(Pictured) Geno Lee stands outside the historic Big Apple Inn in Jackson, one of the capital city’s oldest restaurants.
Sizzle sets the stage, right inside the door of the Big Apple Inn on Farish Street in Jackson. Red smoked sausage and a big pan of pig ears, steaming and fragrant on the grill, are ready to be folded into the sandwiches that’ve made this historic hole-in-the-wall famous: smokes and ears.
A slider bun plus mustard, slaw and homemade hot sauce, a quick wrap, and they’re on their way in tiny brown bags clutched by hungry devotees.
History and hot food are as potent a combo as the smokes and ears here at one of Jackson’s oldest eateries. Owner Geno Lee is the fourth generation owner of this enterprise that was started by his great-grandfather Juan Mora on this very same street.
Arriving from Mexico in the mid-1930s, Mora worked for the railroad until a fall from the viaduct called for a new way to make money. He put his mother’s recipe to work, making hand-rolled hot tamales to sell at the corner of Farish and Hamilton. An open fire in a barrel drum kept the stacked tamales warm for passers-by. Farish Street, the hub of African-American business in its heyday, delivered plenty.
“Everybody called him ‘Big John’ because he stood about 5-foot-2, and he was about 5-foot-2 wide,” Geno’s smile widens in a fond laugh, “like a big circle.”
The first storefront came in 1939. Big John and his son came up with the money to purchase a nearby grocery from its retiring owner, and the Big Apple Inn was born. Tamales and sandwiches soon edged out the grocery side of the business.
Their unique way with smoked sausage sandwiches remains a hit to this day. “Sausage starts off in ground form. And they stuff it inside the casing,” Geno says. “Once my great-grandfather bought it, he would put it back into ground form again.” Kind of like a big circle.
Then one morning, their meat packer’s offer of a free box of pig ears, otherwise destined for discard, proved fateful. Big John figured out that pressure cooking tenderized the ears. Then, they went into the slider bun with slaw and sauce – and into Big Apple Inn history.
Big Apple Inn’s 509 North Farish Street spot, their home since 1952, claims more than culinary culture.
Bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson once lived in an apartment upstairs, Geno says. “He wasn’t real famous then,” but between sleeping all day and playing juke joints all night, Big Apple Inn kept him fed.
After apartments were converted to offices, civil rights activist Medgar Evers rented one. It was so small, many meetings had to be held downstairs in the Big Apple Inn. Freedom Riders met there when they came to town. “In fact, my mother was a Freedom Rider before she married my dad,” Geno says of Mary Harrison (later Lee).
Geno’s uncle ran the Big Apple Inn until the late 1980s. Then, Geno and his father, Gene, quit their jobs — Geno, in insurance and investments, and his father, a school principal — to run it.
A second location opened at 4487 North State Street in 2004 (it was meant to be temporary, Geno says) and continues to do well. In March 2017, he opened a third in Metrocenter Mall, where he got his own first job at a clothing store 30 years ago.
He loves the stories. Others eat them up, too. “People love nostalgia, especially foodies,” he says. Still, food’s the No. 1 draw.
“Name me two or three places you can go get a smoked sausage like this or a pig ear sandwich. There’s nowhere else.
“If you want a smoke or an ear, you’ve gotta come here.”
A note on the menu board says “Don’t forget the tamales,” and I don’t, picking up a half-dozen wrapped tight in foil. It takes me back, full circle, to that start.