Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Robert St. John: Honor Your Hometown

 Grab a broom and a dustpan because I am about to drop some names. My friend Marty Stuart, country music legend, multi-instrumentalist, curator, fellow Mississippian, and all-around great guy, and his friend Ken Burns the world’s finest documentarian— alive or dead— are supporting a project called Honor Your Hometown. I was honored to have been chosen to honor my hometown in a short video clip.


The initial email I received soliciting my participation stated, “In an era of deep divide, we long for something hopeful, inspiring, inclusive, nonpartisan and fun. We cannot dismiss or discount our differences. But we can overcome them by remembering and highlighting our shared bonds.” OK, you’ve got my attention, I thought.

Stuart says, “We all come from somewhere, and we all have someone there who played a big role in making us who we are. We want to honor our hometowns and those special people there who helped us find our way.” Now that’s a cause I can get behind. Actually, they had me at “hometown.”

The instructions stated, “We invite you to join Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Ken Burns and so many others by producing a short iPhone-quality video where you tell us a story about your hometown and a person there who made a difference in your life. If possible, we’d love for you to show us a memento or photo of your hometown or the person you are honoring.”

“We have found it extraordinary how someone telling a story about a coach who changed their life in Brooklyn will sound so much like someone celebrating a teacher from their small town in Kansas. These are the bonds that unify us. We believe these stories serve as reminder that more connects us than divides us and lead to our ultimate goal of making “Honor Your Hometown” an annual celebration.”

I knew exactly what hometown subject I was going to choose halfway through the first paragraph.

Stuart gave me cart blanche on the subject matter, but it didn’t take me long to focus on who I wanted to honor in my hometown. It’s likely that the creators of this initiative thought I would honor one of my restaurants. To be honest, I never considered it. Not because the 300 people who show up to work today at our businesses don’t deserve honoring, they most certainly do. But when it comes to honoring any business in my hometown, my thoughts always go to the Coney Island Café.

Some people judge towns by their population. Others judge them by amenities such as parks and playgrounds. Many consider school systems and tax policies. I judge towns by the quality and longevity of their small independent diners and cafes.

For 98 years, the Coney Island Café has defined my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Arthur Fokakis, the original owner, emigrated here from Greece in 1923. He got his start by selling fruit from a pushcart he parked under a large shade tree near the railroad tracks on Main Street. After a few years, he leased the land under the tree and built an open-front fruit stand. A few years later he turned the fruit stand into a short-order café that served hamburgers, hot dogs, homemade curly fries, and breakfast, and an institution was born.

Greek immigrants like Arthur were the early pioneers of the restaurant business in Mississippi. They were our culinary forefathers. In 98 years, only four men have run the Coney Island Café, all with the surname, Fokakis. Arthur turned the business over to his son— also a Greek immigrant— who everyone called “Junior,” and his son, Billy, took over in 1984. Four years ago, Billy’s son, B.J., took over after the untimely death of his father. It’s the definition of a true, family-run operation.  

Four generations. Approaching a century of commitment, hard work, dedication, and service. There has been a member of the Fokakis family manning the grill at The Coney Island Café since Calvin Coolidge was in the White House.

The Fokakis family thread is weaved through the fabric of this town like no other. Billy Fokakis was always a friend. Joseph Fokakis was my junior high history teacher and football coach. Angela Fokakis was a classmate and friend. Mike Fokakis was my boss at my first bartending job. I bought every Beatles album and 45 from Nick Fokakis at his music store, and Junior, Billy, and now B.J. have fed me bacon for breakfast, burgers for lunch, and countless plates of curly fries at both.

Restaurants have souls. They define a town and tell the story of that place and its people.

Some restaurants take on the personality of their owner, some take on the collective personality of the staff. Still others adopt the characteristics of their customers or the town itself. The Coney Island Café is a little bit of all that wrapped up in a small dining room filled with stools, booths, and memories.

The Coney probably won’t ever win a James Beard Award, or get special recognition in any of the national culinary trades. But it has done so much more. It has fed all of the people of a town— black, white, young, old, rich, poor, local, tourist— for almost 100 years— a feat that can’t be measured by ribbons, and trophies, or accolades.

The Coney Island Café has survived a world war, a great depression, and dozens of recessions. It was there in the early days when downtown Hattiesburg grew and thrived. It never wavered when those businesses moved away to open shiny new stores in sprawling malls and strip centers. It held firm during the white flight of the 1980s, and was still standing when downtown’s renewal and renaissance began in the late 1990s.

