Earl Williams was a dead man. Twice.
But the owner of E.J.'s Soul Food Restaurant, in Wilkinsburg, refused to leave his family, friends and beloved customers.
Williams' two-time brush with death started last November. What began as a "chest cold" resulted in five surgeries, a coma, a blood transfusion and two death pronouncements.
His "chest cold" was pneumonia that led to a collapsed lung and internal bleeding. On Dec. 8, 2007, Williams' vital signs were so weak that his doctors summoned his family members to pay their last respects.
Williams pulled through, but his condition remained grim. His return to the restaurant would take a miracle, yet the sign that his family posted on the front door still read, "Temporarily closed."
Three weeks later, on Dec. 27, Williams' family was called again to say its goodbyes.
Again, Williams recovered.
He awoke and learned that his sister Dorine had kept the business running for nearly a month. She'd finish her midnight shift job and go directly to the restaurant to start cleaning and cooking E.J.'s signature chitterlings.
E.J.'s extensive menu also features ham, chicken, fish, rib-eye steak, pigs' feet, pork and beef ribs, meatloaf and a host of sides, including mac-and-cheese, black-eyed peas, ham hocks and yams.
Williams says now, "I asked my sister, 'Why did they pronounce me dead?' She said, 'Earl, you looked dead.'"
The dead man had to learn how to write and walk again. But not how to cook.
After months of physical therapy, Williams returned to the restaurant on April 21. Since then many of his regular customers -- including several clergymen -- have returned, but business has slowed. The "closed" sign had been posted on the door since Dec. 23, and many customers thought E.J.'s was gone forever.
"But the customers who've come back say, 'Earl, this restaurant is blessed,' and the reverends are all trying to get me to go to church," laughs Williams. "I know I am. I guess they think I'm the miracle man."
E.J.'s is now open six days a week instead of seven. Closed on Mondays.
Sundays remain open. Permanently.
E.J.'s Soul Food Restaurant
810 Penn Ave., Wilkinsburg