Big Apple Inn: The story of a family's legacy of smokes, ears and tamales on Farish Street

Todd A. Price
Southern Kitchen

His name was Juan Mora, but on Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi, they called him Big John.

Mora, born in Mexico City, hopped trains across the United States in the 1930s looking for work. Eventually, he came to Jackson. Farish Street was then a bustling center of Black life. Mora was welcomed. He set up a stand on the street selling tamales. In 1939, he opened a restaurant: The Big Apple Inn.

Nearly a century later, the Big Apple Inn is still open, selling tamales along with hamburgers, hot dogs, bologna and "smoke and ears." The restaurant moved across the street in 1952. The blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II once lived in the building. Civil rights leader Medgar Evers had an office above, and would hold meetings at the Big Apple Inn.

Big Apple Inn employee Sharon Winters Taylor cooks sausage for the Smokes sandwich Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Smokes and the Ears sandwiches are both topped with a mustard sauce, coleslaw and the Big Apple Inn hot sauce.

Mora died in 1973. Today his great-grandson, Geno Lee, 56, runs the business that has barely changed over the decades.

Lee remembers sitting on Mora's lap as a kid, eating watermelon and learning Spanish curse words. Mora, a quiet man with broken English, was a fixture of Farish Street. Lee grew up hearing stories from longtime residents about Mora, who made a family with a woman from the African American community.

"I assumed he found Farish Street, because this was where the minorities gathered," Lee said. 

The tamales at Big Apple Inn use Mora's recipes. The only change Lee made is using turkey instead of beef.

"It holds the flavor better," Lee said.

Mississippi is serious about tamales. And Lee ships his tamales to fans across the country. But he does not sell that many at the Big Apple Inn on Farish Street or the second location he opened in 2004 at the Northwood Shopping Center on North State Street.

More:An immigrant's story of iguana tamales, Indigenous farmers and coming to the U.S.

More:Try these Mississippi Delta tamales for a Southern twist on a Mesoamerican tradition

Pig ear sandwiches, better known as Ears, foreground, and the smoked sausage sandwich, known as Smokes, background, are the signature sandwiches at the Big Apple Inn in Jackson, Miss. A mustard sauce, coleslaw and the Big Apple Inn hot sauce tops each sandwich.

"We've kept them mainly for the nostalgia," he said.

What sells best at Big Apple Inn are smokes and ears. Customers order the slider-sized sandwiches by the dozen.

The smokes are made with smoked sausage. Big Apple Inn uses Polk's Red Rose sausage, which they remove from the casing and grind.

"It has a flavor. A Jacksonian can tell," Lee said.

After it cooks, the bubble gum pink sausage is topped with yellow mustard sauce, shredded cabbage and a homemade hot sauce thickened with bread and drippings from the tamales. The hot sauce, made with fresh peppers, was created by Mora and points to his Mexican heritage.

Because pig ears are so large, Big Apple Inn owner Geno Lee cuts them into three for use in Ears, pig ear sandwiches, Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Ears and Smokes, a smoked sausage sandwich, are Big Apple Inn signature sandwiches and the most popular items on the menu.

The ears are pig ears, which simmer in a metal bowl just inside the door at the Big Apple Inn. Each ear is topped with the same mustard sauce, hot sauce and slaw. The restaurant sells about three times more smokes than ears. Lee, when asked if he eats ears, is as cautious as a diplomat.

"I've eaten them," he said.

Mora added the ears to the Big Apple Inn menu when a butcher offered him the pig parts for free.

"On the farm and the country, ears are part of normal cuisine. You don't waste any part of the animal," Lee said. "In the city, it wasn't used and butchers threw it away."

Pig ears are not cheap. Right now, Lee pays about $3.50 a pound for them. And the pandemic supply chain issues have also hit pig ears.

"I have to go to all these little stores now to get pig ears," Lee said.

Lee never planned on being the fourth generation to run the Big Apple Inn. But when his uncle, who had the restaurant, got sick, Lee stepped up.

"We figured it would always be in the family," he said.

For Lee, what he likes best is talking to the customers. He knows most of his customers, who often were first brought to the Big Apple Inn by their parents or grandparents.

"This is a humble living," he said.

Big Apple Inn owner Geno Lee wraps sandwiches for a waiting customer Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Lee is the fourth generation to run the eight-decade-old Jackson, Miss., restaurant. As Lee wraps, employee Sharon Winters Taylor of Jackson, background, makes Smokes, sausage sandwiches, and Ears, pig ear sandwiches.

Another generation is waiting to take over. Lee's younger daughter, Bella, now 16, has been working at the Big Apple Inn since she had to climb on a stool to see over the counter and make change. She tells her dad that she plans to take Big Apple Inn "to the next level."

"I think Big Apple really adds to the history of the city," Lee said. "Where else are you going to get smokes and ears."

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at taprice@gannett.com. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.