Food | Interviews

“Keep Working With It”

In the kitchen with Miss Lee

Lee Hogan grew up in Sledge, Mississippi, graduating from Quitman County High in 1962. She came to Chicago that winter and began waiting tables. She has owned and operated her own restaurant, Miss Lee’s Good Food, in Washington Park for the last eighteen years.

What gave you the idea to open up the restaurant?

I always had a desire for it. I never wanted to fail. I wanted to have enough money to be able to live, pay my rent, or whatever, you know, my taxes, whatever I had to do, and still operate the restaurant, and do it. And I had had that desire that I wanted to do it, and I had feeled it. Then when Gladys let go [of the restaurant]—when I say let go, she let her daughter run the place. And I said, now, with my knowledge and ability, if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it, because age and time was catching up with me. But I said, if I didn’t do it then, you know, or I could forget it. So I passed by here, and I saw the “For Rent” sign in the window, so I stopped, I come around and I came back. Because I had the desire. There was some of the equipment, some of the things he had set up in here that I could work with. So, anyway, it was always in the back of my mind, that if I can wait tables, cook, and all this…you can do it! It’s just a matter of fear. I just didn’t want to fail.

What was food like in your house when you were growing up? Was it a thing that your family did together? Or is it just something you came into when you were a young adult?

No, my mother cooked. And we would go in the kitchen and watch her cook, or either be in there sometimes, not all the time. And so many tips you pick up. Sometimes, like even with dishes I’m making, I, you know, you go back in the back of your mind, say, “I wonder why this is like this?” or something, and you go back, and when Mama was cooking, then it come back to memory.

So when did you start cooking?

I just had always been in restaurants, around food, but I did cook at the school.

Carnegie School?

Carnegie, yeah, Carnegie. I did Carnegie school, I cooked there for about four or five years. And I came here [to Miss Lee’s] in ’98. But before then, I had always worked at Gladys’. You know, Gladys’ Luncheonette, 45th and Indiana, for years—thirty-one years. For the last ten years I worked at that school [Carnegie] and Gladys’. But she was very, very well known, you know, for home cooking. And a lot of people called it soul food to me. I call it “home-cooked meal.” But a lot of the dishes, like that grilled herbal chicken and baked herbal chicken? That was a gift to me. When I went on a fast when I was fighting cancer, and for forty, thirty-nine days I was using a detox and, see, coming off of that, for nine months, no meat. Period. I had to do the vegetables. And through that experience, you know, when I did start eating chicken and fish, that’s when I learned about different herbs, different seasonings. And that kinda thing, where you was sick but you was working on it (all these different cases come to mind), when you start those spices, and you try ’em. And I was trying, when I did go back to food, you know, meats, I was trying to get that taste, you know, something from old taste with the new that I would enjoy. So I picked up a lot of different chickens and seasonings. Being around food, I just do it. Same way with cobbler, it come to mind. If you cook, you can see, if you keep working with it, you already got a basis.

And you put your little two cents in, what you think would be good, and then try it! Like now, I make a buttermilk pie. I’d never heard of it. Someone said, “Miss Lee, you can use buttermilk instead of whole milk.” But I had my ingredients mixed. After he told me that, he said, “I’ll be back and pick it up Thursday.” And then, sure, I made three pies and sold ’em, and I put ’em on the menu, and they’ve been on the menu ever since. And then, about two years ago, I was back there making the pies, [Chuckles] someone came to me and said, “Why don’t you try lemon?” So I got regular buttermilk pie and lemon buttermilk pie. The lemon tastes better cold.

Kind of like lemon curd, right?

Yeah, and it’s good. But it’s like a custard, it’s a custard pie. So, it come to mind, like I said, same thing with the herbal chicken. Now I do a real herbal catfish, and my dressing and stuff, you know I make my own biscuits and corn muffins for my dressing, and you can tell it’s different. Which is so good. You know, you don’t pick up all that artificial stuff, you know? Anyway, that’s me. So, when I came here, I just tried the different dishes I tried. Same way, it came to mind, “I gotta have something like a stew.” I make a stew, diced chicken and rice. I make a stew, diced turkey and rice. One on Tuesday, and one on Thursday. So, you know, you just come up with ideas, and you try ‘em. All of ’em, basically, most of ’em work!

So what has your staff been like over the years, has it mostly been the same people?

Basically, yeah. Most of the people here, let me see, that gentleman back there washing the pots and pans, he been here with me just about ever since I’ve been here. That gentleman back there, he been here about eight [years], same with her, I think. And the other cook, we worked at the same place, at Gladys’. Now, she was the cook at Gladys’. And even with her, some of the things I do and make, I don’t fix it like that, but this is the way I want it, cause I feel I have a right, this the way I want it. It’s better for me to teach somebody else, or do it the way I do it, and then learn her way and try to teach somebody else.

Do you all ever sit down and have a family meal, you and your staff?

No. No, maybe we should. But sometime we in the battlefield, sometime. That restaurant work is a monster, sometime, isn’t it? All that different personality? It’s your customer, you know what he want, you trying to get his order, and then bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh. You know, come on now! So it get heated, twisted with this food [chuckles].

What do you love the most about cooking?

