Hank Burdine is a writer, raconteur and bon vivant, a big-hearted, loud-drawling, whiskey-loving son of Greenville, Mississippi. I met him soon after I moved to the Mississippi Delta from New York City, in a sudden rash decision that seemed like madness to almost everyone I knew. I had gone to the Delta for a picnic with a friend — Martha Foose, the cookbook writer —and fallen in love with her father’s house. It was a stately old plantation home with some land on the Yazoo River, and he was selling it for next to nothing, in New York terms, so I took the plunge and persuaded my girlfriend to move there with me.
[dropcap letter=”L”]eaving downtown Manhattan for the mosquito-infested swamps, fields, decaying towns, tangled race relations and deep eccentricity of the Mississippi Delta is probably the biggest culture shock you can experience in this country. For me, it was doubly intense, because I grew up in London, England. Hank Burdine was tickled to have an “Anglishman” on his home ground. He took it on himself to school me in the lifeways of the Delta, a vast alluvial plain stretching from Memphis to Vicksburg where Mississippi has achieved a kind of barrel-strength distillation.
Hank taught me how to hunt ducks, and stab wild hogs with a huge knife, and marinate bullfrogs in champagne before frying them. He loaned me essential books on the Delta from his library, and told me about a hundred of the wildest, funniest stories I’d ever heard. He gave me an Italian shotgun, poured a lot of good whiskey, and perhaps best of all, he introduced me to Doe’s Eat Place.
I’ve spent most of my adult life travelling, and I love red meat. I’ve eaten incredible steaks on the pampas of Argentina, grilled over fragrant quebracho blanco wood. I’ve gorged on the famous butter-seared steaks at Peter Lugers in Brooklyn. Mexican cowboys, African river runners, and a Michelin-starred chef in Paris have also cooked me memorable steaks. But there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather eat a steak than rickety old Doe’s in Greenville, Mississippi.
We ride up there on a hot summer night in Hank’s farm truck, with iced beverages in Styrofoam cups. Like so many people in the Delta, Hank swears by ‘Styro’, because your drink won’t sweat through it. But he’s more concerned than most about its 10,000-year half-life in the environment, so he washes and reuses his 16-ounce Styrofoam cups until they get good and worn.
Coming into Greenville, we pass the elegant old Washington County courthouse with its cupola on the roof. Back in the old days, says Hank, they just took you directly upstairs when you were sentenced to hang, put a noose around your neck, and threw you out of the cupola. “They had no need of a gallows,” he clarifies. From a rough river town, Greenville developed into the artistic and intellectual capital of the Mississippi Delta, and once boasted more published writers per head of population than any town in America. Shelby Foote, William Alexander Percy, Walker Percy and Ellen Douglas were the jewels in that crown.
Now most of Greenville — like most towns in the Delta — has an ailing, crumbling, blighted look. The cotton boom is long gone, crime and poverty have ravaged the black community, and whites have departed in droves. Nelson Street, which used to be a famous strip of bars, restaurants, blues clubs and nightspots on the black side of town, is now mostly shuttered and derelict, although the drug trade is thriving, along with prostitution and robbery. “It’s a pretty tough street,” says Hank, cruising along it and parking in the weeds outside 502 Nelson Street, also known as Doe’s Eat Place. A long line of mostly white people is waiting outside the old sagging building, sipping on beers and other drinks.
Hank points to what looks like a police officer lounging in the back of an old Ford pick-up, and keeping an eye on things. “He’s got a badge and a gun, but he’s no cop,” says Hank. “That’s Joe. He’s my cousin.” This remark
puzzles me, because Joe is African American, and Hank is white. “His uncle worked for my mama for 50 years, and called himself Charlie Sykes Burdine, so that makes us cousins,” Hank explains. In a deep Delta dialect that’s hard to decipher, the two men start bantering and roaring with laughter about old times and little blue pills, and a man who calls his favorite whiskey John Daniels, not Jack Daniels, for the following reason: “When you know him as well as I do, you call him by his real name.”
There are times in the Mississippi Delta when everything feels slightly askew and twisted and off to the side, when contradictions hang in the thick humid air like mist over a swamp, and eccentricity feels as normal as rain or madness. Coming here as an outsider is like stepping into an alternate reality, where the normal rules of cause and effect don’t apply, and things have been this way for so long that they continue unquestioned. It’s one of things I love about the Delta, and it’s writ large at Doe’s Eat Place.
You walk in through a battered screendoor into what used to be the front room of an Italian-owned grocery store. The owner Dominic Signa, “Big Doe,” served hot tamales and bootlegged beer to his black customers in this room, while his white friends came in the back to eat steaks in the kitchen. The steaks got so popular that in 1941 he closed down the beer joint in the front room, and reconfigured the building into a restaurant called Doe’s Eat Place, serving steaks, hot tamales, spaghetti, salad and chili. He installed a blast-furnace broiler in the front room, where his grandson, Paul Signa, is grilling gigantic handcut steaks and pouring with sweat.
