From 4:30 in the morning to 10 at night and seven days a week, year after year, Nancy Econome’s grandparents worked their Classic Grill in downtown Vallejo, California. It was a story similar to that of many immigrants of the era — when vacations were unheard of and they worked hard to chip away at their American dream for themselves and their family.
These experiences– and the stories shared by the elders of her family– were the foundation of her first novel, affectionally called The Classic Grill, which weaves together personal family stories and historical details from the time that Nancy researched to make the fictional story accurate.
The novel tells the fictional story of Achilles, a rough Greek cafe owner, and his two sons, who run a busy hometown diner during the World War II-era.
The cast of characters is the stuff Hollywood films are made of with interesting faces each plucked from the collective memories of generations of Greek immigrant families.
In addition to the well-known story of a dad and his two sons running the family business, there’s Uncle Theo, the drifter and gambler; and Tetsuya, in this case a Japanese immigrant and the only “kseno” or non-Greek in the kitchen.
In Pittsburgh where I grew up, the “kseni” in the kitchen were the so-called “hunkeys” or Eastern European newly arrived immigrants from Bulgaria, Croatia and Serbia who filled the back counters of one diner after the next.
Creating a believable atmosphere for a time before her own birth and a place that no longer exists proved a challenge for the 65-year-old first time novelist. She researched food rationing during the war years and even interviewed a Japanese American man who tours the region giving lectures to schools about the internment camps where thousands of U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage were forced to live the 1940s.
The entire process for the novelist has been a labor of love, not to mention a journey back in time that accomplishes its mission of taking the reader back into his/her own family stories and memories.
“I started writing the first draft in 2016. I spent most of 2019 polishing and editing it and getting published,” Econome said.
The Classic Grill is an important new work in the fabric of Greek America and should be embraced by casual readers and researchers alike.
“Someone in the Santa Rosa community started a boycott against The Classic Grill restaurant because it was owned by ‘immigrants,’” Econome told me during an email exchange.
“The owner, my great-uncle, was actually an American citizen because he had served in World War I. He and his family created a display in their window saying their restaurant was an American business,” she said. “The American Legion supported my great-uncle, since he was a veteran, and held their meetings at The Classic Grill.’’
The immigrant experience of past generations should not be forgotten.
“Some of the struggles my family faced are now faced by immigrants from other places,” the author said. “I wanted to give an authentic presentation of what Greek American families experienced when they immigrated. I hope my story reflects some of their strength.”
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