by Susan Marquez
Geno Lee is part restauranteur, part historian, part community activist.
As the fourth-generation owner of Big Apple Inn on historic Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi, Lee continues the legacy of his great-grandfather, Juan “Big John” Mora, who was born in Mexico City.
Mora arrived in Jackson in the late 1930s and began peddling handmade tamales on street corners. He eventually earned enough money to open his own restaurant on Farish Street, at once the center of African American culture in downtown Jackson. Mora’s recipe originated with his mother and the restaurant’s name, a popular dance of the time.
Mora was a big believer in giving back to the community.
“As long as he could care for his family, he would give anything left over to anyone who needed it,” said Lee. Mora provided food and school supplies to neighborhood children.
These days, Lee is a connector in the community, too, where he knows everyone. Proud of the heritage of Farish Street, he works to preserve and uplift the community.
At one time, Farish Street was a gathering spot for the Black community. In the 1960s, Medgar Evers held meetings from his field office above the restaurant. When the meetings with the Freedom Riders outgrew the space, they moved downstairs. Lee’s mother, Mary Harrison, was one of the Freedom Riders who attended.
Today, there are three main reasons diners flock to Big Apple Inn: tamales, smokes and ears.
The tamales have been tweaked from the original recipe over the years. Lee says they changed the masa about twenty years ago to a cornmeal version. They also now use ground turkey in the tamales.
Smokes were added when the restaurant opened because, in 1939, you couldn’t have a restaurant that just sold tamales. Smokes consist of Red Rose brand smoked sausage ground up and cooked on a griddle like a hamburger. Served on a slider bun with mustard sauce, slaw and hot sauce, no one can eat just one.
The die-hards who go to Big Apple Inn go for the pig ear sandwiches, which were added to the menu in the early 1940s. Mora and his son would pick up the sausage every morning and learned the packing company threw away the ears of the pigs they processed. They figured out how to cook them to make the mouth-watering sandwiches that people buy by the sack full.
For Lee, the Big Apple Inn is as much a ministry as it is a business. In an area that has seen downturns and resurgences, the longevity is a testament to his desire to see his community thrive.
As long as Big Apple Inn is open for business, new generations of customers will be introduced to the delicacies that are now a part of Jackson’s history.
WATCH: Chefs With Soul – Special Guest – Geno Lee