by Miriam Taylor
The Delta Recovery Project 2011: What Ever Happened to Main Street?
Doe’s Eat Place still sits at the end of Nelson Street, its dilapidated exterior a fit for the neighborhood, all the glory of Greenville’s past melted into fading clapboard houses and potholed asphalt.
It’s a little past seven on a Friday night and the parking lot is packed. In a neighborhood where yards are cluttered with rusty cars and bordered by broken-down fences, new Lexus, BMWs, and Mercedes fill the vacant lot used for parking.
Men and women from as far away as jackson and Memphis come for a taste of the tamales, the salads, the meatballs and the steaks — steaks whose seasoning rival any restaurant in the country, steaks that at their thickest measure three inches. Tamales, that strange little treat from south of the border that has become a staple of the Mississippi Delta, also lure guests from every corner.
Outside, the night is cool and quiet, the only sound the occasional screen door slamming or a car backfiring. but inside the kitchen it is hot and loud. Orders are tossed back to the cook, and every now and then a guest lingers by the stove to comment about the steak or the Ole Miss game. It’s been 70 years since Doe’s opened, but while conversations and crowds may have changed, the same familial atmosphere present in 1941 prevails today.
“Well it started out because Daddy was a civilian worker out at the air base in the thirties,” recalls Charles Signa, 63, son of the late Doe Signa, who put the Doe in Doe’s. “He was a cafeteria worker there, and somebody gave him a tamale recipe, and he and Mom kind of doctored ‘em up and made them by hand.”
Charles Signa wears a yellow cap, glasses and a red apron, his blue shirt sleeves rolled up as he tells how a little ramshackle house in a bad part of town became a legendary restaurant. It’s early afternoon, before the dinner rush, and Signa sits with a cup of coffee recounting tales from his childhood. The stories are jumbled and mixed, each one running into the next as he scatters them through his mind and off his tongue.
“One of his doctor friends said, ‘Doe, why don’t you cook steak,’ and Daddy said, ‘Well, I’ve never really thought about it, but I guess I could.’ So one of his doctor friends brought a steak there, and he just cooked it on that little residential stove, and they agreed, well, you’ve got to have some kind of salad to go with steak. So they made up this salad dressing that you squeezed fresh lemons into. So they had fresh lemon juice and olive oil and they’d roll the bowl with garlic, and so it’s a lemon flavored salad. And they said, well, with the tamales, chili would go good. So they started making chili and gumbo, and then well, we’re Italians, so they made meatballs.”
Signa ticks off the menu items from the top of his head — items that haven’t changed in 70 years. Doe’s isn’t about to mess with what works.
“We’ve had people who haven’t come in 10 or 12 or 14 years, and they’ll come by and say this is just like I remember, it tastes just like I remember,” laughs Signa, his eyes shrinking into slits as his smile deepens, stretching out his whole face. “but how you gonna screw up the taste of a steak if you’re cooking on the same grill?”
The grill and the menu aren’t the only thing at Doe’s that hasn’t changed. The building, originally a grocery store, has housed the restaurant since the beginning. It survived the 1927 flood, when, legend has it, Doe had to swim out of one of the windows.
“Actually in this room right here,” Signa gestures to the wood paneled dining area, “back in the late forties and early fifties this was where I lived. It’s still the same. And as for the people, we’ve had waitresses been working as long as I have—we got one girl that’s been here since 1965, her daughter works here, she’s been here for 30 years almost, her sister works here and she’s been here for 30 years, and then we have another girl who’s been working here about 20 years.”
Having lived his whole life in Greenville, Signa has seen many changes over the years. He has watched a thriving downtown fade, noted the disappearance of three theaters, several jewelry and clothing boutiques, department stores, furniture shops and a downtown hotel.
“Back then, walking along Washington Avenue, it was like, hell, it was like walking down somewhere in New york.” Hyperbole notwithstanding, Signa shakes his head from left to right as he mutters to himself, “gone, gone. All that’s gone.” Throwing his hands up in frustration, he glances heavenward. “Everyone started moving south of town and that’s when this part of town started going down. That was the ‘80s.”
Things were different at the restaurant back then too.
“We used to go to the Swift and Co., a meatpacking company. Daddy used to call there, they knew what he was talking about because they knew dad, and he would call there and get special meat to make his chili, real lean meat. And he’d do it all special, and get special meat to make his meatballs, get fresh parsley, call City grocery in New Orleans and get shipped real good cheese. We’d grind it up ourselves. We even made our own croutons.”
The conversation is interrupted by the entrance of Doe and little Charles, Charles’s brother and son. Polite “Hi, how ya doin’s” are tossed across the room, before both of the men retreat to the kitchen.
“He likes to cook, that’s his deal,” Signa explains of his brother. “I like to go around talking to people. you know, we have four generations of family members coming in. We have this man that comes in all the time, shoots the bull with us, his parents came in, and his kids come in and that’s three generations of that family. but his kids are old enough to be having kids soon, so it’ll be four coming up.”
A small girl with long dark hair and a bright turquoise bow pokes her head in the door to see what’s going on.
“That’s my granddaughter Lela,” says Signa, smiling as the little girl approaches to give him a quick hug.
There’s not only four generations of customers, but four generations of Signas still hanging around Doe’s.
“You kind of feel like home when you get here. My aunt florence was 85 last Wednesday. I was one when she started working and she still works here. She makes salads.”
‘She makes salads’ is a bit of an understatement for the undertakings of florence Signa. Married to big Doe’s brother, Frank, in 1948, florence, or Aunt Florence as she’s known, has at one time or another played waitress, host, potato- fryer, phone-answerer, mother, wife, sister-in-law, aunt and salad maker.