I don’t know, it give me that inner peace, too. You know, like I’m dealing with it, and I think I’m doing something that somebody enjoy and I’ve had people start from the airport to come by here and get some food. You know, you see what I’m saying? Because they done heard about it, and they say, “If I ever go to United States or go to Chicago, I’m going by Miss Lee’s.” So, you know, it’s stuff like that, when you get back there working, all that come to mind, and you get a joy that you pleasing people. And that’s a good feeling. You see, I have people, see, they, with my dressing, they take it all the way to Florida. At Christmas time, a teacher had me cook two large pans and a half pan, and cook it, and she wanted [it] halved and wrapped and put it in the freezer. She wanted [it] frozen. And then she going to Florida. A lady, she was telling me, came in yesterday, “You know, we had your peach cobbler.” Wait a minute! [chuckles] They took it to Florida. But what they do, is when they travelin’ in their car, and it’s a holiday, they be packin’ everything before they leave. When they get ready to go, on their way out, they stop by here and pick it up, so it won’t thaw out so bad, you know. So, those kinda things, that you doing, it just soothes you, with the thought. So maybe I done got old and nothing else to do, see, I don’t know, but anyway, I enjoy it.

What’s your favorite thing to cook for people?

The desserts. Cause I make all of my desserts. That’s my most favorite. And those herbal dishes with those dishes that I came up with my self, you know. That bringing me joy, because I know they good. That give you good feeling, so I get tied up and balled up in joy, you know, doing that.

Yeah, and when I have enough help, my anniversary coming up. I’m gonna do fried pie, peach pies, apple pie. Eighteenth anniversary. I also have a blueberry cobbler, blackberry cobbler. And I still run all my regular desserts. Nothing beat my bread pudding. I get a kick out of that bread pudding. I usually bring in a special dish but sometime I like to do a grilled shrimps and pink salmon. Oh my god… but you see, the price I have to give for it, and then some people can’t afford it, and then that be ruining it. I just don’t like to go to that extent ’cause I don’t like to have no leftovers, you know. So, I’m not certain. There’s still a question mark in the back of my mind. And I know if I did the chicken and dumplings, I can’t go then do fried pies, too. That’s too much on it. Too much. Sometimes [staff will] help me, but it’s when they know. As soon as I roll out the pie crust, if I gotta stop and show you, do it, and put this… That would make it easier, but if they don’t [know], that’s on me, so I don’t wanna be disappointing the customer.

So what’s kept you going for eighteen years?

By the grace of God, first. And you know why I’m gonna say that, too? Like right now, how you feel like… It’s not that I wanna give up, it’s more like let go, because I’m getting up in age and everything. I wanna enjoy life and what not, but you feel God bless you so with it. It’s gonna hurt to think that I’m gonna walk away from it. It’s hard, you know, I feel like I’m more indebted, and I’m gonna keep doing it, provided I get the help. But if he does bless you that way, I feel I owe… you know how you say you feel you owe back? And maybe I’m not giving him nothing back, but just my satisfaction with what he did for me…He’ll see you through, so. That’s it. That’s me, dwelling in that peace.

So what’s been the most difficult thing for you in the last eighteen years? What’s been hard?

What’s hard for me is the amount of work I’m doing and the hours I’m doing. It’s beating me, you know, it wearing me down. But I get in trouble not getting enough sleep, and I already knew that. I’m not getting enough rest, I’m overworked. So that’s a hard challenge. It’s hard to let go and see that’s what you need to do, you know? So that would be the hardest, but another part is waiting on the customers and just cooking, it doesn’t make it any different, it’s all right. ‘Cause I feel I’m pleasing. I don’t really consider that hard, like, that part is just a part of, you know, of an overload sometimes.

What do you see as the future of your restaurant? Do you see yourself keeping it up or giving it to a family member?

I really don’t know. I have a sister, she work here on Sunday, she write orders, and a brother, one of my brothers, he help me. But not enough willing to come in and do the work and learn it. And if they don’t learn it, if you don’t learn it, it’s a waste, that’s a waste, because it’s not gonna be the same. That is the big question mark in my mind. Even though that’s maybe on a different level, I look at some things like, three weeks ago, I went to the supermarket at 39th and King Drive, Mariano’s. They’ll take four items, five and then they call it an expo, a Business Expo, and then you can get in the market like that, and then get some of your dishes on the market. That is a good idea, in a sense, that some of the dishes or some of the things you prepare, that if you can get in the market selling it, you can get your percentage. So it’s just different things that go through my mind, whatever proceeds, I don’t know. I just don’t know. It’s a good idea, but with the preparation, and you gotta have your own truck to bring things in, and stuff like that, so it just exposes to different things. They want me to do a recipe book.

Who is it that wants you to do a recipe book?

I have three or four people want me to do a recipe book, even that lady that bought Gladys’ recipe. I have never did the book. I never even write my recipes. So that’s a hard one.

What’s your sense, do you feel hopeful about the future?

Yeah, I do, I do. I do. I think of leavin’ or stop workin’ or shut off or let it go.

[Aside, to customer] Okay, goodnight! Thank you!

I just don’t know what I’d do. Sometimes, the number of hours I work, and everything… how would I exist if I wasn’t doin’ it? [chuckles] I keep prayin’. Put it in God’s hands. That’s all I can do.

Thoughts on ““Keep Working With It””

  1. I need to find this place it sounds amazing.
    It seems that the down home diners were easy to find but now they are disappearing. Very sad. Great article.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *