Ground. They’ve set up a food distribution center, a free health clinic and a law clinic in the Ninth Ward. I take leave of Willie Mae Seaton, who says, “I’m gonna have to come back for awhile anyway. I can’t let customers down. I gotta let ’em have some soul food.” I go to Common Ground’s makeshift headquarters in a washed-out nursery school to put Willie Mae’s Scotch House on the demolition list.
A world away, in the French Quarter, Erik Veney is cooking dinner for 300. It’s the evening of the annual Caroling in the Square, and Muriel’s, where he’s the chef, is packed. The crowd is not unmanageable. Veney’s two kitchens can handle 800. So he lost his saucier; he’ll replace the tourendos’ Cabernet-veal reduction with a less labor-intensive béarnaise. To compensate for a post-Katrina inexperienced staff, he’ll cut out the rack of lamb and the foie gras for awhile. He’ll add coq au vin for comfort. He remains, it seems, unruffled. Veney cooks well-regarded Contemporary Creole food. He’s one of the very few African-American executive chefs in current New Orleans fine dining. He raises one more possibility for why there aren’t more black head chefs, here or elsewhere. It’s the complement to Lolis’s argument. “There are people out there who are good cooks. Maybe they haven’t been presented the opportunity.”