Ann Flesor Beck, Sweet Greeks: First-Generation Immigrant Confectioners in the Heartland. Heartland Foodways Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020. Pp. xi + 320. 13 illustrations, 3 maps. Cloth $125.00, paper $27.95, ebook $14.95.
In elegant establishments fitted with posh marble counters and the latest gleaming soda fountains or in small cozy shops equipped with sparkling glass cases overflowing with handmade candies, Greek confectioners in long, immaculate white aprons once reigned in small towns across America as the quintessential purveyors of epicurean sweets. As America turned away from alcohol, social habits centered around the consumption of sweets, so confectionaries and soda fountains often became essential to daily life. In the Midwest, Greek immigrants identified and greatly developed this niche market which not only supported their families and extended community, but also had an impact upon broader American foodways.
With Sweet Greeks: First-Generation Immigrant Confectioners in the Heartland, Ann Flesor Beck has made a major contribution to the documentation of the social history of Greek immigrants and Greek Americans’ occupational groups in the early twentieth century. This type of work is fundamental to understanding not only the values and experiences of Greeks who came to the United States, but also the role that Greeks played in American culture. And in this case, the role was an astonishingly central one to small-town life in the Midwest.
In this work, Beck builds and expands particularly upon the foundational work of anthropologist Steve Frangos concerning Greek confectioners in the Midwest. His work on confectionaries is part of a larger corpus for which Frangos conducted archival research and fieldwork on aspects of Greek American culture and history that were forgotten or marginalized from official histories, as Yiorgos Anagnostou noted in his essay, “Steve Frangos: An Archive of Popular Writings in Greek American History and Music.”
In Sweet Greeks, Beck initially takes the long view. In the chapter on “Foundations,” she examines Greek history and culture from ancient to modern to provide the context for the mass immigration primarily to the United States that took place from 1880 to 1930. In the process of doing so, she discusses aspects of Greek foodways that relate to sweets. “The Journey 1880-1930” interrogates the factors that precipitated the massive wave of immigration, including crop failures, acquisition of dowry funds, overpopulation, and lack of work. She also details entry into the United States, the working conditions and types of employment, as well as the gradual slide from the eastern cities to the Midwest and West. In “Acculturation and Americanization,” Beck demonstrates how Greeks battled the era’s widespread racism and the prejudice directed against immigrants—with an interesting delineation regarding the Greek Orthodox Church’s role as an Americanizing agent as well as the role of Greek language newspapers. Beck then examines two hubs of Greek immigration in the Midwest, Chicago and St. Louis, with a special emphasis on Greek occupational roles and educational opportunities. She also devotes a chapter to the fascinating interaction between the Ku Klux Klan and Greek immigrants through the 1920s.
Following this lengthy contextual framework, in the second half of the book Beck turns to what is most unique about the book: information about the network of Greek settlement in the small- and medium-sized towns of Illinois and nearby states. This is significant because, as she observed, most writers have focused on Greek immigrants in urban environments. Among the themes that Beck elaborates upon are immigrant networking, chain migration, local prejudice, education, acculturation, marriage patterns, establishment within niche business markets, and generational continuity of businesses. Of particular importance is her delineation of kinship and village ties that facilitated the placement of newcomers in jobs and their subsequent acquisition of appropriate skills through apprenticeship with the business owners. She begins with the story of her own family, for Beck and her sister revived the business founded by her grandfather, Gus Flesor, in Tuscarola, Illinois. Beck supplies copious details about her grandfather’s immigration, life, family, as well as the strategies he and several of his cohorts used to succeed in the American small-town environment. She then proceeds to do the same for other Illinois Greek confectioners, devoting a chapter each to those in small cities and towns. The number of Greek immigrants discussed is extensive, with at least basic information about each one in terms of name, birthdate, village of origin, and relatives in the business, as well as where each apprenticed in the trade.
