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The Temple of Meringue

At the Crystal Grill, mountains of meringue hover over pies. How do they do that? Like most good things, it’s a secret.

I can’t tell you, I can’t tell you,” said Johnny Ballas, owner of the historic Crystal Grill restaurant.

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 11.08.11 AMBallas can’t tell me. He can’t tell anyone.

He can’t tell a trick, one that his uncle and father mastered in the 1930s and passed onto him. This trick has been the talk of the town, the wider Delta and anyone who has seen the results of this family secret.

Perfectly poised and peaked meringue tops the chocolate and coconut cream pies at the Crystal Grill. Meringue that appears as high and white as the snow covered French Alps. You will find it hard to not ask Ballas or another member of his staff the forbidden question: How do you get the meringue that high?

From as far off as Memphis, Jackson, New Orleans, they come to marvel at what has become a Delta icon—a mountain
of meringue that will not topple. It has become almost synonymous with the name Greenwood, a place where the size of the portions is legend, the conversation flows like the sweet tea and diners feel they are sampling a slice of local history.

The Crystal Grill is not all pie, of course. This renowned restaurant across from the railroad tracks has a vast and diverse menu, including traditional Southern cuisine, American Italian and at times some of the Ballas Greek influence.

The place has been in the family since 1933. Mike Ballas, Johnny’s father, was born in Pensacola, Florida, grew up in Greece and returned to the U.S. as a young man. He came to Greenwood in the 1930s to work with his brother-in- law, buying into the Crystal partnership. Johnny grew up in the restaurant.

He fondly recalls learning the trade under his father’s watchful eye. “Back in those days, Cokes came in a wooden box. He would stack up a couple of Coca- Cola crates and I would stand on them and cut meat. He taught me everything I know about cooking,” Ballas said.Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 11.14.47 AM

Like many Mississippi restaurants in the tumultuous civil rights era, the Crystal, located at the intersection of the white and black communities, was caught up in the war over segregation, once existing as a “whites only” key club. But today, black and white eat together comfortably.

“The Crystal Grill shows an openness to all races that eat there,” said Greenwood Commonwealth Editor Tim Kalich. “It has come a long way, as has the town of Greenwood. Both are a lot more progressive.”

Ballas graduated from Mississippi State University and went into business with his sister for a time but returned to work full-time at the Crystal in 1977. Since then, he has been carrying on family traditions such as the meringue pies, while expanding and diversifying the Crystal’s menu.

The wide variety of food is no accident, said Ballas. In fact, it is another secret to success.

“It’s more work, it takes more prep time, it takes more employees, but that’s the thing that I think we offer that the chains can’t offer. Most of them don’t have the variety that we have but that’s what sets us apart. And hopefully we do it all well and that’s the thing I hear a lot of people say, everything we get here is good,” said Ballas.

The strong family ties that have propelled the Crystal have been helped along by an unusually devoted staff. Several, such as Macy B. Wetherspoon, in the kitchen, and waitress Rivers Coleman, have worked here for almost forty years.

Annie Johnson, the senior pie-maker, has been at the Crystal Grill for longer than she can remember. Johnson now only works part-time but she has passed on the art to a younger woman who works five days a week. “There’s always been Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 11.16.17 AManother class taking over for the older generation, and then they pass on,” Ballas noted. “On a daily basis they make eight to ten chocolates and eight to ten coconuts and those are sold daily and we make a new batch the next day.”

It is hard to imagine Greenwood without the Crystal Grill. But Ballas said this might be the end of the line for his family’s ownership. Running a successful restaurant requires long hours away from home and eventually takes a toll on your body, Ballas said.

Johnny and his wife Beverly have one daughter, who works at the University of Mississippi. The daughter and her husband have no plans to take over the restaurant.

“Unfortunately I’m afraid it will have to be sold and hopefully find someone that has the desire to keep it where it is, to continue the tradition,” said Ballas.

But don’t worry, Greenwood. The Ballases have no plan to take the secret of their signature meringue to the grave. That will be part of the deal.

– Story by Rachael Walker, Land of Plenty

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