The squat, bright yellow building with red trim that houses Two Sistas ‘N Da East has the hours of operation – 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. – painted in big red letters on its side beneath a sign that announces “Soul Food.” But these days, hours are fluid and subject to change, especially in the restaurant business, so we double-checked the hours to make sure. Google told us that the hours of operation had been updated by the business in the last two weeks. We felt good about it. So, it was even more surprising when a hand reached out the door with two fingers extended upward in the peace sign and we heard a voice say “11 a.m., baby.”
We looked at each other and laughed. A group of schoolteachers who were parked next to us also began to laugh. One of the teachers looked over and said, “That’s so New Orleans.” He wasn’t lying. We climbed back into our cars and the air-conditioning and waited.
At 10:59 the door of Two Sistas swung open, akin to the scene in “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” where Gene Wilder revealed himself to the lucky holders of the Golden Tickets, and people began to enter. We decided to wait in the car until 11:01 a.m. for good measure.
Inside the door, the specials were spelled out in red ink on a whiteboard and menus were stacked neatly on a table robed in a red checkered plastic. We were immediately greeted by a vivacious woman in a red shirt and black apron, with long eyelashes and a big smile.
“Sit wherever you want, baby, I’ll be right over,” she said, and then disappeared back into the kitchen.
We chose a four-top along the windowed wall on the eastern side of the building. The sun was streaming in warmly, casting long shadows across the dining room. In the center of the room was a memorial to the restaurant’s matriarch, Dorothy “Doris” Finister, who passed away on July 13, 2020. A large poster board bore the image of Finister, surrounded by tinsel plumes and silk flowers. In New Orleans, we honor our ancestors.
Our effervescent hostess headed back to the table to take our order and give us a history lesson. It turns out that she is not only our server, but Dorothy Finister’s daughter Shanel Finister, who runs the current iteration of the restaurant with her sisters Nadine Finister and Colette Tate.
“The original restaurant was at 223 North Derbigny St., downtown, one block off of Canal and Claiborne,” said Finister. “After Katrina, when the water totally demolished everything downtown, my mama retired. So, after she sat down for a year, my sister said, ‘You know what, we’re gonna continue this tradition.’ And then she came out to the East and found this building.”
That’s not to say that the transition has been easy.
“I like being out in the East, but I miss downtown. I miss all the cab drivers and city workers and the blue-collar workers that used to come. But with Uber and everything taking over…” said Finister, her voice trailing off. You could hear the ambivalence in her voice, the struggle to reconcile prediluvian New Orleans and what has come since.
Two Sistas has existed in its current location on Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans East for sixteen years. It is popular with “neighborhood people, as well as tourists,” according to Finister, and why wouldn’t it be? The reasonably priced plates overflow with soul food not commonly found in the Creole soul restaurants of New Orleans.
“My mama was from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi,” Finister said when we asked about her family’s culinary provenance. Bay St. Louis, which sits about an hour east of New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico, has some similar culinary influences – think seafood and gumbo – but also the biscuits and gravy culture of the deep south. This is reflected on Two Sistas menu, where shrimp and okra, gumbo and stuffed bell peppers sit side by side with stewed oxtails, stewed rabbit, and chitterlings. All plates are served with a fist-sized piece of buttered corn bread that could be a meal in and of itself. But it is the classic soul food that resonates with Finister’s customers.
“The customers actually love the oxtails and they also love chitterlings. They do,” Finister said, adding, “Not a fan of mine, but, I mean, they love ‘em. They love the chitterlings.”
For the unitiated, chitterlings, or chitlins as they are commonly known, are stewed pig intestines. And despite Finister’s preference, Two Sistas serves a lot of chitlins. In full disclosure, we didn’t get the chitlins, but we still put a sizable dent in the menu.
When you don’t know what to order, a good rule of thumb is to order as many things as you can, which we did: smothered shrimp and okra and a fried shrimp platter – it being lent and all – along with a stuffed bell pepper and a smothered pork chop plate (we took that to go). When Shanel asked if we wanted potato salad, too, we said yes. And of course, the house made Arnold Palmers – lemonade and sweet tea – to wash it all down.
The food hit the table in waves, beginning with the hearty hunks of cornbread and not-too-sweet Arnold Palmers. The cornbread, the top slathered with an “S” of butter was slightly sweet, crumbly and moist – almost cakelike. The cornbread alone was worth the trip. Next came the shrimp and okra, served over rice, and the stuffed bell pepper. The shrimp and okra, stewed with a generous amount of tomatoes, had a pleasant acidity that accented the iodine-y sweetness of the gulf shrimp; the bell pepper was classic New Orleans and deeply satisfying. In other places, a combination of rice and ground beef is a common bell pepper filling, with the peppers then cooked in a red tomato sauce. But in New Orleans, rice is eschewed in peppers. Here, the mixture is far richer – beef, shrimp, and sometimes ham, smoked or hot sausage, crabmeat – all bound together by seasoned breadcrumbs. Bell peppers are a serious a business, and their recipes are as closely guarded as gumbo.
The fried shrimp arrived next, served alongside stewed mustard greens, sweet potatoes and mac and cheese. The shrimp were plentiful, crispy, and well-seasoned, the sweet potatoes redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg, and the greens and the mac and cheese full of flavor. If you mix the potlikker – the savory juices from the greens – with the mac and cheese, nirvana is achieved (hours later, we ate the pork chop plate after a long day at work, and even reheated, it was delicious, the buttery pork floating on a bed of rice and gravy).
We had to know who was responsible for resuscitating our stomachs and our spirits, and the answer is not two, but three sisters.
“I do all the cooking,” Finister said emphatically. “I have my older sister Colette in the back, she does prep, and I do the cooking. And my middle sister Nadine – she says she does everything – runs for supplies, manages the bills.”
Two Sistas ‘N Da East exemplifies the familial bonds that once were a mainstay of restaurants throughout New Orleans. Ones that were passed down from one generation to the next. But they are slowly disappearing, and with them the culture they helped to create.
“We are the only ones left [from] the family that are still keeping it going,” said Finister. “It’s me, my middle sister, and my older sister. Like, we all have kids and they’re not interested. They don’t even come around. This generation, they’re not interested in hard work, especially pot cooking. I don’t even think our children can cook.”
She lets out a frustrated laugh. Pot cooking, meant to feed a large family on a tight budget, to tenderize tough cuts and elevate humble ingredients like oxtails, beans and chitlins, is a remnant of a different time. It is a vestige of the cooking of our grandmothers and great grandmothers who slowly stirred cast iron pots to extract every ounce of flavor. It is communal, in a world where fewer and fewer things are. And it embodies the scratch cooking that is falling out of favor in a quick-fix world.
“We make our cornbread fresh – everything,” said Finister pointedly. “We make our roux for our gravy. We don’t use gravy mix, we make a special roux in a cast iron pot and bake it. It’s good.”
To prove her point, she led us into the kitchen where the roux pots sat in hotel pans, nearly empty of their contents. On the stove, stockpots of gumbo and okra bubbled away over an open flame. Pans of braised pork chops and chicken were resting nearby. In the steam table, the sides sat at the ready. It was all perfectly analog, bereft of the beeping, buzzing cacophony of the modern kitchen. A place where the doneness of food is still determined by touch and taste and the internal clock of the cook.
“The difference between cooking now and when my mom and ‘em were cooking: they didn’t have all these convection ovens and superfast microwaves,” said Finister. “My mom taught us the old-school ways and that’s what we’re still doing. We’re still cooking out of cast iron pots.”
Every cook has a favorite pot, and Finister shows me one that is black on the bottom, or as she said, “Well seasoned.” It is an easy metaphor for both the food and for Two Sistas. In a world where food is fast and time is money, Finister’s old-time work ethic and slow food ethos is refreshing. She knows there is another way, but it’s not her way.
“Really easy, really fast,” said Finister with a smile, “We don’t do that.”
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