It's lurking there at the center, biding its time. You're happy-go-lucky, chatting with tablemates, eating a tomato, then a cucumber and a little flurry of feta cheese.
Your fork hits something yielding. You peer down, scooting lettuce leaves and pepperoncini out of the way.
"Waiter, there's potato salad at the heart of my Greek salad."
That salad, in turn, is at the heart of Greek cuisine in Tarpon Springs, which in turn is the heart of Florida's Greek population. But this potato salad scoop is not normal. Head to Hydra or Skiathos, Greece: no potato salad. Greek restaurants in New England or Canada: no potato salad.
In fact, it is Greek salad heresy.
I decided to figure out how it got there. (Lettuce isn't exactly traditional, either, but that's fodder for another story.) First I had lunch with Tina Bucuvalas, Tarpon Springs' curator of arts and historical resources. We settled into a table at Costa's and were soon joined by Billy "The Kid" Emerson, a Rockabilly Hall of Famer who was once in the Kings of Rhythm with Ike Turner and who wrote and recorded with Sun Records (Elvis rerecorded Emerson's When It Rains, It Really Pours.)
Emerson at first said he couldn't reveal the way the potato salad got there for fear of retribution. (Here he drew a finger dramatically across his neck in the universal sign for getting whacked.) He grew up in Tarpon Springs where, he said, the Greeks and the African-Americans got along just fine.
Black people had some of the most important jobs in sponging, he said: First you had to sort the sponges and then you had to string them. They were called stringers. Sometimes they were sponge divers, too, as long as their wives didn't find out.
Over lunch he talked about a fast boat called The Doris; about playing baseball as a kid at the park by the creek and how Greeks would trade their bread for African-Americans' biscuits; about his uncle, a preacher named Zachariah Hannah, who was so devout he wouldn't take the sip of whiskey that might have saved his life after he ate honey out of season (which, Emerson said, is poisonous). Eventually, talk came around to Greek salads.
One day, he said, restaurateur Louis Pappas had company coming in from Tampa. They had run short of things and had to come up with something already on hand. So an African-American kitchen worker named Lily took what she found and put it together.
"Louis Pappas said, 'What is this?' She said, 'It's a Greek salad.' "
So Lily deserves the credit.
"Louis Pappas didn't do anything wrong," Emerson said as lunch wound down. "If you invent something on the job and you work for them, it belongs to them."
Stelios Migadakis, the owner of Costa's, swung by as we were paying.
"I'm from New York. I got here in 2006; this restaurant had been here since 1977. It was strange. At first I said, 'Can you come here? What is this doing here?' " he recalls, pointing to an imaginary scoop of potato salad. "It was an abomination."
But how did it get there? He asked a server named Zan, sister of the original owners. She said it started somewhere between 1938 and 1940.
"You had to have it," Migadakis added. "If you didn't have it, customers left."
Bucuvalas and I kept going, heading to Dimitri's on the Water in search of Dimitrios Salivaras, swiftly tracking him down across the street at his father Andreas Salivaras' restaurant, Mykonos, where he sat with friends eating a platter of fried sand perch.
"Back in the 1920s, Pappas used to feed the sponge divers and fishermen. They ran out of proteins and they had to figure out how to feed everyone. I think it was Jack (Pappas' fourth child) or Bertha (Pappas' eldest), or maybe it was Lucas Louis (third of his five kids), who added the potato salad, thinking that would fill them up. And it stuck. Overnight it became a thing."
Salivaras described it as an "oh, s--- moment" and made it sound like Louis Pappas' kids deserve the credit. To hear it from the horse's mouth, we next decided to stop into Yia Yia's, owned by Pappas' youngest daughter, Nina. Nina, who visits sister Bertha every afternoon in a nursing home, wasn't in.
But her employee Rita Koutsourais had the story.
"The story I heard from Nina and Bertha was that Louis Pappas was a chef in the Army. They needed to make the salad for the troops more filling and make it go a little further. So when he opened his restaurant he did it the same way and people fell in love with it," Koutsourais explained, pointing to a picture on the wall of Pappas' wife Flora (nee Paraskevas) proudly holding said salad.
Sure enough, there's evidence that Louis M. Pappamichalopoulos served as an Army chef in France during World War I, his culinary chops significant enough that it is said that Gen. John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Forces to victory over Germany, sent Pappas a Christmas card every year.
I was willing to let it go at that, but Bucuvalas said we should go visit Goldie Parr, "the CNN of Tarpon Springs," who oversees St. Michael's shrine and lives next door. Her house was cool and dark, the television on and a confusing number of people arriving and departing, Parr presiding from an armchair the size of a Buick Enclave.
"Pappas' chef made it for a specific individual. The chef had run out of food and was scrounging around. They had potatoes, so they put them underneath to mound it up, then topped it with a shrimp, a beet and a scallion sticking up."
Still, Parr's time frame doesn't quite work. Pappas opened a restaurant in Tampa in 1922 and when the economy collapsed he decamped to Tarpon Springs and opened Louis Pappas Riverside Café around 1925.
"I was 6 years old in 1936 and I still see my father with his Model T packing them up and moving them from Tampa to their first house in Tarpon Springs. My mother-in-law was Italian and she would bring them spaghetti."
Still ruminating about all the competing stories, I decided to try one more person. I called the Rev. Milton Smith of Mt. Hermon Baptist Church, Emerson's cousin, a former firefighter and a lifelong Tarpon Springs resident.
"I talked to some of the elders, some of my parents' friends. I heard that it was at Louis Pappas' restaurant and they were about to run out of salad. Miss Susie, she was African-American and I think she was maybe a cleaning person, it was her idea to put the potato salad in the heart of the salad and put the other ingredients around it."
Susie, not Lily? Definitely Susie. And when was this exactly?
"I would say in the 1970s."
So sometime between the 1920s and the 1970s, someone — maybe Louis Pappas, one of his children or one of his kitchen workers — stuck a scoop of potato salad in the middle of a Greek salad, maybe as inspiration, maybe as desperation. What is clear is that this innovation is widely known.
I called Xeno Kohilas, owner of Ikaros, a famous Greek restaurant in Baltimore.
"I come from the island of Icaria and we have a convention every year. I went down to Clearwater in 1992. Of course I went to Tarpon Springs, and of course I went to Pappas, and of course I had the salad."
In Kohilas' mind, is this modification genius or scourge?
"A potato is a potato."
So why does he think the tradition started?
"In Greece we do not put potatoes in the Greek salad but I guess they did it to familiarize people with Greek food. To make it more friendly."
That's as good a reason as any.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.