All Roads Lead Back to Brooklyn
By Palmer Hasty
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
In the past two decades, Brooklyn native Ina Pinkney has become one of Chicago’s most beloved restaurateurs, affectionately known in the Windy City as “The Breakfast Queen.”
She recently published a cookbook with memoirs titled Taste Memories: Recipes for Life and Breakfast, and officially announced that after 33 years in the food business, she will simply close the doors of her famous Ina’s restaurant on the last day of the year. As she said in a recent interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, “on the first day of the year I’m closing it forever, no party, thank you very much, that’s it.”
That’s an over-simplification of course. In her role as owner and executive chef of Ina’s for more than two decades, she once said in reference to her many customers that “there is an honor, a responsibility, an unspoken contract, to be the receiver of their good will and their stories.”
Pinkney has the air of someone who takes her success in stride, but never takes it for granted. All her life she has had to deal with the challenges and underlying pain of a disability.
Ina Pinkney was born Ina Brody in 1943 in Bensonhurst, at 8023 19th Avenue at 81st Street. When she was just a year old on Labor Day in 1944, Pinkney was trying to stand up in her crib. She tried to stand several times and kept falling down. Her father, who was in the room at the time, was terrified. That same weekend a spinal tap verified she was a victim of the polio epidemic that swept through New York and Brooklyn in the 1940s.
The March of Dimes provided a brace, but when her “drop foot” didn’t improve, the brace was changed to a cast.
During this time, Pinkney’s father had heard that a woman named Sister Elizabeth Kenny was in New York. Sister Kenny was an Australian nurse who had successfully treated patients during a polio epidemic among the Aborigines. Sister Kenny was controversial at the time and was in New York trying to persuade the medical community that her methods of treating polio were legitimate and valuable.
Pinkney’s father, an extremely devoted family man, was desperate to help his daughter, and eventually located the hotel where Sister Kenny was staying. When she arrived at the Pinkney residence, Pinkney’s father was told that Sister Kinney would not see his daughter unless there was a doctor present. Pinkney’s father went around the corner and returned with the family doctor.
Sister Kenny removed Pinkney’s cast and dramatically declared the obvious: “This is not a broken leg, this is polio.” Instead of confining the muscles with a cast, she recommended daily hot pack treatments and massage.
It was war time, so her father had to find a St. Mary’s wool blanket on the black market. He would cut the blanket into 24” x 8” pieces to use for hot pack treatments. As a child, Pinkney had to endure the daily treatments and massages on the kitchen table for years.
Almost 70 years later she still describes herself with her Brooklyn identity. “I was a Brooklyn baby. It’s true I moved away when I was 10 years old, but my DNA is Brooklyn. There’s something about people who grow up in Brooklyn, we think nothing is impossible.” Pinkney’s life is a fascinating reflection of that “Brooklyn” spirit.
In spite of her childhood polio, she attended PS 186 in Brooklyn. Years later she recalled her time in elementary school with a poetic image from a prose poem she wrote titled Prima Ballerina that she read in April of this year for The Second Story on Stitcher Radio. “It was the beginning of my sense of otherness, my complete difference from other kids. I was the envy sitting in my desk at school, I was so smart. But in the schoolyard, I was prey.”
When asked about that image, she said, “yes, I was taunted mercilessly, isolated and marginalized. I was the one who never had to go down the stairs during the fire drills.”
Pinkney’s devoted father was a Russian immigrant who moved to Brooklyn from Philadelphia and worked in the garment district in Manhattan.
She recalled other scenes from her Brooklyn childhood with fondness; “Everyday I would sit on my dad’s lap and he would read the Brooklyn Eagle to me. It was a mainstay of our house, and everybody else in the apartment building read the paper. And news of the Brooklyn Dodgers was always an important part of our reading sessions. My mother saved the daily papers because she would use them to cover her newly waxed floors, so they wouldn’t get scuffed before they thoroughly dried.”
Later, when she was six years old, surgery to lengthen her ankle cord was performed by Dr. Herb Fett, Jr., the official orthopedic surgeon for none other than the Brooklyn Dodgers. With obvious pride, Pinkney still refers to the Brooklyn Dodgers as “my team.”
Pinkney said the successful surgery gave her what she called a second chance, and so to this day, she says as far as she’s concerned, “everyone in my life gets a second chance.” About that experience Pinkney said in Prima Ballerina,“one never recovers from polio, but one can, however, pass for normal, which I did for most of my life.”
The Brody family moved away from Brooklyn when she was 10, but as she recalled “we always came back to visit my grandmother who lived on Bay 8th Street in Brooklyn, and my aunt Susie who lived on 53rd Street & Fort Hamilton Parkway.”
Ina moved to Manhattan when she was 22 and married Captain Bill Pinkney in 1965. Again, from Prima Ballerina: “I married a black man when interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states.”
She and Captain Pinkney moved to Chicago in 1977. In 1980 she started a surprise birthday cake delivery service. Apparently she made such great cake that the service morphed into a wholesale bakery an catering business called The Dessert Kitchen.
The Dessert Kitchen did very well, and in 1991 she opened her own restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. It was this popular restaurant that would become the source of her nickname “The Breakfast Queen.”
Then in 2001 she relocated Ina’s to Randolph Street in an area of Chicago called the West Loop, which is part of the Fulton Market District. At that time it was not considered an ideal location for a restaurant. Apparently that didn’t bother Pinkney in the least. She already had an established clientele who loved her food and followed her there. In fact, other well known Chicago chefs also followed her lead, and today several other popular Chicago restaurants thrive there.
For years, the patrons of her iconic eatery have been Chicago’s movers and shakers, politicians, CEOs, celebrities and whoever else loved good food. Eventually Pinkney had to deal with Post Polio Syndrome, which forced her to use a cane. She had to leave the kitchen and train a staff of chefs while she continued to greet people at the door and socialize with the clientele.
In addition to becoming a food celebrity in Chicago, she ventured into politics twice. In 2007 she was a write-in candidate for mayor and in 2010 she ran an independent campaign for a vacated Senate seat. When someone from the press asked her why she ran she simply said “it was the right thing to do.”
But Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daly and his powerful political machine didn’t agree with her. Today, in retrospect, she laughs, “yes, I think it made him nervous, he had three people running against him.”
Apparently she’s not exaggerating. Aware of how popular she was, although it was not a political popularity, Daily was worried enough to have his chief of staff personally call Pinkney to tell her the mayor didn’t think her campaign a good idea. Pinkney did not back down. To make the mayor’s point, three city inspectors made an unannounced intimidation visit to her restaurant on the morning of the election.
The announcement of Ina’s closing was covered by every conceivable media outlet in Chicago (including the front page of the Chicago Tribune). She told CBS Chicago, “you know, I don’t have any family to leave my recipes to, and I have loved Chicago and Chicago has become my family, so I leave my recipes to you.”