The Birth of Doe’s Eat Place

The following is an excerpt from Paul V. Canonici’s The Delta Italians, a two-volume work published by the author in 2013 that is “a compilation of stories and experiences of early Italian settlers in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta. Some of the content is documented history, but most consists of bits and pieces of family stories that have survived the test of time and memory.” Those among you with a deep and abiding interest in the history of the Mississippi Delta would be well-advised to purchase a copy of Fr. Canonici’s work.

Salvadore Signa said in a 1976 interview that he was born in 1902 in a small shotgun house, St. Michael’s Parish, Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from Donaldsonville. His father Carmelo Signa worked in the sugar cane fields. When Salvador was still an infant, Carmelo moved his family to Vicksburg and worked in a fruit stand at the corner of Clay and Washington Streets. In 1912, when Salvador was ten years old, Carmelo Signa moved to Greenville and opened a grocery store at the corner of Hinds and Nelson Streets. The Signa family lived in a small house behind the store in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

Carmelo Signa and his wife Mattea Maucelli had twelve children: Lena, Carmelo, Jr., Frances, Dominic E., Antonia, Josephine, Sarah, Paule, Rosalie, Frank, Santo and Lucille. Son Salvador had a career with the post office. Dominic work for the Corps of Engineers but on weekends off and off-time he joined his wife Mamie in helping out in his father’s business. “Papa’s Store”, as it was known, thrived in the community until 1927. That year the Great Flood pushed the Mississippi River out of its banks and consumed much of the riverside community that Papa’s Store was located in and depended on. The community around Nelson Street was eventually rebuilt. Carmelo decided to open a honky tonk in the front part of the store. The honky tonk became a popular gathering and entertainment place for the black community surrounding Nelson Street.

In the back of the old store there was a small kitchen where Carmelo’s son, Dominic “Big Doe” Signa and his wife Mamie prepared food such as buffalo fish, catfish and chili for patrons of the honky tonk. On weekends Dominic prepared meals for a group of professionals—doctors and lawyers—who got together and bought him a specially-made grill, and in 1941 someone gave Mamie a partial recipe for traditional Delta-style hot tamales. She improved on the recipe and began selling them at the honky tonk. This was the beginning of Doe’s Eat Place.

Big Doe relied on the help of family and friends to keep up with the demands of his thriving new restaurant. Eventually he closed down the honky tonk to expand and stay focused on the Eat Place. The added space allowed Big Doe and Mamie to prepare a full course meal for their patrons including Mamie’s marinated salad and fresh cut French fries prepared in a cast iron skillet. Despite the added space, the eat Place’s growing popularity never allowed for the dining tables to be removed from the kitchen where several remain to this day. Mamie passed away on November 5, 1955. Dig Doe Signa retired in 1974 and turned the Eat Place over to his sons Charles and Dominic “Little Doe” Signa. Dig Doe passed away on April 29, 1987.

Though time has taken its toll on the old building once known as Papa’s Store, the tradition of the family Eat Place hasn’t changed. Today, when you walk in the front door of the former honky tonk on Nelson Street, you’ll be greeted in the front kitchen where Little Doe cooks steaks for the locals, as well as travelers who have gone miles out of their way to make the pilgrimage to this icon of the South. He uses the same grill that was specially made for Big Doe. There’s nothing fancy about it. It’s simply good people carrying on the delicious Delta tradition of mouthwatering steaks and hot tamales.

Photo by Euphus Ruth, Jr.

 

33 Replies to “The Birth of Doe’s Eat Place”

  1. My job has taken me from the left coast to the right coast. I’ve eaten steaks at Don Shuler’s in Miami, Dieadorf’s and Hart’s in St. Louis and multiple other “so called” steak houses including Ruth Chris’. You can get a better steak than that you’ll get at Doe’s Eat Place. The steak, salad and Hot Tamales are the absolute best.

  2. Totally brings back good warm memories of my family eating there many times years ago throughout the years. I occasionally go back from time to time to revisit my memories. Wonderful food, I have never been disappointed.

  3. Grew up goining in the kitchen getting those wonderful tamales in the 60’s …we had a great time sharing great food ! So glad to know we still can .

  4. It was in the early 50s. My Dad took my mother to Doe’s and she refused to go in. After a big argument, she relented, and boy was she glad. It was (and probably still is) a fantastic place to eat.

  5. I lived in Belzoni from 1973 and 74. I rented a car in Jackson and the counter clerk told me about Doe’s. She said some of her family owned it and she invited me to meet her there. I did and continued to go there quite often. It is a fond memory of a great steak and tamales.

