It would be easy to pass by the Big Apple Inn without a second thought. But its humble exterior is home to serious civil rights history, not to mention incredible tamales and pig ear sandwiches.
The story of the Big Apple begins with a Mexican immigrant who arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1930s. After some success selling tamales from a street cart, Juan “Big John” Mora bought a small storefront in 1939. He named his eatery the Big Apple Inn after his favorite swing dance (not New York City, as some might believe) and sold his signature tamales, as well as burgers, hot dogs, and smoked sausages. When he saw a butcher throwing out perfectly good pig ears, he slow-cooked the meat, slid it onto a bun, and a savory, tender sandwich was born.
Mora’s personal history is a little murky. At some point, he had a child with a local Black woman whom Geno Lee, his great-grandson and the current owner of the Inn, knows only as “Mae-Mama.” They named the child Harold Lee (the surname is also a mystery), and Lee eventually took over the business. Under Lee’s ownership, the restaurant served a key role in local civil rights causes. As part of Jackson’s “Little Harlem” neighborhood, the Big Apple was a meeting place for Black activists: Freedom Riders planned events over sandwiches, NAACP Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers had an office on the floor above and often came down for meals, and, according to Geno, local civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer was known to stop by for a sandwich every now and then, too.
Geno Lee recalls his grandfather not only provided a safe space for civil rights leaders, but also helped in other ways. In an interview with Serious Eats, he noted that customers continue to come in and recount times Harold bailed someone out or offered free food.
While many businesses of Little Harlem have shuttered, the Big Apple Inn remains, still serving pig ear sandwiches with coleslaw and hot sauce. At a mere $1.60, that’s quite a steal for a succulent snack and a slice of history.