3175 W. Madison St.
Chicago, IL 60612
*CLOSED JULY 2010; REOPENED IN 2011 BY FORMER EMPLOYEES AS "RUBY'S". THEY'RE COOKING EDNA'S RECIPES.
I guess [Civil Rights workers] wanted a place on the West Side, and this was like a half a block from where Dr. King would be speaking at, you know. Now I only met him one time. I don’t remember seeing him but once. But Reverend Jackson and all of them, they were here. They would come in every day. – Edna Stewart
Edna Stewart’s parents were sharecroppers in Covington, Tennessee, until they moved to Chicago in 1936. Edna was born two years later. As a young woman, Edna went to nursing school. But in 1966 Edna’s father, Samuel Mitchell Sr., decided that he wanted to go into the restaurant business. All he needed was a cook. So Edna and her then-husband went into business with her father and opened Edna’s Restaurant. Their first location was inside a bowling alley and dance hall, so they had customers immediately. But it was Edna’s fried chicken and biscuits that really brought them in. Edna learned to cook from her Tennessee-born mother, so her menu is soul food, pure and simple. And her restaurant is a landmark. Edna has fed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Jesse Jackson. The restaurant survived the 1968 riots. All these years—and biscuits—later, Edna’s is still the cornerstone of this West Side community.
*It is with great sadness that the SFA shares news that Edna Stewart passed away in June of 2010.
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: Edna Stewart
DATE: March 26, 2008
LOCATION: Edna’s Restaurant
INTERVIEWER & PHOTOGRAPHER: Amy Evans
Amy Evans: All right, this is Amy Evans for the Southern Foodways Alliance on Wednesday, March 26, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois. And I’m at Edna’s Soul Food Restaurant with Miss Edna Stewart. And, Ms. Stewart, if you wouldn’t mind saying your name and also your birth date for the record?
Edna Stewart: My name is Edna L. Stewart; my birth date is June 6, 1938.
Are you a native of Chicago?
Yes, I am. I was born and raised in Chicago on the South Side of Chicago, came to the west side in 1955, and I’ve been over here ever since.
I wonder if you could tell me about your early days, before you came into the restaurant business.
Well, my early days before I came in the restaurant is—well I went to school in Chicago. I started nursing school in Chicago [at] Harold Washington downtown in the loop. And I just was a regular worker at the time when I was going to school before I started in the restaurant—just a mother, that’s all.
Now what made you leave nursing school and decide to open a restaurant?
Well the reason that I quit nursing school [was] because my father [Samuel Mitchell, Sr.] wanted to open up a restaurant, and I’m thinking that I would go back to school. But after I got into the restaurant business, I just kept going. Him and I both was going to be partners in the restaurant, and my ex-husband [Johnny Stewart] he was a cook and so all three of us started together.
And so how about how old were you when you all decided to get this restaurant venture going?
Okay, I was around about twenty-three years old when I started into the restaurant business. And he wanted a restaurant, so I said, “Okay.” And out of the family of five, I was the only cook at home, besides my mom, so I liked to cook anyway. I was always in the kitchen at home with my mother. And I could cook a meal when I was almost seven or eight years old, so it was an adventure for me too.
Do you remember one of the first meals that you ever made by yourself?
No, no way. No, I don’t remember…But we always had regular soul food, you know, like I would fry chicken and just different stuff like that—just regular cooking.
What was your father doing before the restaurant?
Well my father used to work for a machinery company, and he worked for them for about thirty years or more. So he was mostly in the machinery business—new and used machines—and he could break them down and put them back together and stuff like that.
So was he wanting to be his own boss and rely on his daughter to do all the cooking?
Yes. Because he couldn’t cook, okay. [Laughs] He couldn’t cook at all. But on Sundays he would cook our Sunday breakfast, and I remember that now; I remember that every Sunday we would have—first of all, he’d start out with grapefruit and then when he finished that we would have brains and eggs…And he would fry bacon and ham and he would fix breakfast now. That was his main thing on Sundays was breakfast before we went to church on Sundays, yeah.