  6. Grew up in Gville. As a matter of fact, Frank “Jugg Head” Signa & Florence (Strazi) lived net door to me when I was very young. Remember when their first daughter, Mary Frances, was born (1951). My Mother, Georgia Childress, helped Florence w/the newborn (after having six of her own). We have the “secret recipe” of the salad dressing. Florence has always been a part of our family & I have a lot of good memories of Doe’s place Recently while being w/family in FL, my niece that still lives in Gvill brought tamales. Never live Gville wout a Can!

  7. ATE AT DOES IN 1965 /BAND DIRECTOR CARMEL SIGNA TOOK SIX STUDENTS FROM LAMBERT HIGH TO DOE’S TO MEET SIGN’A AND EAT /WE ENJOYED HOME MADE AND WRAPPED TAMALE’S AND A HUGE SIRLOIN THAT MELTED IN OUR MOUTHS ALONG WITH MEETING ALL THE SIGNA’S //VERY NICE PEOPLE

  8. I grew up in Greenville. My dad and Doe worked together on the river and our family went to the kitchen at Doe’s. Back in the 30’s it was o.k. for us to help Mamie roll hot tamales and we spent many Saturday night in that kitchen rolling tamales. My mother worked with Josephine at Jay’s Dress Shop on Washington Avenue after my dad died.

  9. My dad and I met an Air Force officer in the University of Wyoming Athletic Field House looking at my dad’s football photos, introduced ourselves from Greenville and the officer asked if Doe’s is still there. A friend, Mike Westerman, on a flight to Rio de Janerio, Brazil from Miami had a seat mate that asked if he would like to share some hot tamales and Mike asked where he got them–yes, Doe’s in Greenville. The two told stories of growing up in Greenville.

  10. My father, Ralph Levy and Doe Signa were childhood friends. My mom (Gertrude Isenberg) and dad ate at Doe’s for as long as I can remember.

    When I was a young boy, the Signa kids (Or Carmel at least) were usually there asleep in the back room.

    On several occasions I napped there till Mom and Dad were ready to leave.

    These were the days of naked light bulbs hanging from ceiling, newspaper on floor, cash register was a cigar box and the 2 “new additions” were not there.

  11. My wife and I will be married 60 years on April 21, 2016. Our first date was having dinner at Doe’s on Aug 16 1954. Split a dozen hot tamales @ 60cents for the dozen and each had a plate of pasta. We still drive down from our Cordova (Memphis) TN. home about once a year to “dine for old times.”
    There’s no place like Doe’s, especially for us.

  12. Another little known fact about Doe’s. My father Joe Hobart made Doe’s first tamale making machine. Last time I was there I wondered about it but they had another machine. Wonder what they did with the old one. Went to the scrap heap I guess. I still smile when I think of it and my Daddy.

  13. Hola! I’ve been following your weblog for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from
    Houston Texas! Just wanted to mention keep up the good work!

  14. I love this place. I was consulting for a company in Greenville. They took us for drinks at the country club and then said we weren’t dressed well enough to eat at this restaurant but they would let us enter through the kitchen. I had to be the one that asked for a menu which brought rounds of laughter. They brought out a tray with the biggest raw steaks I had ever seen in my life. When I read that it had been covered by the Washington Post many times and that Lisa Minelli and many other celebrities had flown in on their private jets to dine there, I was more than a bit surprised. The newspapers stuffed into the broken windows was real. The neighborhood was iffy, at best. The food was superb and I loved every moment of my visit. This was in the 70’s.

    1. My dad took my fiance here but told him he might not be dressed up enough. He was so surprised. He also asked for a menu and got the above treatment of a tray of huge raw steaks and he did order a big one.
      When we were growing up at least once a month or more Daddy would take a big iron pot to Doe’s after asking how many dozen tamales we wanted. He brought them home and the meal was always the same: cornhusk wrapped tamales, saltine crackers, Pepsi and dill pickles… Doesn’t get much better than that.

  15. I was born in Michigan and now live in South Carolina. I have traveled the whole USA and part of Europe and Doe’s was the very BEST place for steaks!!!! It is very unique and a must visit whenever you are in Greenville, Miss.

  16. In the early 70’s, I was a bank examiner for the State of Arkansas. When we were assigned to a bank in far SE Arkansas, we would stay in Greenville and would go to Does at least twice during the week. I remember cold beer, excellent tamales and steak

  17. I grew in Tunica in the North part of the Mississippi Delta, occasionally we played football against Greenville Christian or Deer Creek in Leland. After the game my Mother and Father would take me and a few teammates to Doe’s, I’m talking 1979-81. It was such a treat and we loved the food and atmosphere.

