New Oral Histories: Jackson’s Iconic Restaurants

Mayflower Cafe_SIGN

Explore our brand new oral histories from Jackson, Mississippi.

In her essay “Finding a Voice,” Eudora Welty recalled her first day as a student at Mississippi State College for Women in Columbus: “I landed in a world to itself, and indeed it was all new to me. It was surging with twelve hundred girls. They came from every nook and corner of the state, from the Delta, the piney woods, the Gulf Coast, the black prairie, the red clay hills, and Jackson—as the capital city and the only sizable town, a region to itself.”

Almost 90 years later, Jackson remains a region to itself. Rich with soul food buffets and catfish houses. And with upper-crust dining rooms and humble tavernas alike, serving food that you might recognize as Southern as well as Greek. Jackson restaurants serve tamales, Mexican-derived and Mississippi Delta-born. At the Big Apple Inn, you can request a smoke and an ear, and eat exactly what you ordered. There are caramel layer cakes and sugary teacakes, too—treats born of frugality and ingenuity.

Geno Lee_portrait_cropped

Jackson is a crossroads of Mississippi’s multicultural history. Take Farish Street, the city’s once-bustling African American business district. During Freedom Summer in 1964, at the height of Civil Rights Movement, Willora Ephram—nicknamed “Peaches,” because she is so sweet—opened Peaches restaurant in the 300 block of that street. From that summer forward, she fed activists and her restaurant served as a meeting spot for the NAACP. A block and a half from Peaches, the Big Apple Inn dates to the 1930s, when Mexican immigrant Juan “Big John” Mora transitioned his mobile tamale cart into a brick-and-mortar establishment. In the years before his assassination, civil rights leader Medgar Evers kept an office above the Big Apple Inn and frequently met with fellow activists in the restaurant.

Bill Matheos_Bill's Greek Tavern

In the early 1900s, Greek immigrants came to Jackson looking for freedom. Many began new lives in the restaurant industry, opening quasi-Hellenic eateries. George Kountouris and John Gouras, friends from the island of Patmos, opened the Mayflower Café in 1935. Twelve years later, the Zouboukos brothers, Peter and Jimmy, established the Elite Restaurant. In the 1950s, Paul Crechale opened his eponymous restaurant. Bill Matheos of Bill’s Greek Tavern eventually followed suit. Their restaurants all serve broiled Gulf fish, Greek salads, and a thousand island-meets-remoulade dressing and dipping sauce called Comeback.

A region to itself with a rich culinary history, this is Jackson.