Grease-stained Walls

By giftshop  |  January 2, 2014  | 

In 1961, Willie Nelson made Farron Young’s song “Hello Walls” a smashing country hit. And not long after, Willie sat and supped and sang that song within the very walls of Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville and enjoyed his meal immensely.

Lil’ Charles Signa remembers the night 30 cash_0754or so years ago when a red bearded gentleman sporting sunglasses and a broad brimmed hat walked in with a friend toting a rectangular cardboard box under his arm. Given a table in the kitchen, they dined on the proverbial salad and hot tamales and huge steaks cooked in the blast furnace stove up front next to the main door.

After supper, and before anyone knew who he was, Lil’ Charles recalled, “He took that big hat off and long red hair fell all the way to his ass. Willie Nelson opened up that box and took out his guitar and played a few songs right there in the middle of the kitchen. We all loved it! Willie paid with a roll of hundreds fat enough to choke a cow. We have since sent him dozens of hot tamales and steaks while he was on the road a bunch of times.”

And if those greasy and smoke-stained walls of Doe’s could talk it would take multi-lingual experts from the United Nations to translate all the different languages that have been spoken and bantered about in there. On some nights the volume and pitch of laughter and conversations is so high in the back and side rooms at Doe’s that you can hardly hear your neighbor ordering. But that’s just Doe’s, and it doesn’t get any better. And so what if the table next to you speaks only German or Japanese, there are no menus anyway.
fries
If you don’t know what to order, longtime waitress Judy Saulter will bring one of each cuts of meat to your table from which to choose. A 12-ounce filet to a bone-in rib eye, T-bone, porterhouse and the 3- to 4-pound sirloin, all you have to do is point and smile and then your salad is on the way. Noted author Willie Morris from Yazoo City once stated, “I prefer a table in the kitchen where I can absorb the vivid banter of the cooks and waitresses. The tamales are superlative, the French fries ineffable and the T-bone steaks phantasmagoric. The atmosphere is so congenial that people at the other tables finish your sentences for you.”

Virden Jones recalls his mother Rosemary dining one evening next to William Faulkner at Doe’s. He was there with his good friends Bern and Franke Keating and literary agent Ben Wasson.

In 1956 the Burrus House in Benoit was the location and main centerpiece of the then considered steamy movie “Baby Doll” based on Tennessee Williams screenplay. The film and production crew adopted Mink’s Supper Club as their local watering hole and eatery. However, director Elia Kazan and stars Caroll Baker, Eli Wallach and Karl Malden headed on to Doe’s Eat Place most nights after stopping by Jesse Brent’s house for a little nip on their way back to Greenville.

Howard Brent recalls the night he and his wife Carole were eating in the side room at Doe’s when Judy Garland came in and sat at the table next to them. Carole, a professional singer in her own right, wanted Garland’s autograph but chose not to disturb her. Several years later, Catfish Rich and I were at the table in the kitchen where all the family sat and drank coffee, eating and talking to Aunt Rosalie and Aunt Mattie, when Liza Minnelli (Judy Garland’s daughter) and her entourage walked in without a reservation. They also ate in the side room, the room that used to be the children’s bedroom when the only place you could eat was in the kitchen.

One evening in 1964, Howard was summoned to the Greenville Airport to meet his daddy Jesse Brent who had hitched a ride home from Washington, D.C., aboard Texas billionaire Bunker Hunt’s jet. They had met in Senator Jim Eastland’s office for a cocktail after each had seen the Senator.

Captain Jesse was there on towboating and river business and Hunt on his wiretapping woes after he had caught several of his employees swindling 60 million smacks from his oil company. Howard recalled, “Until President Bush landed in Air Force One at the airport, Bunker Hunt’s jet was the biggest thing ever to touch down out there. It was huge! We went to Doe’s and had a wonderful time and meal after I found out what Mr. Hunt liked to sip on.”

Texas is big and so are the portions at Doe’s. Texans seem to like that. Judy recalls a gentleman that used to fly his own plane in from Dallas, catch a cab to Doe’s and order a plate of hot French fries and a raw sirloin. Raw and cold, that’s how he liked it. And several times Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has stopped by Greenville in his jet and come to Doe’s with his wife. “She eats a bone-in rib eye and Jerry likes a porterhouse,” says Judy.

Estelle Henderson, longtime devoted and beloved employee of Doe’s, cooked French fries in the kitchen dining room for 15 years. She took it upon herself to make sure people from out of town signed the guest register. Originating in 1978, the names and places and comments written in that dog-eared book are astounding. Egypt, France, South Africa, Germany, Australia, Argentina, Israel, Japan, England, Italy, Finland, China and on and on and on the names and places go. Many comments are written in the native languages of the far away countries. Anytime someone from out of state, or the country, visits the Delta, most often their hosts will bring them to Doe’s.

