Just published this October 2020, Sweet Greeks is a book written by a third generation Greek confectioner and independent scholar Ann Flesor Beck. The blend of memoir and historical story is about her family’s history, but there is a lot more, including facts about Greek history and immigration to America, specifically to central Illinois. She and her sister Devon currently own and operate the same confectionery in Tuscola that her grandfather did: Flesor’s Candy Kitchen.
This is a book featuring well-researched individuals and cultural effects of immigration in the American Midwest in a time when the sitting president stoked xenophobic fears. The author writes about individual Greek immigrants with details on how they came to central Illinois, the names and dates of the confectioneries they founded, their children, even some personal mottos. The depth of details Beck provides is only matched with the breadth of her stories: from her personal family history to so many other Greek families and their stories, all with historical context from her research and relevant newspaper excerpts.
Sweet Greeks cover image. Photo provided by University of Illinois Press.
Sweet Greeks is an excellent source of food history, Greek culture in the Midwest, and a celebration of immigrant stories. Beck writes:
“It is a good story that...reveals how an immigrant group, within a very short span of time, brought their social and historical culture, food mores, and exceptional identity to America. Adjusting to the accelerating change in industrial America, Greek farmer immigrants became confectioners and restaurateurs in urban centers and small towns.”
“Flesor’s Candy Kitchen, 1913” Nick Flesor is on the right, and employee Jack Boyles on theleft. Gus Flesor can be seen in the reflection in the mirror behind Nick. This is the store as it originally looked before it was completely remodeled in 1923. (Personal copy, Ann F. Beck)
Beck writes about how Champaign-Urbana was the original center for Greek confectioneries in central Illinois, and she shares about the challenges immigrants faced in starting a business, bringing family members to America, learning a new language, and withstanding discrimination.
Readers learn a lot about Beck's grandfather Constantine “Gus” Flesor, born in 1879 in a small village in the Peloponnesian hills. He immigrated to America in 1901, coming to Ellis Island, then Chicago, and down the railroad to Champaign-Urbana. His relative had established a confectionery in Tuscola in 1901 where Gus took an apprenticeship, and three years later, in 1904, after earning and saving up the money, he bought the shop.
“Gus Flesor” Taken sometime in the1950’s, my grandfather with his ever-present cigar. (Personal copy, Ann F. Beck)
Readers learn that from 1900 to 1920, “approximately 370,000 Greeks — and roughly 40 percent of the male population — left their country, and 95 percent of them went to the United States.” Beck talks about Chicago and St. Louis as the two main midwestern destinations, and she dives deep into the confectioneries where Greeks found their niche. At this point in history, desserts were a luxury item for Americans, but by 1910, “candy consumption had become one of America’s leisure time activities,” with Chicago as the “Acropolis of the Greek-American candy business.”
The Ritz Confectionery, Hoopeston” George Samaras working behind the counter at The Ritz, in Hoopeston, Illinois. No date, but before the remodeling in the mid-1940’s. (Courtesy of George’s son, Lex Samaras)
More than just broad immigration history, the book explores the depth of resistance that immigrants faced being in America, including overt racism from then President Woodrow Wilson whom Beck quotes in the book. The book reveals the shameful “100 percent Americanism crusade." It was shocking to read, and yet, tragically, topical even today when resistance to immigrants is still an issue.
Beck does not hold back: she includes the dark histories of racism wrapped up in the success stories of immigrants. Beck writes about how, over the years, the urban and rural towns of America “erupted into openly ugly and vicious attacks.” Horrific quotes from a Klan song, stories of anti-Greek riots, Klan rallies, and excerpts from Congressional hearings on the Klan fill the pages more than I was comfortable with, and as a white reader, I sat in the discomfort, and I read, recognizing the pain inflicted on these immigrants and facing the racist history.
Beck writes that her grandfather “resisted the Klan, in a unique and humorous way.” I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s a good story that showcases just what a guy Gus was. The author continues to write about her grandfather's store renovation, the large ad he took out, and the explosions and burning cross that followed.
Beck also addresses her grandfather’s mentors Peter George Vriner and George Vaky who highlight the importance of C-U in this story. With his partner Vaky, Vriner opened a confectionery and fruit shop in Champaign called it the Champaign Candy Company at 55 Main Street which is on the National Register of Historic Places as Vriner’s Confectionery where Main Street Lounge is today and where Memphis on Main used to be.
“Champaign Candy Company” First Vriner’s store at 55 Main Street, Champaign, about 1904, before Vriner completely remodeled the front and interior of the store around 1907-08. Man wearing hat is Peter Vriner. His partner George Vaky is to the right in the white apron. (Champaign County Historical Archives, The Urbana Free Public Library, Urbana, Illinois).
The book talks about the local legends of Al Capone eating three chocolate marshmallow sundaes while plotting murder, of how the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt thought Vriner’s soda was “the best she had ever tasted,” and more.
In 1901, together Vriner and Vaky opened the Candy Kitchen confectionery that Gus Flesor would later buy in Tuscola. Later, Vriner opened the Olympia Confectionery opposite the courthouse in Urbana in 1914. From there, he opened three ice cream manufacturers in Champaign-Urbana.
So many personal stories of Greeks in Champaign-Urbana are told in this book. A tragic story of how a young Greek immigrant wanted to buy a house at the corner of University and Prospect, but was unable to close the deal. Why? “Because the ‘good’ people of Champaign did not want an immigrant restaurant man to have that property.” This was 1947 — only 73 years ago, in our very city.
The book focuses on the Flesor story in Champaign-Urbana and Tuscola, but peppered throughout the book are many stories of other Greek immigrants with stories similar but unique to their families: how they came through Chicago, down to Illinois, and opened their own ice cream parlors or confectioneries in Monticello, Decatur, Springfield, Mattoon, Charleston, Effingham, Hillsboro, Taylorsville, and Jacksonville, Illinois.
“These fascinating stories of Greek immigration, networking, and settlement can be replicated in every state in America. They should be recovered, for they beautifully illustrate our country’s immigrant heritage and celebrate the hardworking Greek immigrants who carved out new lives in their adopted land’s rural areas.”
The author includes maps and about 100 pages of notes where Beck has compiled her sources which range from books to newspaper articles to microfilm. Beck has done the research — and shown all her work — with 50 pages of notations plus another 30 pages of bibliography outlining information researched in census records, headstone applications, newspapers, interviews, academic journals, and books.
If you are a history buff, this is a great read, but honestly, I highly recommend Sweet Greeks for anyone. The stories in the book are still relevant today, and the midwestern history is easy to devour because the places are familiar. Purchase your copy of Sweet Greeks here.