    I am fortunate to have a job from the early 90’s to present day giving tours of The Delta showing farmers from around the country what The Delta is all about. Doe’s is always a stop we make. Even Texan’s are impressed with the steaks.

    It has not changed one bit since my High School days! I am thankful for that.

  18. I live in Athens GA but was “born and raised” in Indianola. When I was dating in the late 60s and early 70s, there was no higher compliment from your date than if he took you to Doe’s! Thank goodness someone mentioned the salad dressing. Even the crackers were the best ever. Ha! I’ll never forget the times spent there and hope to go again. (I still visit friends there, at least once a year.)

  19. That’s a photo of my Great Grandfather Salvatore Signa, and My Grandfather Dominic Vincent, his sister Lena and brothers Carmelo and Giacchino (Jack). Salvatore was the brother of Carmelo Sr that started the grocery store. Salvatore died shortly after this photo and my grandfather Dominic Vincent was raised by his Uncle Carmelo.

    Love Doe’s, my God Mother Rosalie Signa Prewit worked there, visited often as a child. Great Tamales!!

    1. Vincent, my name is Richard Myers and I was a student at Delta State when I and other friends were driven down to Doe’s in Greenville by a female student whose last name was Signa. I remember her face but cannot remember her first name. We dined for free at Doe’s (a really special treat for hungry students). When we left, a nice lady who I assumed was the mother of the female student presented each of us with dozens of tamales wrapped in newspaper. The year was 1960. As I wrote this I thought I might find the answer to my question in my old Delta State yearbook and sure enough, I found the answer to my question. The young lady was Martha Signa. I wonder where she is today. I am Richard Myers with the email address: richardmyers@centurytel.net. Written on 4 /19/19

  20. My wife and I were both born and raised in Vicksburg, married, went to Ole Miss then traveled over 25 years for graduate school and Army service. We go back to Mississippi about every year or so and always try to eat at least one meal at Doe’s. I personally think Solly’s hot tamales are better than Doe’s, but you cannot beat the steaks or the experience at Doe’s… Interestingly enough my wife and several friends would have grown up in Greenville had it not been for the 1927 flood during which many Greenville folks were evacuated to V’burg…thanks for the very interesting post and best wishes

  21. I have eaten at Doe’s many, many times. The hot tamales USED to be the BEST. Nowadays they are not worth a flip. I have had numerous people tell me the same thing and said they have quit buying them. The flavor of their steaks is great, but, for the price of a couple of bone in ribeye’s at Doe’s, you can almost buy a whole ribeye. They are way too pricey in my opinion. I’m not trying to bash them in any way, but just giving my honest opinion.

  22. In 1975 BASF introduced the first over-the-top broadleaf herbicide for soybeans. Basagran primilary controlled cocklebur. As a BASF salesman I was required to hold 60 farmer meetings the next year. Doe’s seemed the logical choice. On 2 different nights I paid for every seat in Doe’s. The next year the “back room” was built and the rest is history. Doe’s was an integral part of BASF’s success in the Mississippi Delta. Many agricultural and tow boat deal were consummated in the back room of Doe’s.

  23. In the 1940’s to the 50’s my daddy had the Commercial Appeal (Memphis TN newspaper) distributor ship in Greenville. We traded leftover papers for hot tamales. They used the papers to wrap the packages of tamales for the customers . I took a date to Doe’s and ended up with not enough money to pay the tab they laughed and said bring them some papers.

  24. My grandfather hunted with Doe and every time I went there for hot tamales take out Doe insisted on comping them. I was Carmel’s dance partner in margarita Fontaine’s dance recital. What precious memories!

  25. I grew up in Vicksburg but my grandmother and family lived in Greenville. Their name was Wall. My grandfather owned the iron factory and the first car agency, which had all makes in the early 1900’s. Their last house was on Washington Avenue. When the last family member that lived in the house passed my two daughters and I went to clean out the house for future sale. We told my mother we were going to Doe’s to eat. She was horrified. She said “ Doe Signa’s? You can’t go to that part of town “. We replied it was fine. Movie stars flew in to eat there. When we got there and a guard escorted us in and out I wondered if maybe Mama was right. We thoroughly enjoyed it. But went back years later and they had enlarged the eating area ( we had previously eaten off the kitchen) and it was so crowded. Wasn’t the same but food was good.

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