And so is the restaurant that you opened with your father this restaurant?
Well, we’re right at Edie [Avenue]; it was right at Albany, so like it’s a half a block east of here, where the housing is now, okay.
And so what was the name of that restaurant when y’all first started?
Of course it was Edna’s. [Laughs] Yeah. Yeah, it’s always Edna’s. We opened up two or three places and always Edna’s, yeah…So I did forty-two years a couple of weeks ago, March 9th. Uh-hmm, forty-two years on this block, yeah.
So can you tell me what it was like when y’all first opened your doors at the original Edna’s?
Well, when we first opened, we happened to be renting in a bowling alley and a dance hall/skating rink so automatically, when we opened the doors, we had customers. It was a bowling league there like three or four nights a week. On Sundays they had a great big bowling club and so it was just regular, you know. We had customers right away, yeah. And then about a year later we opened up the lounge, so we had the restaurant and the lounge in the same building, yeah.
What went on in the lounge? Did you serve food over there?
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. If you came in the restaurant and you wanted a cocktail, all you had to do was walk across the hall and you’d be in the lounge, and then we would just serve you in the lounge.
I remember reading about Martin Luther King [Junior] coming in and eating with you because he was working at a church nearby.
Right, on Warren [Boulevard] and—well just—just in the 3100 block on Warren, which is like—a block—half a block from here. And one day in the restaurant it was a white girl and a black guy, and they had on jeans, and in 1966, you know, we didn’t see too many jeans, okay. And we didn’t see a mixed racial couple on Madison Street. And so they would come in and they would say, well, “Oh, that looks good.” So finally, they would probably have a piece of cornbread and some syrup. And she would always sit on her legs; you know how you sit on your legs like? And they would stay probably three, four hours, you know. Every day they would come in. And they didn’t bother anybody. And then—so I just let them sit there, you know, and they would talk and they’d have a book and some writing they would be doing like they were in some kind of school or something. So one day Benét asked me, he says, “Would you like some customers?” So I looked at him and I kind of frowned, you know, and I said, “Customers? What do you mean, customers?” He said, “Would you like some more customers?” I said, “Certainly, I would love some more customers.” And that’s how Dr. King—well, the scouts came first. So he [Benét] was one of the scouts, but he didn’t tell me that he was one of the scouts for Dr. King’s organization. And that’s how everybody started—Jesse—Reverend Jesse Jackson and Dorothy Tillman and Reverend Bernard Lee, Reverend Bevel, Reverend Al Sampson, and Reverend Al Sampson was the one that Dr. King—the only one I think that ordained—he ordained Dr. King, you know. I mean Dr. King ordained him, okay. So that’s how I got the civil rights workers, yeah.
So tell me about your interaction with them.
Well, you know, at that time, we were just opening. I didn’t know you know when I—when they said, “Well, I want some more beans; I want some more cornbread,” I would just go back there and give it to them, you know. And my dad said, “Well give it to them; give them what they want.” They would go out and they had a special place over here on Jackson and—Jackson and California—California—Sacramento [streets], where they used to sit-in. And so I went one time; I didn’t know what it was, but I followed them over there and they would—they were protesting about rental rights of—of—of property and stuff, you know. And when I went in there and opened the door and saw they were just packed on each other. That’s how they were doing—and then the police would come and—and remove them, you know. But I used to stay open; my dad—we were supposed to close but my dad said, “No, don’t close. Stay open until they come.” And after they would be on a march or something, they would come to the restaurant. And a lot of them wasn’t making a little money, you know, and I had a little box that I used to keep their name in where they owed me, you know—like a little tin can I had. So it was fun; it was exciting. It brought a lot of people. And I didn’t know at the time—I think the guy’s name was Ed McCollum or Ed MacCollum or something but anyway, he sent me a letter and he was with the police department at the time, but he went to the NACCP [Note—NAACP], and he said he remembered being in Edna’s Restaurant and the people that didn’t have money, they could eat and how I treated them so nice, and he invited me to lunch, you know. So I saved that letter; I don’t know exactly where it is now. But it was so many people, and I guess it was a lot of reporters. But you didn’t hardly know it because they would just be seeing what was going on, seeing what the scouts was going to do and where they were going, you know. It was exciting.
