Growing up the oldest child in a family of 19 kids in Natchez, Mississippi, Sarah Isaac was a seasoned Southern cook before she hit her teens.
Her fried chicken, smothered steak, cobbler, greens, cornbread and mac-and-cheese enabled her family to get an economic toehold in Chicago. She started catering meals by the plate and eventually began operating popular South Side snack shops.
“She was almost like Grubhub,” said her son Richard “Ike” Isaac. “She was a heckuva cook.”
Muhammad Ali used to drop in at Sarah’s Kitchen at 69th and Stony Island, a busy dinette that drew lots of people who went to see shows at the Stony Theater down the block. Sometimes she stayed open late to feed Smokey Robinson and the Miracles or The Temptations after they finished a show at the old Regal Theater, her son said.
Mrs. Isaac, 92, died Feb. 23 at a ManorCare hospice. She had cancer, he said.
She was the daughter of Henry and Mary Chatman. Her father supported his 19 kids by working as a welder.
Sarah decided to move north at 17 after an encounter with an abusive police officer convinced her she wouldn’t be safe in Mississippi, her son said.
It happened at a Natchez movie theater. “The colored section was upstairs and the white section was downstairs,” he said. “Some young, little black guys were taking peanut shells and dropped them down below” onto white viewers.
The police were called. The movie was shut down.
When an officer repeatedly asked if she’d been involved in tossing the peanuts, she grew frustrated and began to raise her voice, reiterating, “I told you, I wasn’t throwing anything.”
At that, “He slapped her, and he slapped her so hard she soiled on herself,” her son said. “She went home and cried and told her mother, ‘I have to get out of Mississippi. Either I’m going to kill somebody or somebody is going to kill me.’ ”
And all her life, despite the strides of the civil rights movement, she would say, “Mississippi’s always going to be Mississippi.”
She went to live with an aunt in St. Louis and moved on, eventually, Chicago, where she met her future husband of more than 50 years, also named Richard Isaac. She ushered at her church, Olivet Baptist at 31st and King Drive. She loved bowling in leagues and was loyal to the White Sox, taking her kids to Comiskey Park whenever the New York Yankees were in town. “I saw Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris,” her son said.
Mrs. Isaac landed jobs at the old St. Luke’s Hospital and a night shift at Butternut Bread. “She worked all these odd jobs till she decided enough’s enough,” her son said, and opened Sarah’s Kitchen in the late 1960s. When Ali lived in the neighborhood, he’d sometimes duck in to escape fans who followed him around. “He would walk by and she would knock on the window. There was always a crowd,” her son said. “He would come in and take a break.”
She was a restaurateur from the late 1960s to the 1980s. After opening Sarah’s Kitchen on Stony Island, she operated snack shops at a Jeffery Manor bowling alley near 79th Street and Jeffery Avenue and in Roberts Bowl at 66th Street and King Drive.
The Isaacs raised their children in Bronzeville and Hyde Park. Then, “with the money she made with the restaurant, she bought us a house at 84th and Jeffery,” her son said.
The Isaac home was a way station for relatives who came north in the Great Migration. “Every single brother and sister who came to Chicago, they came and stayed here,” her son said.
Later in life, the Isaacs moved into Pioneer Village at 38th and King Drive, where she often cooked and cleaned for other residents who had trouble getting around. “She’d say, ‘Ima pray for you,’ ” her son said.
Mrs. Isaac is also survived by her daughter Noreen Crawford, many brothers and sisters, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services were held at St. John Church-Baptist, 4821 S. Michigan Ave.