Two Sister’s Restaurant
223 N. Derbigny Street
New Orleans, LA 70112
“I don’t, but a lot of people from the country, I find they do that: they get the [potato] salad and they put that scoop of salad right down in the middle of the gumbo, and they eat around that, and then when all the gumbo is gone they’re still eating the salad. I could never do that.” – Dorothy Finister
Two Sister’s Restaurant, named by a previous owner, is actually run by three sisters and one brother—and their mother, Dorothy Finister. A Finister family operation since 1972, the business is a breakfast and lunch destination secreted in a residential New Orleans neighborhood that hasn’t quite recovered from the flooding it sustained following Hurricane Katrina, and the failed federal levee system, in 2005. Which means that on most weekdays, Two Sister’s dining room is the happiest place for blocks. Members of the New Orleans Police Department lunch on fried chicken and smothered pork chops. Musicians roll out of bed for neck bones at noon. Men and women in business suits and paint-splattered work clothes commune over shrimp and okra stew, red beans and rice, and smothered cabbage. And, of course, gumbo. Available only on Fridays and Saturdays, servings of Two Sister’s gumbo are epic bowls of shrimp, crab, fresh hot sausage, chicken giblets, okra, filé, bay leaves, thyme, and a jumble of other offerings from the seasoning aisle. Each bowl comes with a side of potato salad, which some diners dump directly into their gumbo. Miss Dorothy, who agrees that potato salad is an essential gumbo accompaniment, keeps hers on the side.
Listen to this three–minute audio clip of Dorothy Finister talking about cooking gumbo in Atlanta during her evacuation for Hurricane Katrina.[Windows Media Player required. Go here
to download the player for free.]
NOTE: 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: Dorothy Finister
Date: July 20, 2007
Location: 223 N. Derbigny Street—New Orleans, LA
Interviewer: Sara Roahen
Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Friday, July 20, 2007. I’m in New Orleans, Louisiana at Two Sister’s Restaurant with Miss Dorothy Finister. So if you don’t mind, if you could say your name and your birth date and how you make your living?
Dorothy Finister: Okay, my name is Dorothy Finister. My birth date is May 22, 1939. And I make a living at Two Sister’s by cooking, and we’re open from 8:00 to 5:00, so I’m here from 8:00 to 5:00 cooking every day.
And where did that name, Two Sister’s, come from?
Oh that goes way back. Originally it was two sisters that owned the place. But oh, that goes back further than 34 years, because I’ve been here 34 years. And both of the sisters are deceased, and we bought it from one of the sisters that was still living and we’ve been here 34 years, so we just kept the name Two Sister’s. They asked us—the sister that we bought it from asked us to—don’t change the name; she said it would bring us good luck, so I’m still waiting. [Laughs]
Do you know what their names were—those two sisters?
No, I know one of them, the one that we bought it from, because she was the onliest one living at the time. Her name was Odell, Miss Odell Lewis. And the other sister I really don’t know.
And are you from New Orleans?
I was born here, raised on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi. But I was born in New Orleans.
What inspired you to open a restaurant here?
It was my husband; he used to eat here every day. And at the time I wasn’t working and I had two girls and a boy, and he said that it would be something for the girls to do. But it seems as though that it—the girls is involved; the girls still works here. Both of my daughters work here, although I have three daughters—all three of them works here. But at that particular time I had two that was old enough to be here.
Can you tell me their names?
Nadine, Collette, and Shanel. Shanel is our cook really; Collette, she manages the floor with the waitresses; and Nadine do some of the cooking, but basically Shanel is the youngest one and she does most of the cooking.
And where did you learn how to cook?
Um, I think I learned how to cook here ‘cause when we came here one of the sisters was still here and she stayed here about three years after we took the restaurant over, so that helped us out a lot.
So you didn’t cook much before then?