So how do you explain that they descended on you and came to you as this kind of haven of food and support?
Well because of Benét and Ann; that’s the only thing I can say. Because I guess, you know, they wanted a place on the West Side, and this was like a half a block from where Dr. King would be speaking at, you know. Now I only met him one time; I—I don’t remember seeing him but once, you know. But Reverend Jackson and all of them, they were here daily, you know. They would come in every day.
Well what is it about like food and community and that feeling of home that you think kind of draws that kind of crowd?
Well we have—we’re on Madison Street, and we get a stigma of being Madison Street because when the riots was, a lot of things burned on Madison Street—all the way. But at Edna’s, we just have a beautiful clientele of customers. Even the young people—teenagers, we right here at Marshall High School—it’s like home, you know. We have—we have order here. It’s order. It’s nothing playing and, you know, carrying on, so a lot of people like to come. I had a young man last week, his mom called and she wanted to know the address, and I said, “Well, how old is he?” She said he wanted to come to Edna’s. I said, “Well, how old is he?” She said, “He’s fifteen.” So I said, “Great, bring him on.” So I got a chance to meet him because I was here that evening, you know, so it’s just like being at home. It’s a sit-down type restaurant, you know.
And you mentioned the riots. Your restaurant was one of the places that was left untouched during the riots of [nineteen] ’68.
Right. In this block—one block west of me—the whole two or three blocks burned, but this block didn’t burn. This block was—well we stayed here for—we stayed here, I guess, probably a week or two. I don’t—I don’t remember, it was so long. But when the National Guard came in, you could either go or leave, but you couldn’t come back, so we stayed.
So Edna’s is really a landmark in Civil Rights history in Chicago. Do you feel that way?
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It was so many Civil Rights people that came through Edna’s. I just read in The [Chicago] Tribune where one of the civil rights [figures] which was—was James Forman, and he would come all the time with overalls; and he was real tall, maybe six-something and looked like he weighed 300-pounds; and he just passed, yes—yes. It felt good to have him here.
And I understand Jesse Jackson is a fan of your sweet potato pie, is that right?
Well that’s with the sweet potatoes but—that’s what they—he—he’s not supposed to eat sweet potatoes [Laughs] but he do—he do like sweet potatoes, yeah. I have a picture of him up there.
So it sounds like things got going pretty fast, pretty quick for you and your father in the restaurant business. What did your father think about that when you became so popular?
Oh, he was excited because my father was a sharecropper, you know, and he was from Tennessee—Covington, Tennessee, you know. So him being in the restaurant business and he’s his own boss and people is coming and reporters is taking pictures and he—my dad was—he was such a good person, good-hearted person, you know. And he would just almost give every thing away. Yeah, he was excited. He—he enjoyed it.
Was your mother from Tennessee also?
Yes. They both was from Covington, Tennessee. They met and they married down there and then they came here in—in Chicago in 1936. My oldest sister was just a couple of months old when they came to Chicago. And my mom was a homemaker; he didn’t want her to work at all: “Just take care of my girls.” And, at the time, it was just three girls. And then my brother came like, oh, he was—he was born in ’47, I think, uh-hmm. So my mother never worked but she baby-sitted, and I was able to work long hours and—and she was just the ideal mom and a grandma, okay. And she used to call herself working in the restaurant, but she didn’t know what she was doing, you know. [Laughs] She would help pick greens or something like that, yeah.
So do you think, given that your parents are from Tennessee and you learned to cook from your mother who was cooking what she knew from living in Tennessee, do you think there’s anything Tennessee about the food you make here? Would you say that?