“Well, Frank called up one night when we were first dating, and I thought oh, where we going tonight. And he said our girl that fries potatoes can’t make it. Can you fry potatoes? And I thought, fry potatoes? you want me to come and fry potatoes? but I did it, and that was my first job at the restaurant,” she says.
Florence Signa is small with a shock of white hair, an apron tied snugly over her pale blue skirt. She is constantly at the heart of the restaurant.
Her station is in the middle kitchen, making her salads, so well-known for their special taste that people have started to bring her bowls to ‘fix’ in hopes that their salads at home can be as delectable as those at Doe’s.
“It’s been a while back, but someone came in and said, ‘Do you season salad bowls.’ And I go, ‘Well I guess I do.’ And they said, ‘Would you season mine for me.’ And I said, ‘yes.’ ”
Aunt Florence laughs and begins pointing out details about the restaurant from her place by the bowls. A letter from the British prime minister, hanging in one of the three dining rooms, catches her eye.
“I get to see so many people from all over the world. We have them come from Germany, from Paris, from all over. We had the ambassador from britain come in one night, and they were real nice, real down to earth. Wrote me a letter,” she states proudly.
“Valentines this year we had Morgan freeman come in, ordered himself a steak. Well, kathy Wong, our cashier, was taking pictures when I was talking to him and she posted them on facebook. “And the next day all the ladies at the beauty parlor wanted to know, how was Morgan freeman, what did he say. And I said well Morgan’s real sweet. In fact, we’re going to make a picture together. Instead of Driving Miss Daisy it’s gonna be ‘Driving Aunt Florence.’”
Photographs litter the walls in every dining room, signed and addressed to Doe and Charles and Aunt florence from athletes like Archie, Peyton, and Eli Manning to former Boston Red Sox pitcher David “boo” Ferriss. In the front kitchen there is another wall of photographs of entertainers who have eaten here. from Willie Nelson to liza Minelli, their signatures and faces decorate the sun-faded white wall.
But the photos that Charles and Aunt Florence and all the Signas love to point out, are the ones stuck lovingly to the refrigerator in the middle kitchen. These are photos of family and friends — each one portraying a story, a memory.
“I enjoy this. I always have. I love people, and I like to be around people. I’m a people person,” she says.
“My nephews are always in the kitchen when the guests walk in.” Florence is referring to that little oddity of Doe’s: a front door that leads straight into the kitchen. “Well, they’re always saying go in and say hey to my Aunt Florence, and people will come back here saying, hey, Aunt Florence. And I have to think— is this some relative I haven’t met yet? but I love it, I really do. I’m everybody’s aunt.”
As the evening wears on, more and more diners trickle in, each greeted by Charles, Doe, and Aunt Florence as they walk out of the night air and into the warm kitchen. Aunt Florence is at her station, makin salads and greeting people. Doe is cooking steaks and Charles is running around, making sure everybody’s feeling good, and has what they need.
Florence turns away from her salads for a moment, gesturing towards a small table against the wall in the middle kitchen. “We call that the family table. It’s great. We get to talk to people while they’re sitting. And in that room,” she points to where Charles had been sitting earlier, “that table right over there in the back is what we call the engagement table. We’ve had so many engagements here, I just love it.”
In the room where the engagement table sits, a few regulars are brown bagging along with their meal. One of them, Hank Burdine, is as much a staple of Doe’s as an extended member of the family. He leans back into his chair and leaps straight into one of the many stories that exist about the restaurant and the family behind it.
“My mother,” Burdine says, “used to tell us that this room used to be the children’s bedroom. And the only bathroom in the house was adjoining it. In the early days, you had to go to the bathroom elsewhere because Miss Mamie would not let you go at Doe’s because you might wake the kids up as you walked through the bedroom. Mama said they would always stop at Mr. joe bordelon’s gulf Oil service station because he had a heated toilet seat there!”
Burdine, along with the rest of the table, erupts into laughter at the memory. Aunt florence and Charles, who have come in to listen, greet each person at the table – a firm pat on the back from Charles and a hug from Aunt Florence.
“And after the bedroom was made into a dining room and the bathroom was opened up with the hallway, Jughead [Frank Signa] used to shuck fresh gulf oysters for the customers,” Burdine continues. Everyone else listens, eyes glazed as their minds retreat to images of those early days.
“I used to come by here just about every night when I was a bachelor and they were just like my family,” he says. “I always sat in the kitchen at the table with the aunts and when everybody had left or were supposed to be leaving, Aunt Rosalie would get up and pull the cord on the bare light bulb over the refrigerators and by golly when she pulled that cord and that light came on, well, you better be heading for the door!”
Again the room is filled with the sound of laughter, large guffaws from the men, slight chuckles from the women, and a sweet giggle from Aunt Florence.
“We try to make everyone feel like family, that’s why people like it here,” explains Florence.
In a town that seems to be starved for business, Doe’s continues to feed people and feed itself. And the world has noticed.
“We’ve been on the food Network Channel a couple of times. you know, bon Apetit had us rated as the third best steakhouse in the nation, and we got exposure on TV for that,” says Charles, “and in ’07 we got the james beard American Classic award.”
Aunt Florence recalls one of her favorite stories, so telling of the reach the restaurant has had, and the loyalty of guests who have visited time and time again.
“We had a man come in who was on a plane coming from England, and the man beside him asked, ‘Where ya going?’ and he said, ‘To Greenville,’ and the man said, ‘Well you got to go to Doe’s.’ ”