Eva Lois Perry Adams, known as "Tee Eva," a beloved New Orleans baker and Carnival "baby doll," died Thursday at University Medical Center after a stroke. She was 83.
Well-known for the tasty pralines and pies that she sold from a hand-carried basket and from her Magazine Street shop, she was also known for her crucial role in helping to revive the Carnival "baby doll" tradition after it nearly died out in the city’s African-American communities.
On Mardi Gras, groups of women stroll through town wearing satin "baby doll" outfits and toting booze-filled baby bottles.
In a statement, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, said: "New Orleans has lost an icon, an inspiration and a true original with the passing of Tee Eva. Her pralines and sweets were a local treasure, and the Baby Dolls represent the true culture of New Orleans. She was a culinary and cultural legend."
To Resa “Cinnamon Black” Bazile, Adams was the archetype of the independent, generous women who have carried on the "baby doll" tradition for a century: “Ms. Tee Eva was the perfect doll: She had her own business, her own car, her own house.”
Adams was the oldest active woman still dressing in the tradition’s standard costume: short frocks, bloomers and bonnets, said Carol “Baby Doll Kit” Harris, a close friend.
To Harris, Adams’ classic greeting — “All right, little girl” — also expressed the motherly touch she had with all the younger baby dolls, even those in their 50s and 60s and those who towered above her 5-foot 3-inch frame.
For about a decade starting in the early 1990s, Adams also paired up with her friend Antoinette K-Doe to travel the world as backup singers for Antoinette’s husband, flamboyant rhythm and blues singer Ernie K-Doe.
Their tours included a 1999 Fourth of July appearance in Washington, D.C., where the three sported hand-sewn, red, white and blue stage outfits and Uncle Sam-style stovepipe hats.
Adams was raised in New Orleans' Central City; in 1941, her family was one of the first to move into the Magnolia public housing development.
After her mother died in childbirth when Eva was 10, she was raised by her aunt Melvina deShields, a renowned baker and cook.
“She made the lemon icebox pies, and she made the pound cakes, and she made the bread pudding, and God, she stewed the good hens and all,” Adams told interviewer Sara Roahen in 2011 during a Southern Foodways Alliance oral history.
From another aunt, named Ida, Adams learned how to make pralines. And in the kitchens of the Orleans Parish School Board, she learned “to cook institutional,” for large groups of people, she told Roahen.
During the early 1980s, she left town and worked as a caterer in Hollywood, including at parties hosted by stars like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Mr. T. But after an earthquake hit California, she returned to New Orleans and began walking a regular route with her basket, selling pies and pralines in beauty shops, the Maple Leaf Bar, courthouses and festivals.
Around that time, she told Roahen, she had a "eureka" moment while watching chef Paul Prudhomme cooking blackened redfish on television.
“What happened to the Creoles?” asked Adams, whose ancestors were French-speaking Creoles from the River Parishes. So she sat down with a sheet of paper, wrote out a menu of Creole dishes and gave her new business a name, “Tee Eva’s,” a name suggested by her daughter because Adams had so many nieces and nephews who called her by that name.
In 1989, she opened the first location of Tee Eva’s, a restaurant at 4711 Freret St. that became a popular brunch spot. But she was forced to shut down temporarily after vandals pulled off the front door and stole everything inside, including pies, pralines and her television.
In 1992, she met Michael Laumenn and rented the cinder block building, freshly painted yellow, that stood in the front of his house at 4430 Magazine St. and had long been run by his mother as Fannie’s Sno-Balls.
Revising the menu, Adams sold baked goods, sno-balls, red beans, jambalaya and filé gumbo from its take-out window for 17 years. In 2009, the shop moved to its current location at 5201 Magazine.
She officially retired in 2000, leaving granddaughter Keonna Thornton, 41, to run her shop, Tee Eva’s Old-Fashioned Pies and Pralines. But until the very end, Adams continued to sell her red beans and baked goods around town.
“She never stopped,” said Thornton, who recalled that, as recently as March, during the annual Super Sunday gathering of Mardi Gras Indians, she helped her grandmother set up a table. “She was out there, selling and dancing,” she said.
Despite her supposed retirement, Adams remained a fixture in the front of the shop. “She just loved to meet people and hear their stories. That’s what kept her going,” Thornton said.
Survivors include her husband, Louis Adams; a daughter, Vanessa Thornton, of New Orleans; three grandchildren, Keonna Thornton and Kiarra Gibson, of New Orleans, and Raynall J. Thornton Jr., of Twenty Nine Palms, Calif.; and four great-grandchildren.
A second-line in Adams’ honor will leave her Magazine Street shop at 6 p.m. Monday.
A funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Guiding Light Missionary Baptist Church, 2010 Washington Ave. Visitation will begin at 9 a.m. Charbonnet Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.
A second line will be held on Monday, June 11 at 6 p.m. starting from Tee-Eva's Authentic New Orleans Pralines (5201 Magazine St.).