Doe Signa, Jr.
[O]n Friday night…when the business started going real good, [my father] would put a little bowl of shrimp on the table like this for everybody on Friday nights because like Catholics couldn't eat meat on Friday, and so I guess that's why he did it. I don't know, but he would put a little bowl of shrimp on the table for everybody back in those days. – Doe Signa, Jr.
His father had been in the business for eleven years when Dominick, Jr., Little Doe, was born in 1952. He grew up in the kitchen. His world swirled with aunts and uncles, steaks and tamales. The youngest of four, Little Doe remembers playing with his brothers and sisters and other neighborhood kids in what is now the restaurant’s side dining room. It took a while, though, before he became serious about the business. After attending Moorehead Junior College, where he played baseball, and Delta State University, where he played football, Little Doe returned to Greenville and Doe’s Eat Place. Along with his older brother Charles, he took the reigns from his father and mastered his signature recipes and techniques. Doe, Sr. passed away in 1987, but his sons still carry on the tradition that he started more than sixty years earlier. Every night, Little Doe can be found standing in the same place on the same floor, working the mammoth steak broiler, just as his father once did.
Listen to this 3-minute audio clip of Doe Signa, Jr. talking about his father, Doe Signa, and what it was like growing up in the restaurant. [Windows Media Player required. Go here to download the player for free.] What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
SUBJECT: Doe Signa, Jr., owner
DATE: April 7, 2005
LOCATION: Doe’s Eat Place-Greenville, MS
INTERVIEWER: Amy Evans
Amy Evans: This is Amy Evans for the Southern Foodways Alliance on Thursday, April 7, 2005. I'm in Greenville, Mississippi at Doe's Eat Place with little Doe Signa; and Mr. Signa, would you mind saying your whole name and also your birth date for the record, if you don't mind.
Doe Signa: My birth date is July 12, 1952; the first name is Dominick and they got Doe from Dominick. How they did that, I don't know. And then the last name is Signa, S-i-g-n-a.
[Can you] talk about your grandparents and how they actually came to Greenville and from where.
Okay; I don't really know about my grandparents as much. Now Charles may be able to fill that in for you…But I do know that my parents and specifically my daddy lived in Vicksburg; that's where my daddy was. And then he came to Greenville and his family moved to Greenville, but they were in Vicksburg. And they lived in a little house right next door--right behind the place here. That was their family house and then daddy you know just kind of opened up this little business. But basically daddy--my daddy came from Vicksburg and my mother who is a Brocato, she was already here. Now her--her mother and daddy came over on the boat from Italy and--I'm not mistaken--but I think that my grandparents on my daddy's side came over, too. Carmela, that was their name, Carmela Signa. I think they came over, too, but don't ask me what--where they came over from.
Okay, okay; so the grocery--they came here and opened--
Yeah; just a little--like I guess every other Italian little corner grocery stores, you know. [Laughs] As a matter of fact, my mother lived on the next corner just right down the street here and they had a grocery store, too, and then my daddy and my mother just--they knew each other--the families and stuff and I guess they just got married, you know. But yeah, they just had a little family grocery store just selling knickknack things and this, that, and the other and stuff like that.
Do you know anything about the history of tamales in this area?
Well I know that--I know why daddy and them basically did it; it was just another way for them to make money, you know that--and pretty cheaply. You know it wasn't that--wasn't that cost--you know too much cost in it. And then hot tamales just evolved around here. I mean there's more hot tamale places in Greenville than I've ever seen. I mean you know it's just weird; it's like barbecue in Memphis, you know or something. But I don't know why;
I guess it's just an easy way for people to make money and I think people like hot tamales in the Delta--it seems like anyhow.Well but they're so labor intensive. I mean is there--?
Well you saw--yeah; you're right. It is--they're--they're--well they're not that labor intensive if you don't make a lot, you know…But you know we--we--we average you know 250 dozen a week and that's just on a slow time you know--and you know I think some of these other people that are making them, I don't think they're making that many a week. They're maybe making fifty dozen a week or something, you know but--yeah; it's--it's real labor intensive--it sure is.