The temperature in the room is well over a hundred degrees. The walls are covered in scraps of memorabilia. There’s a statue of a dog wearing a crown, and fridge full of cold beer. Customers wander in and out, helping themselves to beers on the honor system. From the hot-as-hell front room, you walk back into the hot kitchen, where people are frying French fries, stirring pots of tomato sauce known as “red gravy” for spaghetti, and washing dishes in the sink.
90-year-old Aunt Flo has been making salads here since 1944, when she started dating Big Doe’s brother Uncle Jughead. Hank calculated recently that she’d made 1,400,850 salads, and since she hugs every customer when they arrive, and again they leave, and often several more times, that means that Aunt Flo has given out at least three million of her lovely, tender, heartfelt hugs.
There are tables in the kitchen with red-checked plastic tablecloths, and more tables in the “new room” in the back (it was added in the 1960s). Hank takes me to a table in the side room off the kitchen, where the window air conditioner unit doesn’t struggle as badly as some of the others.
“This was the kids’ bedroom,” he says, unscrewing the cap on a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, and pouring a long measure in his Styro cup. “You had to come through here to use the bathroom, but nobody wanted to wake the kids up, so you’d go to the bathroom before you came to Doe’s. Mama would always go at Joe Bordelon’s Gulf station which had the only heated toilet seat in town.”
Uncle Jughead would sit in the bathroom opening oysters, and passing them through a hatch in the wall into the kitchen. “You had to watch Uncle Jug,” says Hank. “A Mississippi Power and Light cable gave him 10 million volts and cut a groove in his head. He wore a big wrap bandage around it, so we called him Jughead. The first time Aunt Flo was supposed to go on a date with him, he was working, so he got her frying French fries in the kitchen, and she’s been here ever since.”
I look around, struggling to take it all in: the ancient taxidermied ducks, the signed celebrity photographs, the James Beard award in the far corner, the olive oil stored in washed-out Heinz ketchup bottles, an old knife holding a broken door shut, the worn linoleum floor with the wood underneath showing through, the dust and grease and dirt on the walls and ceiling.
A tourist at the next table makes the mistake of asking the waitress for a menu. “We don’t have menus,” she says. “What kind of steak do you want?” He’s not sure so she comes back with four huge slabs of raw beef, and invites him to pick one. The porterhouse is a full three pounds. The mighty sirloin is five pounds. There’s also a monster T-bone, and a two-inch-thick filet, which Hank and I order with hot tamales and a salad.
When his drink runs out, Hank says, “I better make a patch,” and fills up his cup with ice and whiskey. “Better patch mine too,” I say, using the Delta term for repairing an empty drink. The hot tamales arrive, not wrapped in corn husks like they used to be, but in white parchment paper. The ground beef and corn mixture is loaded with beef fat and hot spices, and thoroughly delicious.
In her 72 years of making salads here, Aunt Flo has never washed one of the big wooden salad bowls that she rubs with garlic, loads up with iceberg lettuce, red onion and tomato, sprinkles with salt, and then douses with olive oil and lemon juice. Washing the bowls would spoil the seasoning in the wood. Nor has she ever come to work wearing anything but a dress. “When Big Doe was here, all the women had to be part of the family, and they all had to wear dresses,” say Hank. “They would sit at the front table smoking cigarettes.”
Then he remembers the time that Liza Minelli and a gentleman friend came here. They made fun of Aunt Mattie, one of the Signa clan, when she asked for an autograph. “Me and Catfish Rich were there,” says Hank. “Aunt Mattie was upset, and we love Aunt Mattie. So we got on Liza Minelli and that man. We gave them unmitigated hell. They left through the back door.”
Hank stands up and fetches the dusty old dog-eared visitor’s book. He points out Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Red Foxx and other celebrities who have signed it. Morgan Freeman, who lives in the Delta, is a regular customer here. Julia Reed, like Hank, practically grew up in Doe’s. Julia’s father Clarke Reed is a big Republican honcho, and he brought William F Buckley, Bob Novak, and the former British ambassador here. More recently, George Clooney was here, and tried to pay with a credit card that wasn’t activated yet.
Unless you act rude like Liza Minelli and her date, Doe’s is probably the most friendly and welcoming steak house on the planet. Conversation flows back and forth across the tables, because it feels like everyone is eating together in a Delta-Italian family kitchen. Hank puts another patch on his drink and goes circulating to see old friends and make new ones. He meets a woman from North Mississippi who turns out to be related to his late friend Trader John Weathersby, who used to go squirrel-hunting in Delta National Forest on the back of an elephant named Suzy.
Then a waitress holding a big tray of steaks calls us back to the table, and the main event gets underway. My filet is perfectly seared with a char on the outside, and rare in the middle. It’s tender but not mushy, and as deeply richly flavored as you always hope a steak will be. “Oh damn that’s good,” says Hank, who has eaten here a thousand times. “That’s slap-your-mama good.” It comes with perfectly cooked French fries, and that’s it. No vegetables, no dessert. Just a truly great steak in a place like no other.
Written by Richard Grant / Photography by Rory Doyle