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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

E & A Soul Food Restaurant

At Easter Benson's E & A Soul Food Restaurant, at the corner of Governor and Straight Streets, in the shadow of the Erie Railroad overpass, soul food, as she describes it, is homemade and highly- seasoned. It includes such items as biscuits, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, fresh vegetables (pinto and lima beans, field peas, cabbage, collard greens, string beans, candied yams), barbecued spare ribs, pork chops, sausage and peppers, stewed chicken, fried chicken, barbecued chicken, baked chicken, oxtail, hog's-head cheese, and much more. The term "soul food" refers to African-American foods emanating from the South, but with roots in African culinary traditions. It is a thriving cuisine in Paterson, with at least three restaurants serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to hundreds of residents every day.

Benson talks with and poses with a regular customer.

Easter Benson had no thoughts of running a restaurant when, in the 1970s, she opened a candy store across from her house at Tenth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street. It was a modest shop without a name, almost an extension of her own home. Like Reverend McDowell, she was already employed full-time at another job, and the candy store's hours of operation revolved around her work schedule. Therefore, it was open a couple of hours before work each morning and after work until ten at night.

After a year, her husband installed a stove and a refrigerator in the store, and she started cooking for her family, tying her place of business even more closely to her household. Soon, in response to passersby and regular customers who asked if they could buy plates of food, she began selling fried chicken, collard greens, rice, and biscuits. A visit by an official with the board of health, who said she would have to begin keeping books, prompted her to find a new space suitable for the expansion of her burgeoning restaurant business.

Benson placing biscuits on baking sheets.

In 1986, E & A Soul Food Restaurant opened and changed Benson's life. Ever since, she has operated on four hours of sleep a night, with almost every waking hour devoted to the business. Her day begins at 3:30 A.M., when she leaves her house and drives to the Railroad Avenue farmers' market to purchase a day's supply of fresh vegetables. She is the only woman there at that time of day.

Once back at the restaurant, she unloads her purchases, and then begins to make the morning biscuits — following a recipe she has been making "by feel" since she was a child — while two cooks prepare other breakfast staples. The restaurant opens at 5:30 A.M. Throughout the day, Benson supervises the kitchen; peels potatoes; cuts collards, cabbage, beans and more; goes out to pick up meat and poultry; plans the next day's menu; and chats with her customers.

Close-up of Benson's hand placing uncooked biscuits on baking sheet.

In a city with few African-American women who are business owners, Easter Benson has turned a traditionally female skill into a successful enterprise. Like McDowell's BarberShop, her restaurant serves more than one function: it sells food (its primary function), provides a setting for socializing, and conserves an important tradition. The E & A Soul Food Restaurant is a place workers come to for coffee and conversation on their way to work, and a home-away-from-home for regulars, some of whom eat more than one meal a day there. It is also a place where African-American food traditions are perpetuated and shared within the community.

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