Doe Signa, Jr.
Doe’s Eat Place
502 Nelson Street
Greenville, MS 38701
[W]hen I was a kid, we had a little shed in the
back [behind the restaurant], and we let the husks dry out [in there].
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 [shed] packing-up shucks. – Doe Signa, Jr.
Located in Greenville on Nelson Street—once
the epicenter of Delta Blues culture—Doe’s Eat Place
tells the complicated story of Italian immigration, Delta foodways,
and Mississippi social history. In the 1930s, the restaurant’s
founder, Dominick “Doe” Signa, was working at the Greenville
Air Base, where he acquired a recipe for hot tamales from an unnamed
co-worker. Doe left the air base in 1941 to take over his father’s
1903 vintage grocery store. He soon began selling hot tamales to
the neighborhood’s largely black clientele. Word spread and
the white community came calling for Doe’s tamales, as well
as traditional Italian fare such as spaghetti and meatballs. For
generations, tamale cravings have been satisfied by coffee cans
filled with hot tamales passing out those doors. Today, Doe Signa,
Jr. carries on the tradition his father started so many decades
ago, ensuring Doe’s Eat Place’s station as a cultural
and culinary icon of the Mississippi Delta.
to this 3-minute audio
clip of Doe Signa, Jr. talking about making hot tamales and
sharing a story about the family’s secret recipe. [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, Doe’s
Eat Place-Greenville, MS
Date: April 7, 2005
Location: Doe’s Eat Place, side dining room
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.
And you pass out this nice little history
to everybody who comes through here of the restaurant, but I wonder
if you could go back a little further and 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…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 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.
And that was 1903 that the grocery opened?
Probably—yeah. Whenever it has in that thing
right there, yeah [meaning the flyer given out to customers, which
contains a short history of Doe’s Eat Place].
Do you have any idea of what kind of goods
they sold in the grocery store?
I really don't. I'm--I know that--I know that down
at my mother's place it was just a general mercantile place like
you know little canned goods and different things. I do remember
that. This--the Doe--it was a little bit before my time here but
I do remember down there because I would go down there and visit
her [Phone Rings]--my mother's mother and daddy a lot and stuff
like that when I was a kid and stuff like that, you know. So now
here I don't really know. But I know that they sold a lot of little
stuff out here and you know I--they might have even sold tamales.
They might have started making the tamales out here and selling
them out here kind of along with the grocery business you know and
stuff like that.
Do you have any idea where that tamale recipe
I want to say that--and [my brother] Charles can verify
this, too, because he you know knows a lot more than I do about
that. I want to say they got it from somebody--somebody gave it
to them kind of and then who I don't know. And they kind of modified
it and took away and added a little bit and this, that, and the
other and that's how they kind of got it like that. But I don't
know exactly who.
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.
Oh, sure. 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 50 dozen a week or something,
you know but—yeah, it's--it's real labor intensive--it sure
Well and y'all have that--I'm going to call
it an extruder but I don't know what it is.
Yeah, it's a little tamale machine--they call it--yeah.
When did y'all start using that?
That's daddy's second machine. He's had two. This
is his second machine, and he's used them all along. Well when he
first started from what I--I think--I think from what I understand
he had like a little hand crank that didn't put out too many
at one time, but then he eventually went to Texas. They come out
of San Antonio, if I'm not mistaken, and he got one there and then
I think he got another one and I don't--this one I think cost at
the most $2,000--at the most, I think. And Charles, my brother in
Oxford, purchased one from basically the same area. I don't know
if it was the same company or not--and I think he paid like way
up there. I don't know--he can maybe verify that, but--but you know--but
they--they're pretty expensive and stuff, you know.
Well that first hand crank machine that your
father used, did he make that?
No, he had to buy--he bought that, too. Yeah, you
can buy [that] stuff like that you know.
And was that early on that he had that?
Oh, well I'm sure it was like in the [nineteen] fifties
maybe, somewhere around there, you know.
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. Can I say that? I can
say that. Yeah, yeah. It used to be all white here--here--all--everything,
back to the levy. 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
And so he was serving the black community
from the front and serving tamales and--
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.
And what about this being a honky-tonk, too?
Is there music and partying going on?
