Southern accents

My Sisters and Me unites a family's food on Detroit's east side

May 19, 2010 at 12:00 am

Six siblings in a family business — does it sound like a recipe for dysfunction? Do too many cooks spoil the broth?

Lois Hattaway, long ago an immigrant from Pine Hill, Ala., says that her mama had to work when her nine children were young, so they weren't allowed to have friends over. They had to learn to play with each other and get along. Fifty years later, six of the siblings — Annie, Bettie, Lois, Martha, Sadie, and brother Ester — run My Sisters and Me on the east side. They attract big Sunday groups looking for "nourishment for the spiritual and physical body," as the menu explains. The music on the sound system is gospel.

When the sisters started the restaurant in 2003, each contributed her specialty: cornbread dressing from Lois, Annie on cakes, Bettie cooked mac and cheese, Martha did and still does cobblers, pies and short ribs, and Sadie knew about greens. Mother Lecy Lindsey donated her recipe for caramel cake, and when she visits from down South, chicken and dumplings are on the menu. I am sorry to report that Mom's most recent visit will be over before you read this, but if her chicken and dumplings are half as good as my mom's (who grew up a bit west of Pine Hill), I advise you to pester the sisters for Lecy's next dates.

Lois said, "Everybody thinks their mom is the best cook," and I'll go along with that, at least when Mom did such Alabama-style dishes as long-simmered green beans, fried chicken and gravy. (When she cooked like a modern 1950s cook, with convenience foods, not so much. There was a spaghetti casserole made with mushroom soup and green olives. ...) We ate rice and gravy most nights, and my personal record was five servings of gravy-bread in one supper.

The green beans at My Sisters and Me, one of 14 sides, rank with the best. I didn't see potatoes or ham mixed in, as you often do, but the sisters seem to have gone outside the bean family for a whole nother set of flavors. Collards are similarly fantastic, just tangy enough. Mac and cheese is done traditionally: very cheesy, not al dente. I found red beans, cabbage and pinto beans bland, though — again, it's a matter of associations. In my life, pintos were served with a plain potato for the grade-school hot lunch on Fridays.

Big pieces of fluffy cornbread are light and crumbly, almost cakelike. They're not very recognizable made into a dense and grainy cornbread dressing, which must use a recipe with less sugar. The many cakes on the menu are denser and moister, including yellow cake with Lecy's cooked caramel icing, or yellow with coconut frosting and pineapple filling, both top-form for that type of baking. I was served a big bowl of peach cobbler, almost a soup, with blobs of dough floating in it. I liked its cinnamon taste just fine, but Lois said the coveted upper crust must have been appropriated for some other demanding customer! Equally intriguing was sweet potato pie, with a lemon flavor that gave it an almost candylike taste.

Other sides are black-eyed peas, yams, mashed potatoes, potato salad and spaghetti. You could make a meal just out of sides: it's $7.25 for four, a bargain. But I imagine that's rare. Customers want chicken and ribs and pork chops and catfish.

I liked best the luxury dish: ultra-tender beef short ribs for $11.35, no knife required, swimming in gravy. A half-slab of pork ribs is also tender, but it comes drenched in sauce — no chance to add it to your taste. (There's a roll of paper towels in each booth in case you're not a finger-licker.) Southern-fried pork chops are nice and peppery but, like the catfish, they curl up in the pan, a sign, in my book, of overcooking. I've found I prefer my fish to look like fish, so perhaps that disqualifies me from judging this particular branch of Southern cooking. I'm still looking for fried chicken to equal Anne Slaughter's.

My Sisters and Me does a thriving carryout business, but there's plenty of space to sit down in comfortable booths, with caricatures of the sisters on the wall. It may be the only restaurant in Detroit that's open later during the week than on weekends: 4 p.m. till 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and noon to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].