A Cozy Stew: Greek-Style, Black-Eyed Pea Stew, An Homage To A Place That Once Was

Greek-Style Black-Eyed Pea Stew

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.

Greek-Style Black-Eyed Pea Stew

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.

Greek-Style Black-Eyed Pea Stew

Greek-Style Black-Eyed Pea Stew

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

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.

{ 22 comments… add one }

  • Cindy February 25, 2013, 6:27 am

    Sureal is a very good way to explain my feelings about our beloved Detroit. I’m still a suburban Detroiter and work downtown and many times can only shake my head. It’s such a shame that a city as beautiful and diverse as ‘the D’ once was has been riddled with selfishness and corruption. There are still gems within the rubble, but it is going to be a long time before it gets back to the “bustling and vibrant city” that it once was.

    My dad worked at GM downtown and we met him for dinner at Hella’s on a number of occasions. While I never had the black-eyed pea soup, I have fond memories of my first Saganaki.

    Thanks for bring those memories back to the surface, and I can’t wait to try this little piece of Detroit!

    • The Cozy Apron February 25, 2013, 3:41 pm

      Hi Cindy, I’m thrilled to have gotten a comment from a fellow “Detroiter”, and for your perspective on things there now. I really appreciate you sharing some of your thoughts with me, especially your own personal memories and connection to Hella’s. It was a unique place, indeed, and I’m glad that you, too, had a little stroll down memory lane with it. Thanks for stopping by, and if you end up giving the recipe a try, I hope you enjoy it!

  • MC February 26, 2013, 7:56 pm

    This looks utterly comforting and delicious as I’m searching for wintry soups and stews. Love the insight and history on the restaurant. Also love your blog and your photos-I’m truly inspired.

  • Efthymia February 27, 2013, 3:12 am

    I loved your post so very much, it hurts to say what I’m about to say: Unfortunatelly, Hella is no person. The word is “Hellas”, and it’s the word Greeks such as myself use to describe Greece. It’s a litle formal though, nowadays, we call it “Ellada”.


    Come to think about it, we also picture our homeland as a kind and pretty, nurturing mother. So, bottom line is, your post is not that much far from the truth. :)

    • The Cozy Apron February 27, 2013, 3:44 pm

      Hi Efthymia! I would truly like to thank you for sharing this information with me on what “Hellas” actually means; now, “she” is no longer an enigmatic mystery to me, as I can imagine her as a beloved homeland rather than a specific person. I’d like to thank you for your kind comments, and I can’t help but find it interesting that though she isn’t someones physical mother as it turns out, somehow I felt that “kind, pretty and nurturing” femininity, that spirit, that your beautiful motherland contains. Thank you for coming by to teach me something new!

  • Kristi @ My San Francisco Kitchen March 3, 2013, 11:27 am

    I love stews, and this one looks so comforting and inviting!

  • Barbara January 1, 2014, 5:47 pm

    Hello! I just wanted to say that I settled on this recipe when looking for one to incorporate black eyed peas for a New Year’s Day dinner with friends, and it was great! Compliments from everyone at the table. Thanks for sharing.

    • The Cozy Apron January 2, 2014, 6:41 pm

      Aw, well thank you so much, Barbara – I appreciate that very much! Glad you all enjoyed this special little stew; perfect for dinner with friends in the winter!

  • Jeff January 13, 2014, 11:12 am

    Hi Ingrid,
    Great article. Can’t wait to try this recipe. I grew up with a similar experience going to New Hellas as a kid and making a meal of their wonderful soup and bread. Not your typical “kids meal” options of today. I haven’t lived in the D area since 92, so was sorry to see New Hellas closed down after so many years. I grew black eyed peas in my garden this past summer by accident and have about 2 pounds of dried peas. Wondering if you have any thoughts on the conversion of the cans of peas to dried peas? In looking through your ingredient list, I was wondering if you found the soup to taste more like New Hellas with beef or chicken broth? In looking back, I can’t remember if I detected meat in the soup or not, which explains the 1/2 pound of meat. I always thought it was vegetarian.
    Thanks! -Jeff

    • The Cozy Apron January 13, 2014, 3:23 pm

      Hi Jeff! Small world… I haven’t lived there since ’92, either! So it looks like you get approximately 4 cans of beans to a pound of dry, so with your 2 lbs., you’d probably have between 7-8 cans worth. You could probably use most of what you already have, then. As far as the meat, I think you’re right that Hella’s version didn’t have any; my version is slightly heartier and “main meal”-like – you can certainly omit the meat altogether, if desired. As far as stock, I like the beef since I add the meat to mine; but you can easily use chicken – whatever’s most convenient! Hope you enjoy this, and thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your story, too! :-)

      • Jeff January 15, 2014, 9:29 am

        Thanks for the conversion. If accurate, I could get two batches of soup from my home grown- yum! Thanks for the info on the meat. We’re not vegetarians, but always looking for options for friends and guests. I think I’ll make it as written first and then tweak according to whatever historical taste receptors are in my brain from going to New Hellas over 20 years ago. I will also be attempting to duplicate their great bread. If I stumble upon something in my experiments, I’ll be sure to post!

  • mrsblocko March 16, 2014, 3:31 pm

    I made this and wrote about it. For some reason my soup turned out on the bland side. I’m pretty sure it was because I swapped out the beef stock for turkey stock. Lesson learned! Thank you for sharing the recipe. It was fun to try a new twist on a classic recipe.

  • Linda May 18, 2014, 5:42 pm

    This recipe looks awesome and I plan to make it sometime this week. When you add the beans am I to assume they are drained and rinsed or does it not matter … How did you do it.? Thank you too for posting the recipe.

    • The Cozy Apron May 19, 2014, 2:52 pm

      Hi Linda! Sorry about not being clearer—yes, drained and rinsed! Enjoy the recipe! :-)

      • Linda August 20, 2014, 3:26 pm

        Finally got to make this recipe and it is SO GOOD!!! Now I’m kicking myself for not making it sooner I love it that much. Now my favorite stew! Did I say how much I love it? (LOL). Thank you so much for sharing the recipe. You’re AWESOME!

        • The Cozy Apron August 20, 2014, 4:45 pm

          Hi Linda, you’re awesome for making this!! So glad you enjoyed; and better a little late than never, for sure! Thanks for your comments.

  • Jo January 1, 2015, 10:19 am

    For those interested in avoiding cholesterol, or in animal compassion, this recipe was easy to veganize. I substituted vegan (plant-protein) crumbles (various brands available at your local grocer), and store-bought vegetable broth, for the beef products. I just added the crumbles to heat during the last 20 minutes of cooking. This flavorful dish is great comfort food, and so nutritious! Thank you Ingrid!

    • The Cozy Apron January 1, 2015, 7:17 pm

      Jo, that’s really great! Thanks for sharing your veggie-friendly tweaks!

  • Temma February 5, 2015, 7:33 pm

    I grew up going to the Eastern Market and ate at Hellas almost every time for lunch we ended up leaving late. Such great memories. They also made the most amazing lemon rice soup. Thanks for sharing! I will definitely be making this soon

    • The Cozy Apron February 6, 2015, 10:33 am

      Hi Temma, so glad to have you stop by and share your comments! What a great place, eh? Small world…I do hope you try this recipe, and enjoy it!

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