I can relate a little story too--about daddy and them staying in this little room here. I think they had this and then I think--I think this was another little room they had something in over here, a little storage room in the area or something, I don't know. But anyway, Doctor Fred Bordelon, who's an ENT--eyes, nose, and throat doctor here; he's really funny and he always tells a story. He says yeah, Doe, he said, “I remember when my mother and daddy would come here,” the Bordelon--see they were in the oil business and gasoline business--and what they would do is the mom and daddy would go out here and eat and then Doctor Bordelon would come in here and play with all my brothers--with my brothers and sisters and they'd come in and play and then when they got through eating, they'd just come in the room and get them and take them on home, so you know just stuff like that, you know--just kind of like that, you know--real laid back, you know--stuff like that.
Well let's talk a little bit about kind of the evolution of the place here and it being in this neighborhood and--
Basically, I do remember when I was a child that this used to be white--it used to be all white--here--all--everything, back to the levee. I mean, there used to be some real nice flower shops and--and home and garden--there was a big nice home and garden center here called Seavers--Seavers Florist is what it was, but he grew a lot of his plants. I mean it was a big place over there and then it was just--over the period of years, I guess a lot of these people just kind of got old and--and business kind of moved from up here and kind of--kind of evolved and this--you know just kind of thing. People just started moving in and moving out and moving in and--and basically we're the only white ones on this--in this area right now really to be honest with you; so--
But when your father started serving hot tamales and stuff it was primarily a black clientele, is that--?
Well, it was kind of a black clientele but there was a whole lot of white people living in this area though, you know. But there's--there's always been blacks living--well kind of on down on Nelson; I guess you'd say it will be east--I guess you would say. No, east is that way; it would be south--on down in there and then I guess over the period of years, like I say they kind of evolved back on down this way, but it was really kind of weird. It seemed like everything was backwards. The blacks would come in the front and the whites would come in the back, you know or something. It's kind of--you would think it would be the other way around or something. I don't know--but anyway that's kind of an added, you know.
And so he was serving the black community from the front and serving tamales--
And the whites would come in the back door…Yeah, yeah, and fish and different things and they said bootleg beer, but I never saw any. But I mean I--that's not to say daddy didn't get some. My daddy was something. [Laughs] He--he got a lot of his supplies from the Air Base out--when the war was going on and out there he would go out there and--and buy supplies and different things out there, you know; so--because the Air Base in the '40s was really the--the little airport we have out there, you probably never have ridden out there but you--and I don't even know if they're still out there; I haven't been out there in so long, but they used to have a lot of little huts--little individual houses out there where I guess the military stayed, you know--barracks. That's what I guess you'd call them--barracks--where military stayed out there but I think they've kind of done away with all that stuff out there now.
Can you talk about the kitchen being in the middle with--?
Well that--I think a lot of that has to do with just the availability of space because we're under like a grandfather clause and this kind of basically was a house, I guess you'd say and--and when daddy just started serving, he--they've always--they always had a little stove and stuff out there. And it wasn't--it wasn't--it might not even have been this big; it might have been like that [kitchen in the middle of the restaurant],you know. And so they--it's always been a stove there. And so maybe when they were living here they probably used that as their stove, you know that type of thing and--but it wouldn't even have been commercial, and then finally when the business started getting pretty big and then daddy had to buy a little bit bigger stove out there and stuff like that.
So then the front room was dedicated to cooking as well?
Yeah, yeah; that's where--evidently and Charles can maybe
verify that; I don't know if somebody gave daddy all that unit up there,
you know those--those two or three stoves that are up there or something,
but you know he eventually put that in and that's basically been there
since the '40s, since the--the thing--since the business has been opened;
And did they always--when did they start serving these huge steaks, Porterhouse steaks?
They would be in the forties, yeah; daddy started out doing that for some reason. I mean he just liked everything to be big like that.
Do you know where he got his meat?
