End of a soulful era
Historic Granny’s Kitchen closes after 43 years of serving the community
BY CATHERINE ENNS GRIGAS
It is the end of an era for a beloved restaurant that was the heart — and soul — of Avenue D in Fort Pierce for 43 years.
Granny’s Kitchen, where Hassie Russ, 77, and her husband, Charles, 78, have served up Hassie’s family recipes since 1975, closed Feb.2. The Russes are ready for retirement and have sold the building, which includes not only the modest four-table restaurant, but a banquet room where birthday parties, wedding receptions and baby showers were held.
It was a landmark on the main street of Fort Pierce’s African-American community, and its closing will leave a hole.
“Everybody says that,” Hassie Russ says. “It makes me not want to do it.”
It was a cozy spot with a classic soul food menu — fried chicken, smothered pork chops, chitterlings, collard greens and sweet potato pie, along with the best oxtails and gravy in the county served up with a friendly smile. It was a place where blacks and whites, and people from all walks of life, could go to get a delicious down-home meal with all the trimmings for a reasonable price.
It has also been a mecca for tourists from across the country on the trail of the renowned Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was Hassie’s next door neighbor, and the local artists who achieved fame as the Highwaymen, many of them Hassie’s friends.
When The New York Times came to trace the footsteps of Hurston’s last days, which were spent in Fort Pierce, Granny’s Kitchen was featured in the 2010 article. It stands alone as the only Treasure Coast restaurant to ever have been mentioned in The Times for its food.
“After The New York Times article, it all started,” she says. “The tourists found me.”
The longest running business on Avenue D, with the exception of Sarah’s Memorial Chapel (formerly Percy C. Peek Funeral Home), Granny’s Kitchen has been an encouraging stable force on a street that at times was notorious for drugs and crime. The Russes were at the forefront of helping to change the reputation of Avenue D, working with the Fort Pierce Redevelopment Agency.
“Every town has an Avenue D,” Russ says. “But we were able to take some of the negative away and it has been very rewarding for us as business people in the black community.”
The business received a matching grant from the Fort Pierce Redevelopment Agency to add on the banquet room and office space. The banquet room became a much-needed gathering space for the community.
She says that all that time in business, the restaurant was never robbed.
“People have always respected us,” she says. “This is my territory, and our whole family is here.”
At one time or another, all four of their children, Angela, Tharesa, Greg and Fenee, as well as grandchildren, have worked at Granny’s.
She says one of her proudest moments was when Lincoln Park Academy’s Class of 1965 had its reunion at her banquet hall. Longtime music teacher Earl Little, known affectionately as “Mr. Little” to generations of Lincoln Park and Fort Pierce Central High School students, came and told the group, “We have to thank Charles and Hassie for restoring the dignity of Avenue D.”
Artist Anita Prentice met Hassie in 2006 at the first Zorafest, which celebrated Hurston and her time in Fort Pierce from 1957 until her death in 1960. Granny’s Kitchen was the last stop on the tour and educators from all over the country gathered to talk and feast on the Russes’ cooking.
“There is a renaissance in that part of town and I really feel like Hassie led the parade,” she says. “The closing is bittersweet because it is an iconographic restaurant, but I know Hassie has been working so hard for so long. I’m really proud of Hassie’s whole story, to be a woman of color and start a restaurant during that time.”
Sitting in the banquet room, where colorful paintings by Prentice and the Highwaymen artists are on display, Russ smiles when she thinks back to her early days in Fort Pierce and the historical events that have swirled around her.
Granny’s Kitchen owner Hassie Russ often regaled customers with her stories of her friendship with famed author Zora Neale Hurston. She and husband, Charles. closed their restaurant, which had been featured in The New York Times, on Feb. 2 to retire. WALT HINES PHOTO
FAMILY OF COOKS
She grew up in Brunswick, Ga., where her mother, Helen Morris, was a boarding house cook. Her aunt Hassie Elliot, whom she is named for, worked as a cook at The Cloister, the renowned resort in Sea Island, Ga. They were two strong women who knew their way around the kitchen.
They also looked out for others, she says, part of the hospitable nature that still runs through the family. She remembers them setting out eggs, grits and biscuits for the hoboes who came off the train where they lived in Brunswick, saying, “If not for the grace of God, it could be us.”
Even in those Jim Crow days, the coastal Georgia town was a good place for a young black woman to grow up, she says, noting that there was an Olympic-sized swimming pool for the black community. The drive-in theater there was integrated, she says, pointing out that Charles would have never believed it if she hadn’t taken him there after they were married.
But when her mother remarried, the family moved to Fort Pierce. “I cried every day,” she says. “I didn’t want to move. Florida was a cultural shock.”
When she started at Lincoln Park Academy, Hurston was her substitute English teacher. Hurston, then down on her luck, regaled the students with stories of Harlem in its heyday.
“I guess she must have seen something in me,” Russ says. “I had an aunt who had been in New York, she had graduated from beautician school in 1951, and told me about dancing at the Savoy, and Zora’s stories caught my attention.”
APPLE OF HIS EYE
Charles Russ had also caught her attention. She chuckles when she remembers buying an apple every day and putting it on her desk, located next to the hallway so she could catch some breeze in the non-air conditioned school. Charles, whose family owned a grocery store, would step in the door and take her apple.
