A Man, a Dream, A Legacy of Kefi

1 Sep

Once upon a time in a small village outside Sparta, Greece, a family gathered to bid adieu to one of their own.  Turned off by the politics du jour (or, as it were, du decades), Lakis decided to leave behind his family, the olive oil factory they had operated for years, and the small-town life of Sparta in the hopes of hitting it big in the bustling metropolis of…. Wilkes-Barre, PA.   More than half a century later, when I would meet for the first time the family my Pappous left behind, my mother’s cousin would tell me that although she had been devastated by her favorite uncle’s departure, she was heartened by the belief that American baby dolls could walk and talk and that, one day, Lakis might return with one of these magical dolls for her.

 I can’t imagine what my Pappous must have thought when he arrived in north-eastern Pennsylvania to find that the streets were paved in coal, not gold.  There’s a lot I don’t know about this particular coming-to-America story, and it’s hard to tell the chicken from the egg here.  Maybe my Pappous was the kind of kid who ran the Greek-equivalent of lemonade stands and bubble gum hustles as soon as he was old enough to count drachmas, or maybe he was transformed by the Holy Spirits of mid-century America: opportunity and entrepreneurship.  What I do know is that my grandfather immediately got to work, joining a network of established Greek business owners already beloved by the community, and it wasn’t long before he owned his own diner in New Jersey.

 Now, before you get all “oh–this girl’s grandfather came over here from Greece and opened a diner in New Jersey…tell me a story I haven’t heard 10,092 times” let me qualify this by saying Lakis’ diner was more than just a diner: it was a Kefi center.  For most of my life I thought my fond memories of the diner were a function of having known its owner–for me and my siblings, the kitchen was always open, the diplas were always fresh and the sizzler steak was always free.  My first Greek lessons came from a server named Donna who taught me everything she knew–the extent of which, sadly, did not go past kalimera, kalispera, and kalinihta–and I saw first hand the kind of work it took to run a small business in America.  While most of my friends and their families rarely enjoyed the luxury of eating out in those days, my family and I enjoyed some of our favorite memories while squeezed into the vinyl booths of the diner: my sister losing her front tooth in a basket of fried chicken, my brother surviving his first day of employment as a bus boy, even performing the impossible–surprising Pappou in his own diner for his 65th birthday party.

 But it turns out that this kind of kefi was not reserved just for my family and me.  When my Pappou passed away (may his memory be eternal), his viewing and funeral were full of former customers, business partners, and employees who remembered the diner as a place where people came together and neighbors helped each other out.  Servers who had worked for Lakis for 25 and 30 years came, telling us he had been the “best boss” they ever had.  People told stories of his kindness–opening the diner to the hungry for a free Thanksgiving meal, cashing a check in the middle of the night for long-time customers in a bind–and his playfulness: he had locked a server in the freezer as a first-day prank, only to be locked in the same freezer by the same server days later.  It was overwhelming to see the way that one little dream–to come to America and create something–had turned into something far beyond my grandfather, my family, or my memory.

 This post is conspicuously replete of recipes or drool-worthy food photos. It’s just a little homage to the kind of person who has informed my thoughts of kefi–someone who organized a community just by being there, and who brought people together for purpose, not profit.  The diner is long gone now–in fact, it’s now a White Castle–but it’s clear that people never forget kefi or the people who create it.

2 Responses to “A Man, a Dream, A Legacy of Kefi”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Occupy the Grocery Store: Not-So-Giant Gigantes | Cooking Up Kefi - April 24, 2013

    […] that Manoli Canoli’s owner has a dear friend from the exact same teeeeeeeeeensy village that my family is from. Naturally, I took this as a reason to wake up my very hard-working brother from a dead sleep […]

  2. OBX Half Marathon: Sharks, Sheetz, and Sisters | Cooking Up Kefi - November 9, 2015

    […] a waitress with uncanny personality resemblance to 90% of the servers at our Pappou’s amazing Fireside Diner. We both had a sweet potato and squash soup that was very yummy, followed by pizzas that were […]

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