‘WE’RE LOS­ING A REAL GEM’

Miss Lee’s Good Food, a South Side soul food fix­ture, closes as owner re­tires

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BUSINESS - By Alexia Ele­jalde-Ruiz

For 21 years, Lee Ho­gan felt called to cook.

“God gave me a gift,” said Ho­gan, owner of Miss Lee’s Good Food, a fix­ture of the South Side’s soul food scene. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

But all that use has taken a toll. Ho­gan, known to her many ad­mir­ers as Miss Lee, closed her coun­ter­ser­vice eatery in Septem­ber, in ad­vance of hav­ing knee re­place­ment surgery. Now she is sell­ing the busi­ness her reg­u­lars say is one of a kind.

“There’s lots of soul food places, but this is real down-South cook­ing, what we grew up with as chil­dren,” said the Rev. Denise Collins, of Hyde Park, who would fre­quent Miss Lee’s the first Sun­day of ev­ery month. “We’re los­ing a real gem in the com­mu­nity.”

Ho­gan, 75, opened the restau­rant at 203 E. Garfield Blvd., in Wash­ing­ton Park, in Septem­ber 1998, us­ing sav­ings from her 31 years as a wait­ress at Gla­dys’ Lun­cheonette in Bronzevill­e, a his­toric soul food in­sti­tu­tion that has since closed.

“My in­ten­tion was al­ways to open up a place for my­self,” Ho­gan said in a south­ern drawl as she rested against a counter in the restau­rant’s kitchen, her cane propped against a wall.

A na­tive of ru­ral Marks, Mis­sis­sippi, and one of 10 sib­lings, Ho­gan moved to Chicago in 1968 in search of a bet­ter liv­ing than work­ing the cot­ton fields with her fam­ily, which paid about $3 a day.

She landed a late-night shift at the

Hayes Ho­tel in Wood­lawn, orig­i­nally built for the 1893 Columbian Ex­po­si­tion and since closed, but “there were a lot of pimps and hus­tlers, and I didn’t go for that too much,” she laughed. She said she passed the exam to work for the U.S. Postal Ser­vice, but at that point was in the thrall of all the tips she got wait­ing ta­bles.

“I didn’t even have to cash my checks,” Ho­gan said of her years earn­ing tips at Gla­dys Lun­cheonette, whose cus­tomers in­cluded Martin Luther King Jr., co­me­dian Redd Foxx, Oprah Win­frey and Michael Jor­dan.

When the small store­front on Garfield Boule­vard be­came avail­able to rent, Ho­gan felt it time to bring her own food to the neigh­bor­hood. Though she’d watched her mom cook grow­ing up, and learned some tech­niques from a South Shore bar­be­cue joint where she briefly worked, she de­scribes her culi­nary tal­ents in more di­vine terms.

“You’d be sur­prised how He speaks to me,” she said.

Miss Lee’s be­came known for its baked or grilled “herbal chicken,” gen­er­ously sea­soned with Greek or Ital­ian herbs. Each day had a slightly dif­fer­ent menu of about a dozen dishes — smoth­ered steak and onions ($12.25)

“The feel of her restau­rant was like you were step­ping into her home.”

— Tril­lis Rollins, chef at Peach’s at Cur­rency Ex­change Café

on Tues­days, pig ears or salmon cro­quettes ($11.95) on Thurs­days — and she would add new ideas as the spirit moved her.

Take her but­ter­milk pie, a dish she had never heard of be­fore a cus­tomer re­quested it a cou­ple of years af­ter she opened. She tried mak­ing it, swap­ping in but­ter­milk for whole milk, and put it on her menu.

“Two years later, I was mak­ing some and the spirit came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you put lemon in there?’” she said. She’s been sell­ing lemon but­ter­milk pies ever since, along­side her peach, ap­ple and sweet potato cob­blers and other pud­dings and sweets.

Fans say Miss Lee’s stood apart from com­peti­tors.

“The feel of her restau­rant was like you were step­ping into her home rather than a soul food restau­rant,” said Tril­lis Rollins, chef at Peach’s at Cur­rency Ex­change Café a block away, who would go to Miss Lee’s with his friends for her peach cob­bler. “You would think that you were in her kitchen at home.”