Only at my house, but my husband did most of the cooking. He loved to cook and when we came here he started out cooking really. I didn’t do a lot of cooking. And right now I only do some things because I have things that I—only that I cook—like with the dessert: don’t nobody make banana pudding but me. I make that myself. Now it’s two or three people that can make the bread pudding, but nobody seems to touch the banana pudding. I don’t know why. [Laughs] As far as some of the dishes, let me see what it was that I originated. The shrimp and okra, I started that myself. Actually, I think I’m the one that brought that to New Orleans. I had an aunt that lived in Mississippi; she used to fix that. And she would put crabs in it, but here we just make the shrimp with okra and we don’t put the crabs ‘cause when you put the crabs it’s more or less like a gumbo. Actually, 30-some years ago I don’t think you could find shrimp and okra on nobody’s menu. That’s the reason why I take credit for that. But now you can go to plenty of restaurants and find shrimp and okra. Uh-hm.
Is that something that you grew up eating in Mississippi?
Oh yes. My aunt fixed that all the time and I loved it. Most of the family loved it. But she had certain things she fixed on certain days. Like on Sunday she had the same thing—every Sunday—which would be roast, potato salad, green peas. That was her dish every Sunday. So if you went there on Sunday you knew what you was going to get ‘cause that’s all she had, the same thing every Sunday—always had a pot roast.
Can you tell me what kind of gumbo you make here?
Well, Creole. That’s what we would call it: Creole gumbo. And it have the shrimps and the crabs and the hot sausage. You can't make it without hot sausage. You can't make it without shrimps and crabs either. And now I find some people don’t like okra in their gumbo, but we puts okra in our gumbo, uh-hm. Some people, they say, Well if it have okra I don’t want it, because a lot of people don’t eat okra, but it doesn’t hinder our sales for gumbo by putting okra in it.
And you make it with a roux?
No, we put what you call a gumbo base and you buy that—it comes in the boxes; it’s a base. It’s called gumbo base. It’s like a roux, but it’s a powder that comes in the box that thickens your gumbo and have a real good taste. That’s what really makes—I think—I don’t think a lot of people know about that, but that’s what thickens the gumbo. So we don’t put a roux in it. Actually the only thing we do with roux is gravies, like for the smothered pork chops and smothered chicken—stuff like that we’ll put a roux. We make roux; we don’t put it in the gumbo. We put the gumbo base in it and that thickens it up like a roux would do.
And the okra thickens it up a little bit too I guess.
Right, it does, okra does. I remember years ago in the country, when they would put okra it would kind of make it a little slimy like, but we don’t have that problem. I don’t know why; I don’t know what’s the difference. I don’t know, I think in the country they did it with real cut okra from the garden. And you have to steam that down to keep it from being slimy. By us using frozen okra that’s already been preserved, we don’t have that problem.
And it seems like I’ve had other meats besides hot sausage in your gumbo, or is that not—?
Hot sausage, sometimes ham, cubed ham, cut up in little bitty cubes. We have ham, hot sausage, smoked sausage, and sometimes chicken giblets. That’s what it is: chicken giblets. I think that’s the onliest meat; that’s the onliest filling besides the okra, your shrimp, the crabs. We never use oysters in gumbo. That’s not allowed. Too many people don’t eat oysters, and from what I’ve found over the years with other people, when you put oysters in your gumbo it sours quick. I remember one year a friend of mine and my husband’s had made a big pot of gumbo ‘cause a lot of people would always go by their house to eat and stop on Christmas, and we stopped there. We had came from Bay St. Louis and we said We’re hungry but everything is closed. Where we going to eat? So he said, Oh I know: we’ll go by Miss Karne’s, because that’s where he used to live before we got married. And she had gumbo, but when she took the top off of it, it was bubbly. That was the oysters, so from that day on—well I wasn’t really cooking then because actually we had just got married and I wasn’t really cooking a lot and we didn’t have the place either, but she said it was the oysters. I mean and she was devastated ‘cause she said she had so much money in that pot of gumbo. And then another thing: you can't vacuum pack it. That will make it sour too—like keep the top on it with no air getting to it. That will make it sour quick.
What was the name of the woman whose house you went by—Karnes?
