My morning panel at the Cutting Edge NOLA Music Business Conference was so early that I barely had time for breakfast, which I grabbed across the street from the conference hotel at John Besh’s Luke Tavern, which was good, if pricey. But after the panel, I decided to run out and see if I could grab lunch at the legendary Willie Mae’s Scotch House in Treme, a restaurant I had never gotten to try. I wasn’t at all sure I would get to. There are restaurants like Franklin’s Bar-B-Q in Austin that are just too crowded to get into, and Willie Mae’s has recently been featured on some Food Network TV shows. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to try, and after all, Willie Mae’s is known for one of my favorite dishes, fried chicken, and I wanted to see how it stacked up against the hometown favorite Gus’s in Memphis.
One thing that anyone visiting Willie Mae’s needs to know is that they do things a little differently than most restaurants. Though there is always a wait, there is not a waiting list as such. Instead, you stand outside under a tent, and people are seated as tables become available. Individual diners are encouraged to sit at the bar, and people are seated according to the number in their parties and what tables come open, not the order they first started waiting.
As for the menu, it is a typical soul food menu, but what almost everyone wants is the fried chicken, and with good reason. Like Gus’s in Memphis, it gets a pretty dark-brown coating, but Willie Mae’s seems a little less spicy than Gus’s, although there is a spice-laden finish that grows with Willie Mae’s over time. The crunchy coating encrusts pieces of white meat chicken that are juicy but not greasy at all, and for an up charge, one can get a breast and two wings. Although there are mashed potatoes and greens, I opted for the french fries instead, and they were basically good. The atmosphere, though crowded and bustling, is basically homey, and great soul music plays from overhead.
As for how it stacks up against Gus’s, I would have to call it an even tie, although there are subtle differences of course. As a lover of fried chicken, and both restaurants, I cannot proclaim either one the winner.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
2401 St. Ann St
New Orleans, LA 70119
While walking back to my car, I spied this interesting chair on a porch in Treme. The text on the top of the chair says it is a throne of St. Expedite (St. Expeditus), a Catholic saint who is extremely popular in New Orleans and amongst practitioners of voodoo in the city. The rest of the chair is covered with “veves”, drawn symbols that represent the spirits (or “loas”) of voodoo. The names of two of the voodoo loa, Baron Samedi (the lord of the cemetery), and Legba (the guardian of the crossroads) are emblazoned on the seat and legs of the chair. The cult of St. Expeditus in New Orleans is interesting in its own right. Tradition says that Saint Expeditus was a Roman soldier killed by the Roman Empire for converting to Christ. Supposedly, when he decided to become a Christian, Satan tried to deter him in the form of a crow, which called out “Cras, cras”, which is the Latin word for “Tomorrow.” Expeditus is said to have replied, “No, I’ll become a Christian today”, and threw the crow to the ground, stomping it to death. Much of the iconography of St. Expeditus pictures him saying “Hodie” (“Today!”) while crushing the crow beneath his feet as it is saying “Cras!” (“Tomorrow!’). But how Expeditus made his way to New Orleans is less clear. The best (and funniest) story is that during the French colonial period of New Orleans, some statues of saints were shipped to a church in New Orleans, perhaps Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Most of the crates were labeled with the name of the saint whose statue was within, but the last one was stamped only with the French word “Expedite” (literally “Rush!”). According to this story, the people at the church assumed that Expedite was the name of the saint whose statue was within the box, and it was set up in the church with that name! At any rate, St. Expedite soon became a favorite saint with the older Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen of New Orleans. When she fixed love potions, or perhaps cast spells or curses, she taught her followers that prayers to St. Expedite would make everything happen sooner! And I’m reliably told that Expedite is much beloved in the Black Spiritual churches of New Orleans too.
Somehow, on previous visits to Treme, I had never come across this little neighborhood bar called the Little People’s Place, but when I saw it, I immediately recognized the name as a place that had once been famous for live music in the Treme neighborhood. I could only imagine how thrilling it was to see Kermit Ruffins there, or one of the brass bands. Unfortunately, the Treme began suffering the depredations of gentrification even before Hurricane Katrina, and two of the earliest wealthy newcomers filed a lawsuit against the club in 1998 to stop the live music. I hope that one day perhaps the live music can be brought back to little neighborhood spots like this.
