This was originally published at The Rumpus on November 21, 2018.
I hadn’t seen my sedo for a decade after he was widowed, until he met me for dinner one night at a Middle Eastern restaurant. Having not seen each other for ten years due to my father being a drug addict and me removing myself from his life, there was a nervousness and hesitancy to our meeting. But I knew Sedo, an Arabic term of endearment for grandfather, wanted grape leaves. And when I told him Makario’s had grape leaves that tasted just like my dead teta’s, he offered to meet me the next evening.
He complained the waiter didn’t speak Arabic. He complained the tabbouleh had too much wheat germ. But when he tasted the grape leaves, with their soft rice, tomato and dried mint seasoned lamb, and the slight lemony flavor of the leaves, he said nothing––only closed his eyes, thinking of his dead wife, a rare smile edging itself into the corners of his mouth.
After years of kneading homemade bread, my teta had delicate hands like river stones. She rolled her knuckles just so––flour temporarily concealing her browned age spots. Standing on tiptoes, I’d grasp the countertop and peek at her handiwork. Though my grandmother died a few months after I entered my teens, I imagine her hands being much smaller than mine are now as a grown-up.
There was a grapevine growing along two sides of the chain link fence that enclosed my grandparents’ backyard. The vine never yielded any grapes, though it was rampant––tendrils encircling the fence wire from top to bottom for the length of the fence. Each leaf of the grapevine’s abundant foliage was round at the bottom and three-pronged at the top like an indecisive trident. A few days before she knew I was coming to visit, Teta would amble outside with a wooden fruit basket––the kind you see at old farm stands on the side of the road, usually holding peaches or tomatoes––and fill it full of plucked leaves.
Inside, she’d take the stockpot from the top of the fridge and fill it with a gallon or so of water––with enough salt to turn the water white as it came to a boil. The heat is only to help the salt dissolve faster, so once the water boils, the pot is removed from the heat and left to cool. As the pot calmed, Teta would hold the basket aloft and rake only the best leaves into the water. Leaves that were torn or too small or had too many holes where caterpillars had feasted were thrown out.
The leaves would sit in that pot at least overnight, softening so their stems would be pliable, more accommodating of ingredients come morning.
Much of my time spent watching Teta cook was in quiet. She and Sedo spoke Arabic almost exclusively to each other at home, a language whose syllables my ear never fully attuned to and my tongue was slow to accommodate when coupled with a hearty Southern drawl.
Teta rarely left the house––if not cooking or cleaning, then running up the phone bill to siblings and cousins in the old country. Sedo brought her across oceans, across continents, to come to the US, finally stopping in Alabama of all places, then he showed her nothing of this land he brought her to. He made her world small––the size of their kitchen––because he believed that, as a man, he was the only one in their relationship entitled to a life outside the home.
And so, within the confines of her too-small world, she showed me she loved me in the only way she knew how: through food.
Thinking himself above “women’s work”––the arbitrary line he observed even after retiring from work and thus not having anything to do but occupy himself at home––Sedo never learned to cook the food of his homeland.
Though his palate craved the flavors of Palestine: homemade bread and yogurt, falafel, tabbouleh, kibbeh, and small desserts with dates and plums, and––of course––grape leaves, after Teta died he could only grill steaks.
Carnivore that his loathing of “women’s work” had forced him to become, Sedo would eat a steak at least once a day. The steak was usually for dinner, though sometimes he’d eat one for lunch too. This was the picture of his widowhood: He’d slap the fat-marbled meat on the grill in the back yard and smile to himself with a coyness that said, “I can take care of myself.”
Even the neighbors, who waved from their porch when they saw him out grilling, knew better.
Given my young age at the time of Teta’s death, cooking grape leaves was not yet a part of my education on How to Be a (Half) Palestinian Woman.
I learned enough Arabic to get by––enough to call my relatives things like habibi-ti and endear them to me; enough to know when my grandparents were fighting; and enough to teach my classmates how to curse in a new language––and I’d heard the virtues of marrying third and fourth cousins to keep wealth and property in the family. But cooking grape leaves was, as yet, absent from my curriculum.
From watching Teta, I catalogued the ingredients for grape leaves in my head. But the measurements and portions and level of heating required were lost to me. Teta never used a spoon to dip the amount of filling, she just grabbed a pinch between her fingers and always got the right amount, never overfilling.