I ate at the Coney Island Cafe as a kid. My father took me there. His father brought him there. I bring my son there. I hope that he’ll do the same.

Be on the lookout for the upcoming Honor Your Hometown campaign and my feature on The Coney Island Café.




1 Tbl olive oil

1 Tbl bacon Fat

2 pounds beef sirloin, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 1/2 tsp Kosher Salt

1 1/2 tsp Fresh ground black pepper

3 cups yellow onion, medium dice          

1 cup carrot, finely shredded

1 Tbl Ground Cumin

2 tsp Ground Coriander

1 tsp Oregano

1 1/2 Tbl  Chili powder

1/4 cup fresh garlic minced

1 6-ounce can tomato paste

2 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes

1 quart V-8 juice

1 quart hot chicken broth

 2 Bay leaves

 2 14-ounce cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed

2 Tbl Corn flour

1/2 cup water      

1 Tbl fresh lime juice

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Heat the oil and bacon fat in an 8- quart, heavy duty sauce pot over high heat. Sprinkle the meat with salt and black pepper. Place half of the meat in the very hot oil. DO NOT MOVE THE MEAT FOR 3-4 MINUTES, you want to achieve a nice golden brown sear. Turn the meat over and brown the other side the best you can. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and place it on a paper towel to drain. Repeat this process with the remaining meat.

Turn the heat to medium and add the onion, carrot and garlic to the pot. Cook for 3-4 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the spices and tomato paste. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning. This step is very important, caramelizing the sugars in the tomato paste and vegetables with really make a difference in the outcome of the chili.

Return the meat to the pot and add in the canned tomatoes, V-8 juice, chicken broth and bay leaves. Simmer VERY slowly, covered, for 2-3 hours. Stir often to prevent sticking. Add the beans and simmer for 15 more minutes.

Combine the corn flour with the water to make a paste. Turn up the heat up so that the chili reaches a slow boil and stir in the corn flour mixture. Allow the chili to cook for 2-3 more minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice and cilantro.

Yield: 1 gallon




Anonymous said...

Robert St. John is a state treasure!

Anonymous said...

I was very impressed with this writeup on the Fokakis family. They have surely made lives in the area much better with all their enterprises. I was particularly impressed by Nick Fokakis. He was a very smart and dedicated person. He kept my old Juke Box and my pinball machines running even for years after my boys graduated and left home. The fact that he had to come 30 miles to service them did not seem too much for him.

Anonymous said...

"Robert St. John is a state treasure!"

"Treasure" might be a bit over-the-top but he certainly is a prime example of a Mississippi businessman. Maybe a statue in Jackson would honor his legacy.

"Grab a broom and a dustpan because I am about to drop some names. My friend Marty Stuart, country music legend, multi-instrumentalist, curator, fellow Mississippian, and all-around great guy, and his friend Ken Burns the world’s finest documentarian..."

And then, grab a razorblade and roll up a bill because what's in the dustpan oughta keep the merry band rockin' and rollin' throughout the night. And the next day. And the next night. And...

Aw, Marty, you know we love ya but you did cut a swath or fifty once upon a time.

I can see it now. "The 1980s," a semi-lucid but incredibly fast-paced (IN-CRED-I-BLY FAAAAST!) 13-part series by Ken Burns coming soon to your local PBS station. Except, of course, in Mississippi. Keith Richards will do the voice of Keith Richards (just because), Nathan Lane will do the voices of Steve Rubell and Andy Warhol, the Kardashian/Jenner tribe will voice all of the gals (except Andy Warhol), and Danny Trejo and Al Pacino will of course split duties doing all the Spanish voices and the 1397 coke dealers - "We were doing lines in a banquette at the Mutiny when Luis El Taco-Taco Sanchez-Lopez whipped out an Uzi and began firing..." (Cue the music - Ashokan Duran Duran backed up by the Go-Go's). Oops, almost forgot - Andy Gipson will voice Robert Vesco and Walter a cowboy hat, of course.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Mike Fokakis is a friend of mine and I have enjoyed his friendship for years. He told me how his grandfather came here aboard a US Navy Cargo ship during WWI as a 1st mate and Navigator and was given citizenship. Now, that my fiends is what makes this nation great! The Fokakis family has been well known in Hattiesburg for decades and I am today here to tell you they know how to do things right. Honest and forthright

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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