When the jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Church finally ended, the Treme Brass Band came marching out of the church, and the second-line, which had already lined up outside, got underway. The Treme Brass Band was at the front, with the Baby Dolls and Zulus behind them, and then I walked with the TBC Brass Band, who were marching with the Sudan Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and behind us came the Fi Ya Ya Warriors with their chief and their drummers. We marched first down to Rampart Street, past a couple of hotels where tourists were cheering from the balconies, and to the entrance of Louis Armstrong Park, which was entirely appropriate given the purpose of this festival. From there, we headed back down Rampart to Esplanade, and down Esplanade toward the old U.S. Mint where the festival stages were located. Although I had imagined the second-line as something of an artificial thing scheduled for tourists, I was pleasantly surprised to see it pick up second-liners and buckjumpers as it proceeded down Esplanade. By the time we passed through the festival gates at the Mint, there was hardly room to move. I had meant to hang out at the festival, but I soon found that all of my homeboys in the TBC were leaving out to walk back up toward the Treme, and I was tired too. It took every bit of strength I had to walk back up to the Treme Center where I had parked my car.
Each year on a Sunday, usually in August, the Satchmo SummerFest sponsors a second-line that runs from the St. Augustine’s Church in the Treme neighborhood to the Old U.S. Mint in the French Quarter, featuring Indian tribes, brass bands, the Baby Dolls and various social aid & pleasure clubs. This year’s second-line was scheduled to start at 12:30, and I thought it would start on time, so I felt I didn’t have time for a leisurely breakfast down in the city, and I grabbed a quick breakfast near my hotel at the Tic Toc Cafe in Metairie. With the parking situation so expensive and limited in and around the French Quarter, I decided to park my car up in Treme, close to the start of the parade route, and, fortunately, I had no problem finding a place to park near the Treme Coffeehouse. It was already extremely hot outside, so I grabbed an ice coffee from the coffeehouse, and then started walking down towards the church where the second-line would be starting. Like many other mornings when I had been in the neighborhood before a parade, the Treme was calm and quiet, but with a sort of eager anticipation in the air as well.
It was Satchmo Summer Fest weekend in New Orleans, and my friends in the To Be Continued Brass Band, or TBC, had invited me to spend the afternoon with them going around to their various gigs. They had already played several gigs before I got to New Orleans and caught up with them in the Treme neighborhood around 3:30 in the afternoon. I quickly learned that there’s really no better way to get a crash course in the unique culture of New Orleans than to spend a day with one of the city’s brass bands. During the rest of the afternoon and evening, I rolled with the TBC from a repast in Treme to a memorial block party in honor of someone who had died recently in Gert Town, to a birthday in another part of Gert Town, to a wedding in New Orleans East, to the Divine Ladies Ball at the Mardi Gras Ballroom of the Landmark Hotel in Metairie before winding things down at the Sportsmen’s Ladies event at the Autocrat Social Aid and Pleasure Club on St. Bernard Avenue in the Seventh Ward. Along the way I saw much of the unique “buck-jumping” dance of New Orleans second-lining, members of various social aid and pleasure clubs, and even a few of the Indians in their elaborate hand-sewn regalia, all accompanied by the festive music of one of New Orleans’ best brass bands. The long day of music and celebration ended at 1:30 AM, as the band members and I all headed our separate ways for some badly-needed rest.
My fellow panelist Travis wanted to have a look at what was left of the Iberville projects, which unlike the rest of New Orleans’ legendary projects, were still standing, so I gave him a ride out there. To my surprise, not only are they still standing, but apparently some of the units are still inhabited. Yet more seem empty than occupied, and it appears that demolition is in the works. Sadly, the Iberville site will likely become the location of more high-income housing. Just north of the projects are two of New Orleans’ oldest cemeteries, and from there we explored the Treme neighborhood, ending up at Kermit Ruffin’s Treme Speakeasy on Basin Street. Kermit wasn’t there, but a band was setting up to play, and Travis and I sat at the bar and enjoyed cold drinks. I would have been content to spend the evening there with the live band, but my friend Darren who plays bass drum with the TBC Brass Band had told me that his band would be leading a small second-line for a wedding around Jackson Square to a restaurant at 8 PM, so Travis and I headed back out to the French Quarter.
In the Fall of 2012, I had been thrilled to discover a coffee bar in the Treme neighborhood called Cafe Treme, so when I heard in December that it had closed, I was very disappointed indeed. Fortunately, it reopened almost immediately in January as the Treme Coffee House, owned by the same people that own Cafe Envie in the French Quarter. The bright, tropical colors remain on the outside, the inside is still quiet and comfortable, and most importantly, the coffee is still really good. And I was especially impressed by the amazing art work on the wall entitled “Como Fife and Drum”, a tribute to the late Otha Turner, who led many fife and drum bands and picnics in Senatobia and Como, Mississippi. Seeing that tradition referenced here, in the neighborhood where African-American brass band music was likely born was quite interesting and powerful.
The final blocks of the Money Wasters second-line on Basin Street below Claiborne brought out the most enthusiastic dancers. There were already large crowds in front of Kermit Ruffin’s Treme Speakeasy, which was the ending point for the second-line, but like the end of all good things, the people were reluctant to go home.