Well mostly I say I’ve never really lived in the South but cooking is—soul food is seasoned food, as far as I’m concerned. Because when I go down there—we used—we used to go every summer, you know. My Auntie, she would fix the food, and it would just be tasty, you know. It’s seasoned food. Basically, it’s like I call it soul food from the soul, you know. Yeah, it’s the same.
And so let’s talk about some of your food. You have all kinds of things: fried chicken, ox-tails, brains and eggs you mentioned. Tell me about what’s on your menu.
Okay. On the menu we have a lot of fried food, we have a lot of baked food, we have a lot of boiled food, we have short-ribs of beef, we have barbecue ribs, baby-back ribs; we do a great thing on the salmon croquets. We make our own salmon croquettes. Of course we’re kind of known for our macaroni and cheese; I was on Oprah once, and she said I had the best macaroni and cheese. But in the contest I didn’t win, but I don’t think she judged it either, okay. We have fresh picked greens; we do fresh sweet potatoes; in the morning we have fresh hash browns for breakfast. Of course we have fried chicken; Edna’s Golden Fried Chicken, they call it. We just have a big menu; we have about sixteen, seventeen different sides every day. We have a changed bean every day, specials every day; we do a wonderful thing and it’s my recipe on the chicken and dumplings, which is on Thursdays, and they’re real good. A lot of people say, “Oh, no, I don’t want no dumplings.” But when they try them, they say, “Oh, these dumplings are good!” because they’re well cooked. They’re not gummy and stuff like they used to cook them a long time ago, you know. So we have a big menu.
Has your menu always been the same since you opened?
No. We’ve increased it a whole lot, you know, since then. We don’t do any pork; we don’t cook with any meat, so a vegetarian can eat here—no pork in the vegetables at all. We do the trans-fat, you know, so it has changed a whole lot, yeah.
Tell me about your World’s Best Biscuits.
They the best biscuits on Earth. I have a sign out there [Laughs], and when we do have new customers coming in, we automatically give them a fresh biscuit when they come in and they say that it’s true to the sign, you know. A lot of people stop now just because of the sign out there: “The Best Biscuits on Earth.” A lot of times, recently, I been up there and they said—I says, “How did you know about Edna’s?” They say, “Well, we’ve been traveling down Madison Street, and we decided to stop.” Plus, we was in The Taste of Chicago and people say, “Well, I’ve been coming, but I just never got here.” We be in the newspaper and, quite naturally, everybody that I talked to, they know that we have the best biscuits, yes.
Your biscuits, are they buttermilk or sweet milk biscuits?
Buttermilk. They’re buttermilk biscuits, yeah.
Well, I have to confess; I didn’t have a biscuit today but I did have the corn cakes. Tell me about the corn cakes—cornbread.
Cornbread, okay. That’s my special recipe, too. When we first went in business, we tried to figure out how we could keep the corn muffins hot and not be hard and not moist. We couldn’t figure it out, so I said, “Okay, I know what we’ll do. We’ll do it on the grill.” So every time a person ordered cornbread, we do it right then and there. So it’s my recipe, yes, so I’m glad you enjoyed it.
And so tell me about soul food in Chicago in general and what it was like when you started. Were there many other soul food restaurants, and what it’s like now?
Well it’s—it’s—it’s a lot of soul food restaurants now but when I started, it wasn’t. Plus I’m one of the original owners; it’s a lot of restaurants, but they’re not the original owners. Plus I have where I can seat maybe 200 people, if I put both of the rooms together, you know. Everybody wants to go into a restaurant, okay, but it’s not as easy as it looks, you know. It’s a lot of restaurants but ours is like soul food, you know. Some of them don’t have fresh greens and stuff like that, you know.
So what year was it that this specific location [at 3175 W. Madison] was open?
