TARPON SPRINGS — "The time frame is all wrong," said Michael Houllis, 70, by phone from his mother Bertha's retirement center. "By 1917 it was a done deal."
He was speaking of the many theories posited in the story I wrote for last week's Taste section that wondered how the potato salad got in the middle of the Tarpon Springs Greek salad. In his mind, this version is the Louis Pappas Greek salad, and it differs from a traditional Greek salad in more ways than that secret scoop at the bottom.
"It ain't only potato salad. Look what my grandfather put in it. In Greece, you don't get avocado, radish, shrimp, roka (a Greek arugula), beet and scallion. These are all Louis Pappas innovations. And the cucumbers, he cut them differently. When you take a cucumber and slice it long, it exposes all the seeds and the oil and vinegar sink in. When you slice them in rounds, the dressing rolls right off."
In the background, Bertha Houllis, 94 and Louis Pappas' eldest child, cuts to the chase. It's there, on her wall: a picture of her father in 1917, standing with his buddies in his Army uniform, holding the salad. The Pappas Greek salad. So it wasn't in the 1930s, the 1940s or the 1970s, and it wasn't the innovation of a kitchen worker or one of Pappas' kids. It did feed the sponge divers, and there was a longtime African-American kitchen worker named Mamie who was largely responsible for the production of said potato salad, but according to the Houllis family, it was a recipe that accompanied Louis Pappas to New York at the end of World War I.
"After the war he migrates south, doing some cowboying in Tennessee on the way down," Michael explained. "He goes to Tarpon because he hears there are Greek people. They fix him up with Flora in 1921. He comes to play pinochle, takes a look at her, takes her back to Tampa and they marry."
Before they sign off, Bertha gets on the phone to talk about life in her family's restaurant business.
"People don't realize what one gives up to build something, to feed 1,000 people a day and put your heart and soul in a business. What transpired in that restaurant," she pauses, as if remembering. "I wouldn't change my life for nothing."
My parents lived in Tarpon Springs for decades and were regulars at Pappas' Riverside Cafe. A trip to Pappas' was always on my "must do" list whenever I visited them. My favorite dish was green turtle steak, so you know that I'm talking about a long time ago.
I have a copy of the pocket-sized Louis Pappas' Famous Greek Recipes (condensed for home use by Mamma Pappas). Its copyright date is 1965, so you can forget the '70s for the onset of the scoop of potato salad in the Greek salad. It's clearly in the recipe in the cookbook. My father said that Pappas' also added mashed potatoes to their potato salad because it was a good way to use the unsold spuds from the day before. "Waste not, want not."
John Weiss, Spring Hill
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Before retiring from the Army and moving here in June 1978, I lived for three years in Izmir, Turkey, and spent time in Athens and the island of Rhodes.
Because both countries' food is similar, I ate a lot of salads. Potatoes are unknown there; the staple is bread. Bottled salad dressings are not normal so lime or lemon slices accompany which you squeeze onto the bed using your fork to catch the seeds.
Having tried a lot of "Greek" salads in this area, my gold standard is the Greek Islands Restaurant in Largo. Family owned for many years, theirs is American traditional and made from scratch each time.
Doug Hicks, Seminole Heights
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A few years ago I read in a Pappas recipe book that the potato salad was indeed added to the salad during World War I in the fields of France. Louis Pappas was a camp cook, depending upon the locals to help feed his troops. There was not enough protein available to give substance to the vegetables that he could procure. Thus he decided that "his boys" needed sturdier food and added the potatoes. After the war he moved from New York to Tarpon Springs, bought his restaurant and reproduced the salad. There was nothing about Gen. Pershing. The book was sold by the Pappas restaurant in the shopping mall on East Lake and Enterprise, Northlake or Northwood Center.
One of the reasons that information stuck in my mind is that one of my beloved uncles in Portland, Ore., was in the trenches in World War I and he talked about all the support they got from medics, drivers, cooks, etc.
Georgie Bowser, New Port Richey
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Pappas moved to Tarpon because the area was building rapidly and full of cash. And in Tampa the Italian/Cuban food was filling most of the food gaps with ethnic foods for the workers. My grandfather actually dredged the waterway behind the restaurant and up the river as well as the Courtney Campbell and the Intracoastal in Pinellas County.
At any rate it all started a local legend with Greek potato salad available almost everywhere in the area.
Lyn Lopez, Seffner
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.