Cruising through the guest book one evening, I noticed in the early part of 1979 that Dan Rather, Dolly Parton, Red Foxx, Johnny Cash and Joe Namath had all dined there at separate times. And one evening in the ’60s, Judy recalls a stretch limousine pulling up to the front door and two very attractive ladies getting out and opening the car door for Bob Hope and three to four other ladies. They were all kowtowing and hovering about Mr. Hope seeing to his every need. Of course, once inside those smoke-filled walls, the ladies from Doe’s took over and everyone had a blast!

One evening a group of movie producers showed up and at the end of their dinner told Judy, “If you will go back to Hollywood with us, we will make you a star!” Judy thanked them and said she would just as soon stay right here in the Delta at home and at Doe’s. Judy has now been working at Doe’s for 44 years.

As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton would come to Doe’s with his good friend Rodney Angel from Lake Village. The governor liked the hot tamales and big steaks. And during his run for President, Clinton had his famous Rolling Stone Magazine interview taken at Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock.

Republican Clarke Reed has brought many national news and political luminaries to Greenville over the years: William F. Buckley, Bob Novak, Paul Greenberg, Karl Rove and the British Ambassador to the United States, Christopher Meyers, have all dined at Doe’s. One evening Tom Brokaw flew in to Greenville to eat at Doe’s, but it was closed due to a death in the family.

Clarke recalls checking into a hotel in London years ago when a man looked at his luggage and said, “Hello, mate, I see you are from Mississippi. Do you ever eat at Doe’s in Greenville?”

Several years ago the film crew for the award-winning movie “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” came to town, shooting scenes on the C&G Railroad tracks behind Fratesi’s Store in Leland and on the Yazoo Backwater Levee in the South Delta. George Clooney and John Goodman brought their group to Doe’s and had a wonderful time. When it came time to pay, Clooney pulled out his newly issued credit card only to find out embarrassingly that it had not yet been activated. His secretary came to the rescue with hers and paid the bill. The girls at Doe’s recall Mr. Clooney as being very handsome and an extremely cordial, nice man.

Professional sportsmen from all over have dined at Doe’s. Native Louisianan, four-time Super Bowl Champion quarterback and national sports commentator Terry Bradshaw has been to Doe’s at least four times. Archie and Olivia Manning and their boys, Peyton, Eli and Cooper have been to Doe’s numerous times. During the thirty years of the Jesse Brent Memorial Golf Tournament, Archie missed only two times because of conflicts. During each tournament, Archie and many of the sports celebrities ate at Doe’s on Saturday night.

 

So, what is it that brings people from all over the world to the Delta, and specifically to the old grocery store/juke joint turned world famous award-winning James Beard American Classic Restaurant? Why did Jane and Michael Stern proclaim Doe’s Eat Place to be America’s best steak dinner in two consecutive issues of their nationally acclaimed travel guides to American eating? Bon Appétit magazine rated Doe’s the third best steakhouse in America reaping Doe’s national television coverage. What brought Alton Brown and Bobby Flay of the Food Network to Doe’s? Why have top ranked magazines written articles and columns about the smoky little restaurant with mismatched tablecloths and uneven floors? What keeps bringing professional sports figures, politicians, national news analysts, writers, artists, musicians and movie stars to Doe’s in the heart of the Delta?

All you have to do to answer those questions is to understand the heart and soul of the Delta. We are a mixing pot of nationalities, races and ethnic origins. There is something about the tragedies, tribulations and triumphs we have all endured that bring us together. Doe’s started out as an Italian family-owned grocery store turned jukehouse serving bootlegged beer and hot tamales out of the front room. A Syrian grocery store was next door and a Chinese grocery store flanked each adjacent block.

A local doctor asked Big Doe to cook him a steak one night between calls and he came back again with a lawyer friend. The black bootlegged beer-drinking bunch came in the front and the carriage trade dining crowd began to come in the back door. Discrimination in reverse. Soon, the jukehouse was closed and in 1941 the restaurant began serving steaks, tamales, spaghetti, chili and salads fulltime. Today there are two family-owned restaurants and six franchises across the South.

Aunt Florence Signa began dating Big Doe’s brother, and her future husband, in 1944 and took a job frying potatoes so she could be close to Jughead as he opened oysters. She has now worked at the kitchen table at Doe’s for 66 years making salads. Recently we calculated that she has made over a million and a half salads. That’s a lot of lettuce and loads of lemons and olive oil.

Asked about that remarkable undertaking, Aunt Florence nonchalantly comments, “Well, a lot of our guests that have eaten salads here got a hug from me as they came through the kitchen—and, when they left.”

So, just do the math. Hugs make hungry folks feel at home in the Delta.

Delta Magazine/The Ultimate Insider’s Guide/2014

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