Yeah, Miss Karne. She lived over on Galvez, and that’s where my husband used to stay before we got married. She had apartments over there, actually a couple of blocks down this street, but they’re all deceased now including my husband. He’s deceased. Yeah, my husband been dead 13 years. So I started running it completely by myself with the girls. I have an older daughter that’s up in her 40s, but she was working here. I think all my children was working here when he died, and he’s been dead 13 years now. And the part that we all remember about that: he died on New Year’s night, so when New Year’s come everybody get devastated and nobody be at the house. Everybody finds someplace to go ‘cause you know something—out of town or something—‘cause he died at the house from a massive heart attack. So New Year’s is a no-no for us to be at the house. New Year’s Eve, yes, maybe shooting firecrackers and this and that; New Year’s night, no. Everybody is gone. So that’s it, and it’s—we continue to run the restaurant without him and we done came into a few hurdles, like with Katrina. Katrina—we had four-feet of water in here, the roof off, most of the roof was off, the overhang, and insurance papers. If you don’t have flood [insurance], the insurance is not going to cover most of your damage inside from the water…We all left going to Atlanta for Katrina. We left that Sunday, a caravan about 12 carloads. And we came—we stayed up there a month, and me and my son came back and we said, We got to get the place open and going…So when we opened, we had put out the little sticker signs that you see stuck in the neutral grounds: “Two Sister’s Now Open.” So we had about 50 of those made, and we went all uptown, all downtown, all across town and stick them like—Jefferson Parish had some type of law against that; you couldn’t do that in Jefferson Parish, which I didn’t know. So just sticking them in the neutral ground in Orleans Parish was good enough. So when the first day we opened, we opened with a nice line outside waiting to get in. A lot of people had been waiting on this kind of food, and during that time after Katrina a lot of places wasn’t open. It took a while.
When you were in Georgia, what did you eat? Did you make some food?
Yeah, actually I stayed at this hotel—the Omni Suite in—the hotel we stayed in—I’m trying to see—College Park. We was in College Park, Georgia, and to be honest with you this was the funny part: when they found out that we was there, they came on the radio, they say Two Sister’s in town; don’t let them go back to New Orleans. Keep them out here. Then they put us in the newspaper. It was really nice after they found—and then I had offers to stay. Some people wanted me to go in partnership with them; some people wanted me to just take over their restaurant and run it like I would run this and they would give me a nice set salary from it. And my saying was, No, I gotta go home. Gotta go back to New Orleans. But what I did while we was out there—guess what? You’re going to like this part. I made gumbo for the hotel employees. Chief Pennington, which used to be the [police] chief here, he’s a personal friend of ours, so I made gumbo for him. The hotel let us use their meeting room, and they set it up for us, and we got our cups and our bowls and all, and I made the gumbo. They let me make it in their kitchen at the hotel, so all we had to do was just transfer it over to the meeting room. That—that was good. Everybody that was in—all the employees—they was saying, They have gumbo! Two Sister’s made gumbo! It’s going to be in the meeting room. And that was on a Sunday evening; it lasted for—‘til about 7 o’clock, it was all gone. They was coming with containers: Can I take some home? Can I—? I said, Whatever as long as it lasts; just take it until it’s gone. So the Chief, he came and he took a container home for his wife. All the employees that that day that wasn’t off, they came in the meeting room to get gumbo. So I made gumbo in Atlanta.
Could you find all the ingredients?
Atlanta didn’t have a lot of stuff that, like, we basically use—like the base. Couldn’t find the gumbo base; couldn’t find the bay leaf.
So what did you do instead of the gumbo base?
Roux. I had to make my own roux: brown the rue and put it in there.
Do you put thyme in your gumbo?
No, I like it if somebody else put it in. I really don’t know about how much to put in with thyme, but I feel as though if you put bay leaf in it you don’t just really need the thyme. It would be like double-doing it or something. I don’t—I’m going to ask—Shanel? Come here a second. I’m going to ask her if she ever put thyme in there. I never put—she makes the gumbo now here ‘cause a lot of times, and since I stepped on that nail. Do you put thyme in your gumbo?
Shanel: Yeah, thyme, bell pepper, onion, salt, pepper, Season All, garlic—.
DF: Bay leaf?
Shanel: Bay leaf and filé.
Oh, so you put filé in your gumbo?
Shanel: Oh yeah, yeah. It’s not gumbo without filé.
Was your husband from New Orleans?