“Charles Russ had a store full of apples, but he would take mine,” she says with a smile.
Not soon after the two graduated from LPA, they were married and began working together at a little grocery store Charles opened at 901 Avenue D in 1965.
The Russes grocery store served a community service then. It was a place where the neighborhood kids could come and get some spiced meat, bread and juice to eat while their parents were out working in the orange groves. They kept an eye out for the neighborhood children, many of whom Hassie still refers to as “my kids.” They donated the sports drinks for the Pop Warner football league, and Hassie would dress the young students who were modeling prom outfits at Fort Pierce Central High School from the mens clothing shop she operated next door.
DREAM COMES TRUE
But she harbored a dream of opening a restaurant, and she finally opened Granny’s Kitchen — named for her mother — in 1975 after finally convincing her husband it was a worthwhile venture.
While Charles was reluctant at first, it seemed a natural fit for Hassie, who used the family recipes her mother had handed down to her.
“Everything I cooked, I learned from my mother,” she says.
Except for one dish. The popular oxtails were Hassie’s own recipe. Beef for the beef stew had gotten too expensive, and customers were requesting oxtails.
“I asked my mother if she had a recipe for oxtails, and she said, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t help you there.’ So, I took our recipe for beef stew, experimented and used oxtails. It started outselling everything on the menu,” she says.
The restaurant business was good, and eventually they closed the grocery store. Charles took over the cooking and Hassie made the desserts. Their employees were neighborhood kids in the summer, or people they knew who might need a hand-up.
She made a point of rewarding the neighborhood kids with free meals if they did well in school.
TIME HAS COME
After decades of serving breakfast and lunch, Hassie says it is time for the couple to retire. She was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, but has recovered and is doing well. Their son, Greg, who was set to take over the restaurant, has health problems that prevent him from continuing the business.
They have plans to travel more and to take their grandchildren to see where Hassie grew up in Georgia. “We love road trips,” Hassie says. “I love getting those travel tickets from the AAA.”
But the mark they left on the community will be long lasting. If anyone has left a place better than when they arrived, it is the Russ family.
The sign hanging on Granny’s walls, says it all. “Good Food. Good Friends. Good Times.”
“Sometimes I find it hard to believe,” she says. “Me, a little black girl from Brunswick, Georgia, who lived aside the railroad tracks.”
Restaurateur’s historical links go back to Hurston, Highwaymen
Although she didn’t realize it at the time, Hassie Russ had a window into some historical events that figure prominently in not only local history, but African-American history.
Her teacher at Lincoln Park Academy was Zora Neale Hurston, who had gained fame for her writing and her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Toward the end of her career, she came to Fort Pierce to report for the Fort Pierce Chronicle.
Although the students didn’t know she was a famous writer at the time, Russ says she was mesmerized by her stories.
A few years later, the two met again when she spied Hurston, who had moved in next door to her home on Avenue I, where Hurston lived in a house owned by Dr. Clem C. Benton.
“She was out working in her flowers – she loved flowers – when we got reunited,” she recalls. “I was taking out the garbage and I thought I saw someone who looked like Miss Hurston. She said to me, ‘Oh, it’s my girl. Hassie, is that you?’ ”
Russ would take her flowers and plants that her mother had rooted for the writer and bring her meals, even as Hurston’s health declined.
“She had found a couple of old fruit crates and had put a piece of board across it to use as a desk,” Russ says. “She had an old two-burner oil stove. She lived very simply. Even when she was sick, she never showed it. She never complained,” she says of Hurston, who died in Fort Pierce in 1960.
Her high school friend, James Gibson, was one of the young pallbearers at Hurston’s funeral. Gibson was an artist who painted landscapes and sold them door-to-door. He later became known as one of the original Highwaymen. Russ laughs when she remembers that her husband, Charles, teased her that Gibson was her secret sweetheart.
“We would spend Christmas and Thanksgiving together and go on family trips together,” she says. When her youngest daughter received her doctorate, Gibson gave her one of his paintings. Two of his paintings hung in the restaurant’s banquet room.
Gibson died of a heart attack a year ago April.
Another Highwaymen painting that hung in the banquet hall was a scene by Al “Blood” Black. Russ knew him as a seasonal worker. He eventually ran afoul of the law and spent 12 years in state prison. He became known for the murals he painted on the prison walls.
“We were the first place he came to when he got out of prison,” she says. “He told me he had something special for me and he had a painting wrapped up like a gift. I was just finishing the work on the banquet hall and when I finally unwrapped the painting, the colors in it were exactly right for the room.”
One painting that didn’t hang in the banquet room, but in a special spot in her home, was a painting by the one of the original Highwaymen, Alfred Hair. Her friend, Doretha Hair Truesdell, who was Alfred’s wife, had gotten her name in a Secret Santa gift exchange. Truesdell gave Russ one of Hair’s paintings as a gift.
“It was still wet,” she says with a laugh, noting one of the trademark characteristics of Highwaymen paintings, which were done so quickly they didn’t have time to dry before they went out on the road to be sold. Truesdell became an artist in her own right and her son is married to Hair’s niece.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” Russ says. “There are so many memories.”
New York Times review:
2007 Article by Camille S. Yates:
Bill Maxwell story on Zora Neale Hurston: