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In Honor of Mama Lillie's

“Ten Years ago it took less than $2,000 for Lillie May and her daughter Annie Eckles to open a small soul food restaurant at the corner of third and Potter street.”

-The Saginaw News, July 29, 1979.

Although now a vacant lot, for decades, Mama Lilies Restaurant was located at the end of Potter Street

Although today it is a vacant lot, for the latter part of the twentieth century, a small, concrete block building defined the east end of Potter Street - where Potter Street ends at N. 3rd Street. The building housed Mama Lillie’s, officially the L & A Restaurant. Although it was overshadowed by neighboring commercial buildings and the grand Flint & Pere Marquette Union station, its reputation was not eclipsed. A 1975 Saginaw News article claimed that it was “the only down home cooking, soul food restaurant in town.” The same article continued:

The small but bright yellow brick building stands out, next to a vacant lot adjoining the railroad

Although taken in the 1930s, Potter Street still looked much like this when Mama Lillie's opened in 1969

tracks crossing on N. 3rd.

It’s possible to miss the restaurant, however, if you see hug[e] diesel trucks parked on the street, and you don’t look around them to find the yellow building.

Many out-of-town, and even out-of-state truck drivers, who have heard about the restaurant stop at Mama Lillie’s if they are anywhere near Saginaw.

The owner and namesake of Mama Lillie’s was Lillie May. Born in Greenville, Alabama in 1923, she was raised in Pensacola, Florida and moved to Saginaw in 1950. She started working in restaurants when she was in her mid-teens. Before opening L & A Restaurant in 1969, she worked in a Saginaw cafeteria and other local restaurants.

At its peak, the paper reported the restaurant was open from 8:00 a.m. until 12:00 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday. On Saturday, it was open 24 hours. It was a family operation and Lillie May’s husband, William May, and daughter, Annie Echols, worked with her. After Lillie May’s death in 1997, her daughter continued to operate the eatery.

When Annie Echols passed away in 2005 her obituary noted “Annie was the Head Cook at Mama Lillie’s Restaurant She loved to serve and cook for the public She was a ‘people-person’ who had a special gift for helping others and she helped many, many people along the way.”

Listings of North #rd Street businesses from 1970s city directories

Unfortunately, we do not have an actual recipe – or any of the cooking secrets that Mrs. May described sharing with her daughter. However, we have selected a recipe from Kevin Belton’s Big Flavors of New Orleans that seems to reflect the type of dishes included on the menu. And, it was a large menu that included, smothered chicken, black eyed peas, cornbread, greens, chicken and dumplings, candied yams, succotash, bean soup and much more.

As you prepare this dish keep in mind Lillie May’s advice. “In the soul-food business you have to be very careful to account for everything. There can be no waste. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself in a financial hole and that hole is hard to get out of.”

Note: If you have a recipe from Mama Lillie’s or from the May or Eckels family, please share it with us and we will feature it in a future post.

The Recipe: Black Eyed Peas and Andouille

From Kevin Belton, Big Flavors of New Orleans with Rhonda K. Findley

6 tablespoons butter

1 cup chopped yellow onion

½ pound pickled meat*

½ pound andouille sausage

2 tablespoons Creole seasoning

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 bay leaf

16 ounces dried black-eyed peas, soaked**

1 quart chicken stock

Cooked white rice

¼ cup chopped green onions

¼ cup chopped Italian parsley

In a large heavy bottom soup pan, heat butter and sauté onions until translucent, about 7 minutes. Add pickled meat and andouille. Sauté for 2 minutes. Add Creole seasoning and sauté for about 1 minute. Add tomato paste and bay leaf. Continue to sauté for about 3 minutes to allow favors to marry. Stir continuously.

Add black-eyed peas and stir for 1 minute. Add stock slowly and continue to stir. Bring to a boil for 1 minute. Reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes or until beans are tender. Add additional stock if beans become dry. Continue to simmer for another 20 minutes.

Serve over rice and garnish with green onion and parsley.

Recipe Tips & Suggestions:

Soak your beans overnight in the refrigerator for a speedy, tender dish. You can cook this without sausage or try any firm, smoked sausage.

Notes from the Test Kitchen:

* We subbed in a pork hock/ham hock for the "pickled meat" as it was hard to find and this added in the salt needed for the peas. We suggest adding a squeeze of lemon juice before serving if a punch of acid is desired. We added in the hock with the stock before simmering. The meat can be shredded off the hock and added to the beans.

**We quick soaked our peas for this recipe and it turned out great: Rinse and sort peas/beans in a colander. Place peas in large pot and cover with cool water. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes. Turn off heat, cover, and soak for 1 hour. Rinse in colander and use in recipe. We used the same pan to then cook our recipe--to save on washing.

-Keep a close eye on the onions, sausage, and tomato paste while sautéing. This could easily burn, but does leave a nice crust on the bottom of the pan. Make sure to scrape this up when adding the beans and stock to deglaze the pan as it holds a lot of flavor.

For more information on Kevin Belton and his recipes, see the links below:


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