DF: No, he was from North Louisiana: Winnsboro, Monroe—up that way.
And so the gumbo that you both grew up on must have been different from this gumbo, huh?
Well actually they didn’t have gumbo up there, no. He didn’t—and he didn’t eat gumbo. No, he didn’t eat gumbo. Up there they didn’t have gumbo. North Louisiana people have a different—and when I first met him and went up there, they was like killing chickens in the yard. You know, go out on Sunday morning and kill a chicken. I wasn’t used to that; that’s the kind of stuff they was doing up there then. And kill a hog and hang it up in some kind of dry house for the bacon and stuff. I wasn’t used to any of that; it’s a different kind of living. They don’t do that now, but when I first met him 30-some years ago and I went to North Louisiana, that’s the kind of stuff they was doing. And lot of stuff I really wasn’t into. And I’m going to tell you this little joke. Up there, his mother would have everybody to sit down at the table, ask the blessing. You couldn’t [do] like my kids: they just, when you cook they’ll just go in the kitchen and fix their food. Up there everybody had to sit down at the table; the table was set with the food. So this particular Sunday that I was up there, I think we had just got married about a year or something and they passing the food around. And when they came to the deer meat, it’s dark, and they looking at each other and when they pass it to me and I say, No, I don’t want none. They said, That’s roast. I say, I don’t want any. And they say, Why? You don’t eat roast? I say, Not that kind because when I see meat that’s darker than me I don’t want it. [Laughs] Deer meat is dark; I didn’t want it. I don’t eat meat that’s darker than me, so they laughed.
Did you grow up eating gumbo?
My mother would make gumbo, but it had to be for a holiday: Christmas, maybe Easter. That’s about the onliest two holidays there is. Gumbo is very expensive to make and—no, we just had regular food: stewed chicken, roasts. Actually, excuse me, we had roast every Sunday. That’s what I was telling you: roast, green peas, potato salad. You didn’t have to ask what’s for dinner ‘cause you already knew what was for dinner. Monday was red beans. My mother loved to fix meatball and spaghetti, and we had that about twice a week. And to be honest with you, on Saturdays, it was clean-up day. You clean up the house on Saturday: you dust the furniture, you vacuum—whatever there was to be cleaned up, that was Saturday, and what you had to eat on Saturday was sandwiches. She never cooked on Saturday…and during that time we didn’t have cold drinks. They had cold drinks to sell but we didn’t—we had Kool-Aid. That’s what we drank, and my mother would make like a great big pitcher of Kool-Aid with the Kool-Aid flavor and the sugar. A lot cheaper than buying cold drinks, so—.
I know that you serve your gumbo here with potato salad, and that’s—not every restaurant does that. How did you start doing that?
From the country. If we had gumbo, we had to have potato salad. And, which I don’t, but a lot of people from the country, I find they do that: they get the salad and they put that scoop of salad right down in the middle of the gumbo, and they eat around that, and then when all the gumbo is gone they’re still eating the salad. I could never do that. [Laughs] But I see people doing that, and actually I don’t know if any of my kids do that. I don’t think so. But you don’t have gumbo without potato salad.
I’ll just ask a couple more questions and we’ll wrap up, because you’re starting in on lunch service here. So you said you have some Creole and some soul food here. Can you tell me, what is the difference between Creole food and soul food?
Soul food is neck bones, pig-tails, pork chops, red beans, greens, cabbage—that’s soul food. Neck bones especially, pig-tails, and we serve both of that. We have neck bones every day. But we only have pig-tails once a week. Pork chops we have every day—smothered pork chops. Now, pork chops can be used as a Cajun food also. But we use it mostly as a soul food. Red beans is soul; that’s definitely soul food. And neck bones, you can't just go to a lot of places and get neck bones. That’s soul food.
How often do you serve gumbo? Is it every day?
The gumbo—oh no; too expensive to serve every day. Gumbo, we serve that on Friday and Saturday only. Only on Friday and Saturday. If by any chance during certain times of year that we’re open on a Sunday, we have it then. Like Essence [Music Festival] was here a couple of weeks ago and we had it then. People from out of town, that’s what they looking for.
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