He would buy--he never bought like Charles and I buy through brokers, like food companies. He just went around to the grocery stores here in town because everything was so cheap, you know--it was so cheap. I mean you know for a big t-bone or sirloin, you may pay 50 cents a pound you know--you know and this, that, and the other but he just--he would go around to about two or three grocery stores here in town, probably Kroger; there used to be a Liberty Cash here and there used to be an A&P here, and he'd go and he'd call the butchers up and say I'll just--and all he wanted was like the--the middle, the center cuts out of all of them, and he'd go by and get 10 or 12 from him, 10 or 12 from him, 10 or 12 from him, you know that type thing.
And so the butchers would cut them specifically for him?
Cut them--right, yeah, yeah just how daddy wanted them cut. Daddy never cut any meat. He--and Charles and I was the ones that kind of started cutting the meat and stuff like that.
And why is that?
Because the--the evolution of the price is going up a little bit.
Save a little money?
Yeah; save a little money doing that. And then a lot of the trimmings that we trim off the meat we can use in our tamales, too. So it's kind of--we don't really throw anything away.
So are y'all using the exact same tamale recipe that your dad used?
Uh-hmm, basically yeah, yeah, yeah…Well the only thing that is different about them is they're not in corn shucks.
Were they then?
Oh yeah; daddy made all his in corn shucks--sure did.
Do you know where he got the corn shucks?
Yeah; he got--well he ordered a lot of them out of Texas. Daddy--daddy did a lot of stuff out of--ordering them out of Texas, but there was--there was a couple of farmers north of town here that raised a lot of corn and they would you know save daddy the--the husk and all this mess and he would go pick them up and we--I do remember this; when I was a kid we had a little shed in the back--back here, and we let the husks dry out. You have to let them dry out and get kind of almost just crackly, and I do remember that because I spent a many a time out in that back packing up shucks down in the thing. I don't know you know--but I do remember that a little bit though. But he used to get a lot of them like from north of town here and then he'd--he'd order some and stuff like that.
Did y'all just grow up eating hot tamales and steaks?
Well we kind of did and--and you know we didn't eat a lot of it because daddy loved to cook. He would cook a lot of different things you know, and then I had some of his sisters would cook a lot up in here, too, and stay here and do this, that and the other you know. So you know it--we grew up around food--not just actually hot tamales and steaks, but a little bit of everything you know.
Was there much Italian food cooked in the old house?
Well there--there was in the family, but as far as the business we just do the basic spaghetti and meatballs because you know people--you know I mean my aunt and them would used to cook spaghetti sauce and put all different kind of like--put a piece of pork in it, put a piece of beef in it, and then put chicken in it, and then daddy loved to hunt and fish. That's one thing we all grew up around--hunting and fishing. If he killed a rabbit or two, they'd throw that in the gravy too, you know--but it was really good. And they called it--it's really weird, they called it--when they made a big--well see they were so money conscious back in those days because they didn't--you know they didn't have a lot but money when a long way but I mean, they'd have a big pot of spaghetti sauce and I mean, it would be this big for the family. I mean it wouldn't be sold here. But that would have everything in it that you want for the complete meal other than this pasta and maybe a salad or something you know. And they would call it--I never will forget this; they call it zoo gravy.
As in z-o-o?
Yeah--because it had everything in it, like a rabbit, or it had quail and stuff and that's just the--the old Italian way and they still do it. I mean you'd still have old Italian people call stuff like that. It's really weird, you know. [Laughs]
What about the salad y'all serve with the anchovies and the olive mix?
Now we--my aunts--we've always made the salad with lemon juice and olive oil and stuff like that you know. So that's been around a while and daddy has always had anchovies. Now the olive mix is something that I brought in that I kind of--just kind of introduced because--I like the olive mix because I get it in--at Central Grocery in New Orleans a lot you know and so I can order it. It's not actually the Central Grocery; this is Gambino's, which is another deal in--in New Orleans, too. But the customers like it; we just put it on the table for them for their salad, just a little something extra, and you know they think they're getting something and they are getting something that they don't have to pay for, so that's just something we just kind of do for them, you know--stuff like that.
Do you remember when you introduced that?
