On the Question of Greek-American Taste

By 1920, at the very latest, Greek immigrants as the owners and operators of individual confectionery stores across the United States became an accepted feature of everyday all-American life.

As Greeks are today stereotypically seen as the owners of restaurants beginning in the 1870s, Greeks steadily took on this other widely recognized public identify. And let us be very, very clear given the conditions of the day: each and every one of these local Greek businesses featured handmade candy, ice cream and other fountain creations. All such confectioneries of this early era mandated on-location cooking of any and all candies which is why the name “kitchen” appears so frequently in many of the individual store names. And while, regrettably, the confectionery parlors of yore are for the most part long gone it is also a mistake to assume that the Greek-owned and operated candy and ice cream stores have all closed their doors. Anyone wishing to take the time can find highly successful Greek-owned confectionaries scattered all across the country. And these very same businesses are indeed owned and operated by the descendants of their original Greek immigrant founders!

That Greeks own and operate highly successful restaurants around the United States is also not only a common sight to see but quite often one of those very local institutions that have been owned and operated again for generations. In both the confectionary trade and as restaurateurs Greeks have not only succeeded as day-to-day businessmen but many of them are recognized as having created unique types of candies and/or food dishes. Again another generally understand event has taken place where in both instances of candy and other unique food creations large corporations have bought out the local Greek creator/cook and so Carvel ice cream productions and certain chilidogs concoctions (to say nothing of gyros and yogurt) are being sold in the millions by multinational corporations.

I wanted to know why and how these successes in food had taken place. The existing Greek-American literature is of no help in addressing these kinds of questions. If we follow the various cultural narratives about Greeks in the United States, they most often portray us as little more than peasant-born Neanderthals who owe everything to America. Contemporary historical accounts present Greeks, and those other ethnic groups who arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1920, as seeking to socially and culturally become exactly like the Anglo majority around them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Obviously this is a conscious shift away from the old melting pot theory. More importantly it is a very distinct movement away from how Greek-Americans see themselves. How can I make this claim about Greek-Americans? Two points substantiate my claim. First, during the 1960s, the Movement as it was called encompassed a rainbow (as it was then termed) of different political and cultural causes. One solid aspect of this rainbow was the renewed cultural pride and identity expressed by the ethnic groups of the 1880 to 1920 period of arrival. This aspect of all the new emerging cultural expressions was called the New Ethnicity. Not only was this faction of the Movement studied and written about during the 1960s and 1970s. Given the personal advancement of Spiro T. Agnew Greeks figured prominently into this new field of study. Unexpectedly this entire area of study and the published literature it produced is largely forgotten, especially by those arguing for the position that all new immigrants seek to be integrated into and to emulate White Anglo Saxon culture.

We must always be watchful of the manner in which Greeks in North America are portrayed. If it does not ring true to your personal experience you have every right to question it. The social sciences are not the hard sciences. There is no math equivalent to anything written by a social scientist. In truth, if looked at objectively, the social sciences are little more than disciplines with an agreed upon genre style of writing. The only difference from other genre styles is the social scientists/authors vet each other very closely to ensure adherence to the latest in their respective genre.

Any serious social historical study of Greeks in the confectionery and food service trade takes us into a consideration and examination of identifiable Greek-specific traits across a wider set of differing cultural domains. Clearly a great number of Greeks possess a very sharp and consistently discriminating sense of taste. My evidence for this claim spans three different industries in which Greek immigrants (and their descendants) were and remain (for the most part) notable: confection/candy cooking, restaurants (of many varieties) and their once leading role in the United States in the physical production of blended tobacco products.

The experiences of the Greek tobacconists in North America roughly follow the other two venues of confectionary and restaurants. The Greek blended tobacconist trade was strongest in the United States from the late-1800s to the end of the First World War.

So why did these Greek manufacturers come to the United States? In 1883, high import tariffs coupled with a growing market for premium cigarettes brought first Sotirios Anargyros (1849-1918). Based on Anargyros’ phenomenal and immediate success, other Greek manufacturers from Egypt, Asia Minor, and England soon began to produce Egyptian style cigarettes in North America. Between 1895 and 1896, there were at least ten Greek-owned tobacco importers and manufacturers in New York City alone. An attempt was made at this early date to organize these ten companies into one cooperative association, but without success. Over the last 90 years, 30 Greek-owned and -operated tobacco companies flourished in the United States.

Around 1890, G. A. Georgopulo’s Co., Inc. became the designated agent of the Turkish State Monopoly. In this same 1880-1890 era, the Stephano Brothers Company was established in Philadelphia. After first having a New York City office, by 1904, T.T. Timayenis’ Co. opened a cigarette manufacturers business at 404 Atlantic Ave. in Boston. Michael Contopoulos, in his book The Greek Community of New York City: Early Years to 1910 notes that “most of the firms combined a retail outlet with their small manufacturing plant. Initially, the small Greek companies were successful because the small scale of the industry” gave little advantage to machine production.

Most historians point to the purchase by the American Tobacco Company of the Anargyros Company in 1900 as signaling the decline of Greek-owned companies in North America. Not insignificantly as the Greek-owned companies were being purchased it was often noted that blended hand-made cigarettes with a mixture of Turkish tobacco were said to taste better than those mass produced by American firms.

Anyone with the capital and desire can start any sort of company they wish in the United States. Keeping this same business open for literally generations requires more than brute will alone. Presenting all new comers to the United States as nothing more than mindless clones seeking to emulate the Anglo-Saxon model of social class and personal behavior ignores the experiences anyone can witness from daily interaction with American life.

Asking questions about the accounts written on Greeks in the United States is every Greek-American’s fundamental right. What we remember shapes who we are. What non-Greeks read about us shapes their image of who we are and what we have accomplished as a distinct people.