This piece is affiliated with New Orleans All The Way Live Episode 73: Food, Food, and More Food and Episode 167: Culinary Caretakers.
Eating the red beans that Tee-Eva makes, well, "it's always pleasure." Eva Perry, known better as Tee-Eva of Uptown's Tee-Eva's Pies and Pralines, is digging up mementos of her past, currently stashed away in a box underneath a table in her new 5201 Magazine St. establishment. Technically retired, her granddaughter, Keonna Thornton, runs the business presently and Tee-Eva says of the set-up, "She's now the owner and I assist her, I'm her backup."
All of the memorabilia comes from Perry's notoriety as a local celebrity: the wicker basket she used to carry around, filled with pralines and sweet potato pies to bars like Tipitina's and the Maple Leaf, the pictures of her from years of serving New Orleanians, t-shirts and noise makers from her days as an Ernie K-Doe Baby Doll, to the elusive picture of her and Spike Lee that she is currently digging through the box for. These are all documents of a woman who does more than just make Creole and Cajun soul food. On her career: "I was a one woman show. I cooked, I sang, I danced. So, it worked. And here I am today," she says, and it's true. Her success is based not just on the quality of her products, but also on her affable and charming personality.
Born in St. John the Baptist Parish, Tee-Eva began making red beans as part of the Monday wash day tradition. As she remembers it, "It's wash day, we open our windows, we put our pillows on the windowsill and beat them, we turn the blankets and shake them out, all the while the red beans are cooking." She began selling her wares around New Orleans in the mid-1980s, where bars, beauty salons, boutiques and even the police department would allow her to come in, toting her wicker basket, and sell directly to customers. In 1988, she opened up her first shop at 4711 Freret Street, where she served stuffed cabbage rolls, meatballs and spaghetti, bayou jambalaya, red fish, and corned beef and cabbage. With room for only sixteen people, Sunday brunch lines would wind around the block.
In 1995, she moved down to Magazine Street, with the familiar lemon yellow facade and cartoon faces. With a little space inside for customers to sit and eat, she operated primarily from a window on the street continuing to sell her pies, snowballs and red beans, amongst other things. Recently she moved to her new address at 5201 Magazine, formerly New York Pizza, where she continues to serve up the same favorites, with crawfish pies, cream cheese pecan pies, hot dogs, sweet potato pies, jambalaya, gumbo, pralines, snowballs and red beans for sale. Perry says of her food, "The customers, they're coming. And we've got a good product." She caters as well, with customers regularly requesting red beans and jambalaya for their parties. When folks come looking for her food in the summer, it does not surprise her that "They'll eat gumbo like they're eating ice cream." The food is served hot, but it is refreshing and nourishing in spite of the early August heat.
The cousin of Antoinette K-Doe, Perry was an Ernie K-Doe Baby Doll and sang backup for Ernie K-Doe along with Antoinette from 1997 to 2001. With Antoinette, she says, "We were so good together, we had lots of fun." From 1999 to 2001 she performed as a backup singer for K-Doe at JazzFest. Prior to this, she "knew him when he was singing gospel at the Baptist Church" and performing at the Dew Drop Inn.
In the early to mid-90s, she had two television shows, one on Channel 4, and the other on Channel 6, both called Tee-Eva Cooking. Recently, she's appeared on the shows of Anthony Bourdain and Jamie and Bobby Deen on the Travel Channel and Food Network respectively, advertising her products. On the television show Treme she second-lined non-stop for three full days during the pilot episode, and sat next to Wendell Pierce in episode four. Featured with a speaking role on a bus ride from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, she asked Pierce of his trip, "Was it for business or pleasure?" and he responded, "It's always pleasure."
If you can, stop by her shop and hopefully you'll get the chance to chat her up for a second. You'll find yourself wishing she was your own Tee, or maybe your mother, sister or grandmother. Her food is so good, it warms you right up, but it’s the stories that accompany the business that make the red beans taste a little more special than just plain old good. She charms you with her stories and smile; and she leaves you quoting Louis Armstrong, "Red Beans and Ricely yours."