In the conclusion, Beck applies theoretical trends espoused by scholars of Greek America to her documentation of the confectioners. She points out that her aim is to deconstruct the common model of immigration—one in which the poor and oppressed arrive in the United States and find freedom and wealth in ethnic communities established in urban settings. However, she does not really challenge the dominant paradigm of the model—that of a well-behaved immigrant group that rose from rags to riches. She also speculates on how the demise of the sweet shop phenomenon was related to several overlapping trends in American mainstream social history, such as the movement to the suburbs and the changing occupations of upwardly mobile and educated second- and third-generation Greek Americans.
While there are many reasons to recommend this work, the book is not without some problems in its organization and writing style. Specifically, the all-important chapters about Greek immigrant confectionaries in small cities and towns are so jam-packed with similar bits of information, that readers are likely to find them repetitive and thus difficult to follow. This could have been ameliorated by dividing chapters into smaller sections on specific topics or families, as well as by incorporating more images, family stories, or first-person narratives to better engage the reader. Another problem was that the family, fictive kinship (kinship that is based on neither blood nor marriage), and occupational relationships of the Illinois confectioners were extremely complex. As someone with a background in anthropology, I found myself longing for something such as a kinship chart to quickly ascertain a relationship instead of having to search through previous paragraphs or chapters of the book. Readers may also be frustrated that Beck briefly notes the dominance of out-marriage in the United States and the drift away from the Greek Orthodox Church (in 2012 about 75-85% of Orthodox marriages were intermarriages and only 10% of people with Greek roots were involved with the church, according to Peter Kehayes) but does not elaborate more fully on this important topic within the body of the book. This is one of the most important but least addressed issues in Greek American studies: most research in the field is focused on the diaspora minority that marries Greek and remains in church-based communities and not on those who intermarry and leave the church altogether.
Another area that begs for closer interrogation is the relationship of Greeks to racial politics in early twentieth century mid-America. While the author supplies fascinating information about the interplay between the Greeks and the Ku Klux Klan and, to a lesser extent, the Masons, she does not actively dissect Greeks’ complicated relationship to whiteness. Clearly, to succeed in business the new immigrants sought acceptance as a part of white society, overcoming the dominant ideology in which Greeks and other southern Europeans were widely perceived as not white enough by both government entities and the mainstream. This case study therefore missed an opportunity to explore the immigrant negotiations with whiteness in a specific region. In the interest of understanding the differential role of racial acceptance as a factor in socioeconomic mobility, readers would have benefited from a comparative commentary about the place of Greek immigrants in white rural and small-town mid-America and the experiences of Black Americans in that region. The Midwest was infamous for its “sundown towns,” “places where, black Americans knew, they were not welcome once the sun went down.”
Overall, Sweet Greeks not only contributes to the discourse on historical and evolving Greek American social patterns, but also to the burgeoning field of food studies. While the theoretical implications are interesting, the greater significance of this book lies in the breadth of information about families and businesses—which, in turn, will contribute to a more solid assessment of Greek American history and culture. However, and perhaps most important, Sweet Greeks is a labor of love. After many years away from Tuscarola and the family business, this community scholar and her sister revived the business founded by their grandfather and later run by their father—thus honoring the lives of two individuals who not only worked relentlessly for their families, but also created and shared tiny pieces of joy with their community.
Tina Bucuvalas is the Director of Florida Cultural Resources, Inc. Her current research interests include the natural sponge industry, historic preservation, and Greek music. She recently edited Greek Music in America, which will be translated and published in Greece in 2022.
Anagnostou, Yiorgos. 2018. “Steve Frangos: An Archive of Popular Writings in Greek American History and Music.” Erγon: Greek/American Arts and Letters, April 1. https://ergon.scienzine.com/article/essays/steve-frangos-an-archive-of-popular-writings-in-greek-american-history-and-music. Accessed June 3, 2021.
Kehayes, Peter. 2012. “An Important Challenge for Greek Orthodox Christianity.” Orthodox Christian Laity, November 21. https://ocl.org/an-important-challenge-for-greek-orthodox-christianity/. Accessed June 3, 2021.