This one here? Okay, 1991…My father wanted—we were in a smaller place and he wanted a big restaurant, and I was saying no, and he was saying yes. We found out that he had cancer and so I—I granted his wishes, and I said okay because I was thinking about going back to school because I love children and sick people. I like to be around and help people, you know. So, but he wanted a restaurant, so I said, “Okay, let’s—let’s do the restaurant.” So this was October 31, 1991 that we moved to large quarters and since then, you know, we’ve been able to accommodate a lot of the meetings and things that the politicians have. And where I was, it was just too small, you know.
I saw in the window out there today, you have a sign that a waitress is wanted, and she must have five years soul food experience.
That’s because these days, the young people don’t know pork from beef, and it’s a lot that they don’t know. So I get tired sometimes of just—I got to bring from the woods all the way up, so I ask for five years experience, but I can't get it. But the sign is up there. I got a little girl that’s—I just hired her, but she’s going to school; she’s in college, and she knows nothing at all, you know; so I have to watch her because I got to be careful how she serves. The other day she said, “The lady said this is not turkey sausage.” So I said, “Bring it back and let me look at it.” [Laughs] But it was turkey, okay. So I do ask for experience now because it’s important, you know. You got to know how to serve, how to serve the water, and don’t do this and don’t do that, yeah.
What do you think that says about this generation not learning to cook in their own kitchens?
Well, Amy, the thing of it is, it first starts at home. And then when I was in school, we had Home Economics. They took that out of the school, you know, for young people. I think it’s real important that it should be in the school. It should be in the school. It’s very important because as they grow up, they automatically, you know—. And then when I was coming up, we had family time. Everybody ate at the same time. We passed the food. Whatever, you know. It was in bowls or platters or whatever it was and if you put it on your plate, you had to eat it, you know. We had to set the table at home. We had to wash the dishes. It was so much that—that my mom, she really wasn’t school educated but she had a lot of mother wit, and it was automatic. We—I knew it, like I said, when I was seven or eight years old, you know, so it—it really—they really need to go back to the basics of old things like we used to do. It’s a lot of things I—I really, you know, would say it’s just like you can't whip your children and all that stuff. It’s—it’s really the—the way the country is structured. It’s—they need to go back to the old timey stuff, you know? I have a school list—I’m helping Calhoun School. These two ladies call me and they’re doing etiquette at a grammar school—eighth graders. And so I’m donating a lot because, I said, “Oh, I wish I could get my staff over there,” you know. And it—it’s important, you know. They need it back into the schools; they really need that real bad.
So I wonder if your clientele here, do you have a lot of people who come in here who came from the South and [during] the Great Migration and come here and feel like they have a bit of home?
Oh, yeah. Mostly—mostly the people that come—come from the South. I have a mixed group now. I have people that comes for the [Garfield Park] Conservatory, which is maybe six or seven blocks away. And on Saturdays and Sundays it’s mixed, you know. And so they’re used to—if they maybe had a nanny, you know what I’m saying, in the South that could cook, and so they’re really used to soul food, you know. Some people maybe never had it; I have students coming in from, oh, I can't think of it right now but anyway, they love—they come here; I got pictures of them eating all kinds of food because they love it, you know. They’re from—oh, I can't even mention but anyway, they—they love the food, you know.
What is the future of Edna’s?
Well right now I have no idea because I have two children, and neither one of them want the restaurant. I have nieces with degrees, and they don’t want the restaurant. They had to work in the restaurant to—to stay out of the streets and have something to do when they come from school. And I got one that’s a principal, and I got one that’s this and one that’s that, but they don’t want the restaurant. And at first they said, “Look, Auntie, we’re going to take the restaurant over.” I said, “Beautiful.” But when they found out that they had to start in the kitchen, they said, “No way.” [Laughs] Because I believe that in order—if I hadn't been able to cook, I wouldn’t have lasted. You have to know how to do it because people will tell you they’re gone, you know, and I’m the last one to leave. I’m the last one. I’m the one that opens up, okay, so—and I’ve enjoyed it. I had a blast. I had—I have had a blast because I have met people from all over the world.
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