Oh, that's probably been about a year or so--about a year maybe--not quite a year. I'm always doing crazy stuff you know--this, that, and the other. [Laughs] I mean if I have--a lot of times when I have a good customer come in, I mean that comes in all the time and if he has four, five, six people or something, I'll get a little package of quail and cook for them, and just I won't charge them. I just give them to them and let them eat a quail or something. Daddy used to do a lot of that. As a matter of fact, on Friday night when my daddy was--when the business started going real good, he would put a little bowl of shrimp on the table like this for everybody on Friday nights because like Catholics couldn't eat meat on Friday and so I guess that's why he did it; I don't know but he would put a little bowl of shrimp on the table for everybody back in those days.
Well how many steaks and--and hot tamales and stuff do you think you serve in a night?
Well [Sighs] last--let's just take last night for instance. I didn't sell a whole lot of tamales. We probably sold about--for the whole day probably as far as tamales about maybe 40 or 50 dozen or something you know which is--that's about an average day you know. But then steak wise I think we probably served--wait a minute; I'm trying to think. I probably cooked about--probably about 50 t-bones and sirloins and probably about 25 filets, so probably about 80-some steaks last night. We were just--we were real busy last night. We had just a different group of people in here. We had a lot of young people and then we had some people, you know. It was just kind of a good mixture in here. Chuck Jerdin was in here; he's big into arts and stuff like that. Clarke Reed--they were all in here last night. Julia [Reed, writer and daughter of Clarke Reed]--she doesn't go anywhere else to eat but here when she comes out. It's really weird. I said, “Don't you get tired of coming out here?” I mean she'll be here three nights and if she goes out she'll be here all three nights. But they're real good and they've been real close to our family and real good--you know, she's just really nice.
I bet you get a lot of those regular customers coming through here.
Well we do; we get a lot of people like that. A lot of--what we're getting, too, is a lot of the family of the older mom and daddies that used to come here when daddy was still getting some of the family in here, which is really good you know and stuff like that. Hell, I have a lot of people come in here [and say,] “Oh, I remember when you were running around in here in diapers!” I say well I don't remember any of that you know and stuff like--I mean these older people, you know.
Can you talk a little bit about how you cook the steaks and that process?
Yeah; it's just--it's not really--it's really simple. The stove does all the work. [Laughs] But I just--I mix up a little salt and Tony's Creole Seasoning kind of and put that in that shaker that you--it's a little shaker up front and I just sprinkle it over steak and then put a little olive--I have--keep a little brush and I just brush a little olive oil over it and then just throw it in there and then as it cooks it drops the juice down in this little pan you know and we put that back over the steak. And that's--everything is just kind of simple--real simple. Not any charcoal or anything; it's just gas--all gas.
Well let's see; let's talk about the interior of this place just a little bit. How much if anything has changed over the years in--?
Well I don't know; well the stove has changed. It's changed about two months ago [Laughs]. We got a new stove. But not a whole lot has changed. I mean we just kind of try to keep--keep it clean and maybe clean it up a little bit you know or something like that, but not really a whole lot has changed I don't think, you know. And you still got some of the same tables that was in here when daddy was in here, you know, and stuff like that.
Was that a conscious choice to keep it traditional or is it something that people expect or--?
Well they kind of--it's both--kind of traditional and people expect it you know. They--they--that's what they want you know and I mean you'll go in the room and paint it or put a new ceiling in it or something like this and man they'll say oh man, you're changing this place. What's going on you know and stuff. You know just--they're just used to be the way it is you know and stuff like that you know.
Have y'all ever advertised?
A little bit, you know--not a whole lot--just a little bit. Like we do Yellow Page stuff and you know just your basic stuff but nothing off the wall you know.
Word of mouth has been your advertising.
It really has been you know and then like I say, Daddy never intended to be anything. He just wanted a way to make a living you know. So I'm real thankful to him. I'll tell you what; he's really--really something. I'd always hear, “Oh, y'all are doing so good.” I said, “Yeah, but my daddy is the one kind of”--everybody always said it; I said that yeah, but if it weren't daddy starting this thing you know I'd probably be working in retail somewhere. You know McCrea's or whatever you know or Wal-Mart or something, you know.
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