I’d like to think that Hella was a real person, a living, breathing soul with loves and passions of her own. I imagine that she was someone’s mother, wife, sister or aunt—perhaps she was all of the above—playing, nonetheless, an important role in someone’s life, and worth memorializing in a very special way. You see, whoever Hella was, she surely made an impact on people, and most likely never even knew to what extent. And though I can really only speculate about who she was, her likely existence gave me opportunity to create some fond memories of my own from childhood; ones that I would stow away in my bag of experiences, and fondly revisit from time to time. Memories of adventure, of great food, of classy ambience, of a city’s energy, and of a simple joy found between people when they sit down to a wonderful meal together. Whoever Hella was, she was the inspiration behind the name of one of downtown Detroit’s first and oldest Greek restaurants in the Greektown district of the city, Hella’s Cafe. Opened in 1901, Hella’s Cafe was a classically beautiful, old restaurant with embroidered booths and heavy, dark, carved-wood paneling and tall ceilings; it was both sophisticated and cheerfully exuberant, all at once. It was a place that a kid could experience flaming, fried cheese go by on a platter, a delicious fragrance trailing behind it, and merry waiters yelling “OPA!” as they hit that dramatic flame with a squeeze of lemon, causing it to flare up wildly—what a spectacular show for my young eyes to behold! Traveling the 35-40 minutes on the I-75 to the heart of downtown Detroit from the small-town suburb I lived in was a pretty neat thing; it always felt like an adventure to me. An adventure into the heart of an old, bustling and vibrant city, an important city at the pinnacle of its game; a city I was proud to say I hailed from a suburb of. But now, that particular city—the downtown Detroit and Greektown of my youth—no longer exists in that way except in fuzzy memories, in bits and pieces, and in old photographs. These days, there are far too many vacated, dilapidated old buildings that in their heyday were gorgeous pieces of historic architecture, but now seem to be covered with the thick patina of sorrow that repels where charm once sparkled and attracted. It’s been a long time since I’ve been back, and I suspect it would seems a bit surreal now. Sadly, when I researched Hella’s Cafe recently, I found that the beloved restaurant, along with the entire building that housed it, are completely gone now, as of 2008—there’s nothing there. So strange. How can such a vibrant piece of a city’s history just disappear? How it can be as if it never existed? What a shame. But Hella’s Cafe did exist, and it continues to live on in my little mind’s scrapbook of memories. And I wonder if Hella would be glad about that, whoever she indeed was.
The first time I ever tried black-eyed peas was at Hella’s Cafe. My mother and father would order a big bowl of their famous black eyed pea soup as a starter to our meal, each and every time, without fail. That bowl of soup, alone, was worth the drive to Greektown—that’s how good it was. Knowing my mother, she would’ve been perfectly content making a meal just off of the soup and the fresh, warm basket of crusty bread they always served alongside of it; but since we always ordered other tasty morsels as well, the three of us would just set the bowl in the middle of the table, each taking turns getting spoonfuls and dipping bread, sharing the experience, as to not fill up too much before the main meal. This was a thick and hearty soup, a soup that was richly flavorful and slightly tangy from the tomatoey broth, full of love and all the rest that is good about life; and I can’t help but wonder if it was a recipe that was Hella’s very own that she herself passed down. As memorably delicious as it was, I couldn’t help but want to re-create this Greek-Style, Black Eyed Pea Stew to the best of my memory, as my personal homage to the cozy soup that my family and I so enjoyed at one of our favorite places to go. My intention was to fill it full of the love and the essence, the spice and the depth—the spirit—that the original always seemed to hold within it; and my hope is that Hella and her family would approve, indeed.
It’s always a bit of a surprising blow to find that a particular space or place that held a lot of good memories, is no longer physically there; it’s a bit eery. I can’t help but wonder if the laughter, the service and the joy that emanated from Hella’s Cafe is still being held suspended in time somehow, still there in spirit, for those of us that hold a fondness for it. I wonder if it waits there in silence, on the corner, for those of us that it meant something to, and would whisper softly to our hearts if we walked by where it once stood. Too many people spent time there at Hella’s over the years enjoying big bowls of their famous black-eyed pea soup and bread, just like my family and I did; too much soul went into that place for far too long. And though Hella’s Cafe in Greektown is no longer there in substance, the essence and soul of it always will be. So if, indeed, there was a real-life Hella that inspired that unique space, she must have lived her life in a loving way; because today, 112 years after the doors of that restaurant first opened, and five years now after they’ve closed, I sit here imagining the inspiring impact that her life had on those that she loved and who loved her, enough of an impact that warranted a restaurant being named after her, which in-turn provided precious and delicious memories for the rest of us that had the privilege of visiting her name’s sake.
Taste what’s good and pass it on.
Greek-Style, Black-eyed Pea Stew with Ground Beef, Spices and Oregano
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(Serves about 6 entree-size portions)
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra
½ pound lean ground beef
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 onion, diced
3 celery ribs, diced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ tablespoons dry oregano
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
6 (15 ounce) cans black-eyed peas
5 cups beef (or chicken) stock, hot
2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons lemon juice
-Place a large pot over medium-high heat, and once hot, add the 3 tablespoons of olive oil; once the oil is hot, add the ground beef in, and using your spoon, break up the beef to crumble it well, and allow it to brown for about a minute or two; next, add in the sea salt and black pepper, as well as the diced onion, celery, carrots, minced garlic and dry oregano, and stir to combine; allow this mixture to cook for about 2 minutes; next, add in the cumin, cinnamon and tomato paste, and stir to combine; allow this to cook for about 1-2 minutes, to cook out the “raw” flavor or the tomato paste; next, add in the black-eyed peas and the beef (or chicken) stock, stir to combine, and simmer gently, covered, for about 20 minutes; after 20 minutes, smash the black-eyed peas lightly with a potato masher to break them up a bit and release their natural starches to thicken the stew; cover, and simmer an additional 20 minutes, stirring ever so often to keep the peas from sticking to the bottom of the pot; to finish the stew, add in the chopped parsley, lemon zest and lemon juice, and check to see if you need to add additional salt/pepper; serve with a little drizzle of olive oil on top, with warm, crusty bread on the side.