Saturday, March 13

Family Albums My time in Birmingham has come to end. This has been an amazing week, and I have heard some incredible stories--stories about Birmingham's history, Greek immigration, the restaurant business, and the families that have been here running cafes and hot dog stands for decades. The photograph pictured here serves as the perfect symbol of my trip. It is a photograph of The Fish Market's George Sarris, holding a photograph of his great-grandfather that was taken in Greece. George carries this photograph around in his wallet as a reminder of his heritage. As another element of this oral history project, we hope to be able to collect images like this one to add to the archive and serve as a genealogical component to our study. While this endeavor originated as an oral history project to capture the history of Greek-owned restaurants in Birmingham, there is still a much bigger tale to tell.

Friday, March 12

Fresh Ingredients The Birmingham Farmer's Market has served the city's restaurants well over the years but none quite so well--and none for quite as long--as the Hontzas family's restaurants. Niki's Downtown, now owned and operated by George Sissa, was opened when the farmer's market was located in downtown Birmingham. Actually, that was one of the reasons the restaurant was opened there on 2nd Avenue North. Eventually, the market moved to the Northwest side of town, where Gus Hontzas decided to open Niki's West. Niki's West is just a stone's throw from the freshest fruits and vegetables to be found in the Magic City, as is Gus's brother Theo Hontzas's place, The Smoke House Restaurant. I visited Theo today in the shadow of this great sign, and we talked about the family's long history in the restaurant business as the steam tables behind us filled with a glorious bounty.

Thursday, March 11

Seeing Stars Thursday morning I headed out to the mining town of Bessemer to visit the legendary Bright Star Restaurant. Opened by Greek immigrant Tom Bonduris in 1907, the Bright Star is Alabama's oldest restaurant still in operation. Bill and Pete Koikos purchased the restaurant in the 1920s, and Bill's sons, Jimmy And Nick Koikos, are still there, greeting regulars and overseeing the expansive menu that includes fresh fish (Roy Moore is pictured here, holding one of the many fresh red snappers the restaurant will serve in a day), steak and some outstanding pie. Speaking of pie, today I also visited with George Sissa at Niki's Downtown. Born in Greece, Mr. grew up in Birmingham, where his father ran a handful of restaurants downtown. George Sissa bought Niki's Downtown from the Hontzas family (the same Hontzas family that still has Niki's West) in the late 1980s and is serving up some traditional Greek fare, Southern specialties, and the absolute best fudge pie I've ever had.

Wednesday, March 10

Greek Barbecue This afternoon I drove out to East Lake on the Northeast side of town, past Sloss Furnaces, to visit Aleck Choraitis at Andrew's Bar-B-Q. Aleck came to Birmingham from Greece via Venezuela in 1957. He spent some years working at various other Greek-owned restaurants in town, including a stint as chef at the famed Gold Nugget (now closed, many maintain that Harry Alexiou introduced fine dining to Birmingham with this restaurant and his popular burnt butter spaghetti). From there, Mr. Choraitis bought Gus's Hot Dogs from its original owner, Gus Alexander. If you remember yesterday's post, George Nasiakos now owns Gus's Hot Dogs; Aleck invited George down from Chicago to take over the hot dog stand, since Aleck wanted to devote his time to his other restaurant, Andrew's Bar-B-Q. It's a family affair at Andrew's--er, Aleck's--and, while it's definitely a barbecue joint (the same woman has been working the pit and making the sauce for sixty-eight years), there's also traditional Greek chicken and southern vegetables on the menu. Aleck and his family travel to Greece annually, where they maintain a house and olive farm. And if that's not enough, Aleck and his brother own a motel in Panama City Beach, Florida. Wondering what happened to the Andrew of Andrew's Bar-B-Q? Stay tuned.
10:30 a.m. Wednesday Getting lunch--yes, lunch--at Niki's West.

