First-time novelist relishes Greek roots – Georgia Street eatery remembered
Seven days a week for 13 years, Nancy Econome’s grandparents worked their Classic Grill in downtown Vallejo from 4:30 in the morning to 10 at night.
Two-week vacations to Hawaii? A trip to Vegas? Not when the eatery serving up American cuisine needs endless attention.
“My grandparents took one weekend off in their entire lives,” Econome says. “My grandfather said he took my grandmother to Tahoe. That was it. Then the war came.”
Econome took the stories of the Georgia Street restaurant — and the namesake restaurants in Napa and Santa Rosa — as an inspiration to pen her first novel, “The Classic Grill — A Tale of Greek Gods and Immigrant Heroes.”
Released in June, the self-published paperback portrays a Greek-American family’s struggles in Vallejo in 1942, examining family conflicts, ethnic discrimination, sexual identity and the impact of World War II.
Econome took the stories she heard from her family about the restaurant and the struggles of the Greeks and other immigrants “and I took these threads and wove them into my own story and added contemporary issues.”
Researching “various aspects of life” in 1942 was enjoyable, said Econome, with an assist from Jim Kern at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum, historian Brendan Riley, and Henry Kaku, an expert in Japan internment camp history.
Econome’s first foray into fiction focuses on the Achillles Pappayannis, owner of the successful Classic Grill, who is outraged that his son, Demo, quits school to pursue ancient Greek drama. Another son, George, is considered Achilles’ “unimportant second son.” The mother, Chrisoula, watches as the family “crumbles before her eyes.”
With the Greeks, “it’s all about food,” Econome said. “All four grandparents immigrated from Greece and owned and operated a restaurant or candy store or soda foundation, as most Greeks do. Open up a Greek family album and you’ll find a restaurant.”
Econome wanted to emphasize in the book “how important food and hospitality and restaurants are to the Greek culture and Greek-American culture. And the concept of generosity shown to a stranger is essential in Greek society.”
Of note: The Classic Grill “never served Greek food,” Econome said. “It was roast beef and turkey sandwiches and meatloaf.”
Though Econome’s father and Uncle Ted are deceased, her Uncle Bill is still around at 91 to tell the stories “and his memory is razor sharp. He told me things about the restaurant I didn’t know, that I should be writing about. He remembered every customer’s name.”
A Vallejoan from 1987-93, Econome sifted through many old photos to find some vintage classics of the grill, including a 1927 shot that was used as a postcard to promote Vallejo.
Surely, the fun part “was the historical research,” she said. “One can get lost going out and researching.”
Econome made one of the sons gay because “during the WWII era, being gay was hushed up and discriminated against. I wanted to show a character who stood strong against this prejudice and who tried to live his authentic life.”
The author had an outline for the novel “and I added modern-day context to it to make it more relevant,” she said. “That was an important addition along the way. I had the bones. I had to put meat and fat on the bones.”
Though it’s Econome’s first novel, “it’s not the last,” she said. “People who read it want to know what the next generation is. From 1960 to the present, things really changed. What hasn’t changed is Greeks love food, love hospitality.”
Econome wrote most of the book at Panera near her Santa Rosa home.
“Most every day, I’d set up my laptop. People were so nice to me. They would ask how the book is coming,” Econome said.
For general readers, “I hope they enjoy the family story,” Econome said. “For non-Greeks, I hope they learn a little bit more of the flavor of the Greek-American immigrant family at a time that was unique. Everyone who came over couldn’t speak English and they scratched and clawed.”
For Greek-Americans reading the book, “I hope they enjoy the expression of our culture and the details of celebration the culture,” Econome said.
“What has been heart-warming is that most Greeks that have read it start talking about their own family history,” Econome said. “It’s a huge compliment.”
“The Classic Grill — A Tale of Greek Gods and Immigrant Heroes”, is available on Amazon, Kindle, Barnes & Noble, and Nook. For more, visit nancyeconome.com.