“Her cook­ing is like you knew your grandma would make it,” said Collins, who on her monthly Sun­day vis­its would or­der turkey and dress­ing, with a side of string beans and sweet plan­tains while her hus­band, Robert, who grew up in Mis­sis­sippi, would get spinach and but­ter beans. “No one will take the place of Miss Lee’s.”

Though peo­ple call it soul food, Ho­gan prefers to say she made “home­cooked meals” to cus­tomers from all walks of life. She made turkey burg­ers for the “kids” and had a veg­etable plate for her more health-con­scious cus­tomers.

The restau­rant’s fol­low­ing was wide­spread. Three­quar­ters of its busi­ness came from out­side of the neigh­bor­hood, with some cus­tomers trav­el­ing from Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan to eat in the stand­ing-only shop and oth­ers hav­ing her send dishes to Florida, Ho­gan said.

“I sold dress­ings by the pan full,” said Ho­gan, who em­ployed five or six peo­ple at the restau­rant at a given time. “Y’all call it stuff­ing. Blacks in the South call it dress­ing. I don’t ever call it any­thing else.”

Ho­gan counted celebrity cus­tomers of her own, and a stack of pho­tos in­cludes her pos­ing with Mayor Richard M. Da­ley, whose birth­day she catered at City Hall. She was re­spected in her tough neigh­bor­hood, telling the young men who oc­ca­sion­ally would sell drugs out­side her door: “I don’t mess with your busi­ness, so don’t you mess with mine.” They would move along, she said.

Dur­ing more than two decades of busi­ness, through the ups and downs of the econ­omy, Ho­gan said she had very few months with­out profit. She lived sim­ply and was al­ways able to stay afloat.

“God’s been good to me,” said Ho­gan, who lives in Hyde Park. “I tell ev­ery­body that.”

But she got tired. There were the decades on her feet, and the work days that would stretch from 6:30 a.m. un­til past 10 p.m. Look­ing back, it might have helped to hire a man­ager to re­lieve some of the bur­den, she said. She won­ders if she should have en­trusted some­one else to cook her peach cob­bler, rather than in­sist on mak­ing all of her desserts her­self.

Signs in Miss Lee’s win­dows say she is on in­def­i­nite va­ca­tion. But Ho­gan says she is sell­ing the busi­ness — though not the name, which is hers, and not the real es­tate, which she doesn’t own — ideally to some­one who wants to open an­other restau­rant in the same spot, with her dou­ble ovens and deep fry­ers and re­frig­er­a­tors and dozens of gleam­ing pots and pans.

She is not pass­ing on her recipes, for fear they won’t be fol­lowed faith­fully.

“If I thought one per­son would ac­tu­ally do that recipe the way I do it, I would have tried,” Ho­gan said.

While clos­ing was hard — “I felt that I was go­ing to crack up,” she said — be­ing closed has been less so. She has caught up on sleep. Once she sells, she hopes to spend time do­ing mis­sion­ary work for her church.

“I don’t have noth­ing spe­cial planned,” said Ho­gan, who never mar­ried or had chil­dren. “But I feel that the Lord is lead­ing me right.”

TER­RENCE AN­TO­NIO JAMES/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE PHO­TOS

Lee Ho­gan has closed her restau­rant, Miss Lee’s Good Food, af­ter 21 years in busi­ness on East Garfield Boule­vard in Chicago.

Lee Ho­gan is seen out­side Miss Lee’s Good Food on Feb. 6. Ho­gan is sell­ing the busi­ness, ideally to some­one who wants to open an­other restau­rant in the spot.

TER­RENCE AN­TO­NIO JAMES/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE PHO­TOS

Lee Ho­gan, 75, opened her restau­rant in Septem­ber 1998, us­ing sav­ings from her 31 years as a wait­ress at Gla­dys Lun­cheonette in Bronzevill­e. “My in­ten­tion was al­ways to open up a place for my­self,” Ho­gan said.

Gleam­ing pots and pans are among the restau­rant equip­ment Ho­gan is look­ing to sell.

Ho­gan is seen tak­ing a call from a long­time cus­tomer on Feb. 6. Ho­gan waited ta­bles at an­other South Side restau­rant for decades be­fore open­ing her own busi­ness.

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