Tuesday, March 9

Go-go Dancers & Special Sauce Today I visited with Pete Hontzas and his mother, Betty Hontzas, at Niki's West. The morning was filled with lots of great stories, but I think most folks who pass in front of the steam table at Niki's West might be surprised to know that there was a lounge in the back of the place in the old days. And evidently, the lounge (and yes, Mrs. Hontzas confirmed it, there was a go-go dancer involved) was where part of the expanded kitchen is today. If those walls could talk! And this afternoon I revisited Birmingham legend, Gus Koutroulakis (pictured here), who has been slinging hot dogs for more than fifty years from the same tiny stand in downtown Birmingham, Pete's Famous. Gus is quite a character, and I managed to spend a couple of hours in the place, taking in his hot dog wisdom, learning interesting tidbits from loyal customers and downing a few of Gus's famous dogs with that elusive special sauce. The sauce is unique to Birmingham and certainly a Greek addition to classic take-away fare. Tomorrow I head uptown to Andrew's Barbecue, which is owned by Aleck Choraitis who, by the way, used to own Gus's Hot Dogs. Gus's is now owned and operated by George Nasiakos. Confused? Keep checking back for the oral histories, which are to be posted here soon.

Monday, March 8

The Fish Market Restaurant George Sarris came to Birmingham from Greece in 1969. After a few years of working in restaurants owned by relatives and fellow countrymen, he partnered with his uncle in The Fish Market Restaurant on South 21st Street downtown. In 1982 he bought the business from his uncle and has since become a veritable ambassador of Greek food and culture. In addition to running the restaurant, Mr. Sarris has an import company that deals in Greek products from his native Tsitalia. But with everything from fried green tomatoes to baklava on the restaurant's menu, it is apparent that his place is as Southern as it is Greek. George's father, Kostandinos Sarris, has retired from his days running Sarris's Hot Dogs and can often be found visiting with friends at his son's place. The photograph here is of George and his father and was taken this afternoon after our interview. Tomorrow I head to Niki's West, Gus's Hot Dogs and revisit the legendary Pete's Famous Hot Dogs. Stay tuned. There is much, much more to come!

Sunday, March 7

Feta Grits? As luck--or fate--would have it, I have arrived in Birmingham the day before the Magic City's mascot, Vulcan, is to be reopened after five years of TLC. As I sit here and think about it, this is no accident. Greek mythology says that Vulcan invented a device that made strings of dough. So there you have it: the classical history of Greeks and food...and Birmingham. It is precisely this relationship that has brought me here. This afternoon, fresh from the interstate, I headed for Yanni's restaurant for a late Sunday brunch. Owned by John Calamas, Yanni's is tucked away in the Vestavia City Center (restaurant interior pictured here) and is a thoroughly modern addition to the city's long history of Greek-owned restaurants. I dined on champagne poached salmon egg rolls with tzaziki sauce, with a bowl of feta grits on the side. New South, indeed! Tomorrow I visit George Sarris at The Fish Market downtown, but not before I drive up Red Mountain and say hello to my new friend Vulcan.

I welcome your comments, inquiries or suggestions while I'm on the road. Send them to acevans@olemiss.edu

Thursday, March 4

New SFA Oral History Project Our next oral history project is taking me to the "Magic City," Birmingham, Alabama. All next week I will be in Birmingham, interviewing Greek cooks and restaurant owners, documenting their rich history of immigration, entrepreneurship and foodways. Keep checking back here for daily updates on the project. -Amy Evans

Monday, March 1

2004 Field Trip and Symposium Dates Set This summer's Field Trip will be the first weekend in June in Birmingham AL. The Seventh Annual Southern Foodways Symposium will be the second weekend in October in Oxford MS. Both will focus upon Food and Race. More information to come as the dates draw near.
Louisiana Heritage Day in Larose, LA, Sunday, March 14. Free, all-day event focusing on Louisiana food and music heritage. Includes cooking demos (chefs John Folse, Randy Cheramie, Lenny Minutello), lectures by food scholars and writers (David Beriss, Marcelle Bienvenue, et al), and music by Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys. www.mobiletel.com/bayoucivicclub