Well it could have been--you know I don't remember
that; that's a little bit before my time, you know. I just kind
of--I'm reading kind of what you're reading, so-- [Laughs]
Charles is responsible for this? [The handout
of Doe’s history that is given out to customers.]
Yeah; it sounds good anyhow. [Laughs]…But you
know I do know that like--I know daddy had like--like a church bench
outside, you know something where everybody would kind of sit out
there and sit around and, you know, stuff like that. I do know that--that
was told to me a bunch of times, you know.
And did they always--when did they start serving
these huge steaks, Porterhouse steaks?
They would be in the '40s, 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
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…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. [Laughs]
So are y'all using the exact same tamale recipe
that your dad used?
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
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
Do you remember when it was that you changed
to the parchment?
I don't; Charles may--can tell you but I don't know.
It's been a while; it's been a pretty good while. I don't know.
Well how many…hot tamales…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
forty or fifty dozen or something you know which is--that's about
an average day, you know.
And y'all still do take-away business?
Uh-hmm, take-out yeah, well—yeah, we have hot
tamales to go all day, you know, that type thing but not anything--not
really any lunch.
Have y'all always done that? Did your dad
do that with the tamales--take away?
Yeah, we've had—yeah, we've always had that,
Do you eat many of the hot tamales y'all make?
Not a whole lot. I love the steaks. Now I'll eat the
fool out of those steaks. My cholesterol--I'd hate to go see what
it is. [Laughs] But we--we sure sell a bunch of them.
Can you talk about the schedule of making
them because I know the other day when we were here, y'all were
basically just on a normal week we'll make them on Tuesday--cook
the meat and stuff on Tuesdays and grind it up and season it and
put it in the refrigerator and run them off on Wednesdays. Now during
the winter months when it gets cold or--or from about October and
November to January and February usually we just make them when
we--as we need them, which is usually a couple of times a week--maybe
on a Tuesday and a Thursday because the sales increase a lot when
it gets colder and stuff like that.
And then when you sell them to go in a can--
Can--tin can, yeah we do--we do; we get them from
schools and stuff here.
Yeah, the schools save them and then Sunflower Grocery
saves them for us and stuff--Super Value I mean; they save them
Did that originate with your dad just out
Uh-hmm, yeah. Daddy used to do all that, yeah.
Is there anything you might--could share--choose
to share about the recipe in the hot tamales?
No. I can tell you something though that's really
funny--another little story. When I went to daddy and told him you
know I wanted to get married and you know all the stuff like that
then he said--you know he--of course, Italian people they don't
talk a lot. You know they just kind of--you know they just don't
trust too many people either I don't think; I don't know. But anyway
he said, “Now look, I'm going to tell you now,” he said,
“It's fine you're getting married and everything, but don't
tell your wife the hot tamale recipe because if she gets mad she
may marry somebody else and they may go--they may go make hot tamales,”
you know. So I said Daddy, “You know there's a thousand hot
tamale recipes out there.” But that's just a little deal,
you know. But it's your basic stuff--chili powder and different
things in it and stuff like that you know.
How would you say yours are different from
a lot of the other tamales that are out in the Delta?
Well one reason is--is that we put them in the paper.
That's--that makes them different. Taste wise I don't know--we just
use like a plain white cornmeal, like if you're making corn bread
home--we use that kind of meal. Now some of them they use a masa
meal which is the flour--it has a little bit more of a floury texture--don't
know, but then--but I think basically the same ingredient is in
all of them basically you know and I think the shuck makes it taste
better--the corn shuck…I think the corn shuck makes it taste
Yeah? Why do you think?
Because of the corn flavor; it gives it a little bit
better flavor…I have been known to--to get some corn shucks
and when I'm cooking them up front throw them on top of the hot
tamales--just throw them and let them steam with the--you know give
them that little flavor you know. I have been known to do it but
I ain't done it lately. [Laughs]
Well and I would imagine the parchment kind
of keeps a lot of the sauce out--?
Yeah, it holds the tamale a lot firmer than the--than
the shuck does--than the corn shuck, and it--because it--sometimes
in the corn shuck if you don't watch them good, if they get to boiling
too hard they'll boil out. Some of them will just boil out of there,
Are there some other hot tamales in the Delta
that you like to try?
Never have…No, I ain't tried any of them. I
really haven't. I haven't tried anything.
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