Overlooked No More: Lillian Harris Dean, Culinary Entrepreneur Known as ‘Pig Foot Mary’

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

It’s fall, maybe October, in the early 1900s. On a bustling Manhattan street corner, Lillian Harris Dean stands in a starched gingham dress, her fingers resting on the handlebar of a baby carriage.

“Pig’s feet!” she cries to passing neighbors, as she does in a play about her life written by Daniel Carlton. “A taste of down home for your weary bones.”

From the baby carriage — an early version of a food truck perhaps — Harris Dean sold traditional Southern meals: fried chicken, corn and, of course, pig’s feet. Her cooking soothed the palates of African-American transplants who, like her, had come to the unfamiliar metropolis in the purgatorial period between Reconstruction and the Great Migration.

Lillian Harris was born in the Mississippi Delta between 1870 and 1873, according to a 1929 obituary published in The New York Age, a local African-American newspaper. Her parents were also born in Mississippi, census records show.

After the end of slavery, Harris “drifted into New York penniless” in 1901, the prominent black journalist Roi Ottley wrote in “Springtime in Harlem,” an article he published in his 1943 book “New World A-Coming: Inside Black America.”

She saved her first $5 while working as a maid in New York, polishing floors and shaking out sheets. With her savings she bought a secondhand baby carriage, a 59-cent tin boiler and a charcoal stove. She set up shop each day on a corner near Columbus Circle, alternating between the only two cotton dresses she owned.

“From the beginning, Miss Harris exercised care and cleanliness,” The Age said of her in a profile in 1923. “Everything about it was spotlessly clean, including her own poor garments.”

Soon, she traded in the baby carriage for a portable steam table that she had designed herself. After two years, she moved her business to Amsterdam Avenue between 61st and 62nd streets, where she stayed for 11 years. Business blossomed. She went from selling a dozen pigs’ feet a day to more than 100 a day and 325 on Saturdays. Though her cooking methods are lost to time, she most likely first boiled the pigs’ feet, which are similar in consistency to sausage, and then served them fried.

“As many as 25 customers have stood in line at her stand waiting to be served,” The Age wrote, adding that “she had people eating pigs’ feet who never ate pigs’ feet before.”

People came from as far away as New Jersey and Long Island just to try her cooking, the newspaper wrote.

Harris Dean became a philanthropist later in life. In 1927 she gained attention for cooking “an old fashion pig foot dinner” for the Working Women’s League. An article in The Age about the event described her as “one of the wealthiest women in Harlem.”

She left New York in 1923 and traveled for six months, stopping in places like Yellowstone National Park and Los Angeles, The Age wrote.

She died, on July 16, 1929, in Los Angeles while visiting friends. By then she had amassed a fortune of $375,000 (about $5.5 million today).

Her body was brought back to New York, and hundreds came to the funeral. The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and the father of the future congressman, gave her eulogy, praising her for “her business ability, her thrift and her desire to help her race.”

Jack Begg contributed research.

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