South City

In photos: South Memphis celebrates Mother's Day at Miss Shirley's Soul Food

Miss Shirley's Soul Food restaurant, which has been open barely a year at the corner of Mississippi Boulevard and Georgia Avenue, welcomed families for its first Mother's Day lunch.

Families dressed in pastels and pushing baby strollers streamed into the restaurant on the corner of Mississippi Boulevard and Georgia Avenue. Photos of chicken dressing, collard greens and yams are hung on the marquee of what used to be home to motorcycle club but is now Miss Shirley’s Soul Food.

The restaurant’s namesake is Shirley Dugan, a slender-framed, ready-to-hug-you matriarch. Miss Shirley works alongside her sister Cynthia Woodard, who is usually behind the register, and a business partner Kenneth Pinkney, a former Marine sergeant who goes by “Sarge”. Two of Miss Shirley’s daughters also work at the restaurant helping to serve up plates and encourage people to consider some dessert. The restaurant just celebrated its one-year anniversary in early May.

Carl Merriweather carries his sleeping granddaughter Arianna while ordering his plate from the line at Miss Shirley's in South Memphis.

Between Mother’s Day and a reliable crowd of after-church regulars, Miss Shirley made sure to cook double what she usually cooks on Sundays, the restaurant’s busiest day. There is a rotating menu of meats and sides she offers throughout the week: turkey wings, meatloaf, fried fish, mac and cheese, pinto beans and broccoli and cheese casserole. On Sundays, they’re all available. Plates are generously piled in a styrofoam to-go box and run between $8 and $10.

Locally-drawn portraits of pop culture figures such as Lionel Richie, Sam Cooke and Jay-Z and Beyonce look over the dining area.

A decorative display in the dining area of Miss Shirley's Soul Food; Shirley Dugan, (second from L) namesake and head chef at Miss Shirley's Soul Food, stands for a portrait with her sister Cynthia Woodard and her daughters Lamyrical Brown (L) and Tomesha Billups (R).

Miss Shirley and her team dressed up the space for the families coming through on Mother’s Day and set out fresh flowers on bright plastic-protected tablecloths. The parties of multigenerational families coming to eat pushed four or five tables in order to sit together. Kids blew on big scoopfuls of greens still steaming from the serving line to cool them down before taking a bite. Customers who had finished their meals returned to the line to get seconds to take home.

Around 3 P.M. as the crowds started to slow and the end of the restaurant’s weekend hours approached, Miss Shirley sat in the corner trying to eat a little lunch of pinto beans and turkey in a styrofoam bowl.

“I’m so tired, but I’m not complaining,” she said while pushing her food around and smiling. “This has been a great day.”

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Read more articles by Andrea Morales.

Andrea Morales is a documentary photographer based in Memphis. Born in Lima, Peru, she grew up in Miami, earned a B.S. in journalism from the University of Florida and an M.A. in photography from Ohio University. Working for different newspapers moved her to cities and newsrooms of all size, including the El Sentinel in South Florida, the Lima News in NW Ohio and The New York Times in NYC. Most recently, she was on staff as a photographer at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, where she covered barn dances, ox pulls and presidential elections, all with equal joy.