There was lamb covered in spices I couldn’t name and baked in the oven at an unknown temperature until the flesh flaked apart with a fork. There was rice––boiled, steamed, fluffed, and spiced with more unknown spices. There was a tomato sauce made from boiling whole tomatoes and straining them from the juice they leached. There was a yogurt sauce made from whatever magical chemical and fungal processes make yogurt.
Palestinian cuisine is as disputed as Palestinian land, and after being estranged from my family following my father’s addiction, there’s little for me to grasp. Besides the surname I carry as a reminder of who I am, the food––however inexact––is the most tangible connection I have.
Moth-eaten memories never forming into something I could taste.
What use is it to dwell on things unknown and potentially unknowable.
I visit restaurants where grape leaves are served cold, not hot, like Teta’s. I visit Greek restaurants and food festivals that tout dolmas and dolmades, which look similar to grape leaves, yet are not only served cold, but also with a yellowish cream sauce that dulls the fine balance of spices in the lamb and rice mixture. Teta’s tomato and yogurt sauces were meant to enhance the flavor of the grape leaves’ filling, not overpower it.
At one festival, the cream sauce on the dolmas was so yellow––too much saffron? turmeric?––it resembled half-digested cat food. I pushed my plate away.
The next day, after the grape leaves were boiled and their stems made pliable, Teta saw to the business of filling them.
The lamb and rice were cooked, then mixed together in a bowl. Teta reaches in and pinches just enough from the bowl to fit the grape leaf, even as they range in size. If the grape leaf is a palm, the filling is placed along the head line, then the sides are folded over, just enough to secure the contents; each part of the wet leaf sticking to the counterpart it touches. The bottom of the leaf is folded over the filling and the whole line is rolled to spiral around itself. She let me help once and I pretended I was rolling fancy cigars.
Grape leaves were not the food of Tuesday night dinners. The effort they required was such that it only made sense to cook them in tonnage, an act most often reserved for large family gatherings. And yet, knowing I would eat as many as she handed me, she would make a batch when I was her only guest.
It took me nearly a decade after Teta’s death to discover Makario’s. Their grape leaves could have been made with her exact recipe, right down to the yogurt. It is not an exaggeration to say I all but wept into my plate.
Comfort and memory and grief commingled in the dish.
Years after that day at Makario’s with Sedo, possessed by a sudden force I can neither name nor replicate, I was compelled to make grape leaves.
Not being much of a cook––as I prefer the ease of microwaveable, calorie-countable meals––I doubted my grape leaves would taste anything like Teta’s, no matter how well any seemingly authentic recipe was followed. So I recruited my partner, ignored the myriad recipes online, and decided we should make them our own.
I pulled grape leaves from a jar, already picked and soaking in a salt water bath, having given no forethought as to what I’d stuff into them. The leaves looked so waterlogged, so sad and limp and gray––nothing like the resilient, perky leaves on Teta’s fence.
As quickly as my urge to make grape leaves had come on, so did my confidence disappear. Simply put, I lacked the ability to make them. This worsened when it was discovered we had run out of rice, which, secondary to the eponymous ingredient, was the most important part of the dish.
My enterprising partner suggested filling the grape leaves with things like macaroni and cheese and barbecue chicken.
“Why the hell not?” he asked. “There are so many ways to make them they’ll probably never taste exactly like your grandmother’s. It’s not authentic, but who’s going to stop you?”
We could have gone shopping for rice since the corner store was only a short walk away, but in my manic state I worried if I left the kitchen I wouldn’t return to the task. I’d see how ill-fated this culinary adventure was and suggest we order Chinese takeout instead. I would, removed from the physical location enabling my frenzy, convince myself it just wasn’t worth it.
Yet sometimes what once might have been blasphemous or simply unheard of is the only way to leave your mark on a tradition you never yourself saw fulfilled.
“Authenticity” is such a poor descriptor for things with a oneness in the sum of their parts. I am only half Palestinian––not authentic myself. The week before making the grape leaves, a fusion restaurant opened in the neighborhood touting “sushiritos,” or sushi ingredients in the convenient papoose of a flour tortilla. There are other dishes like this––naanchos, and pizzadilla/quesapizza, for instance. These fusion foods are proudly inauthentic––garnering the ire of some who call the blends untraditional displays of cultural appropriation, but appealing to people who are fusions themselves; people like me who know by their very existence they contain multitudes.
My partner understands the dual worlds I occupy, neither fully inhabiting one or the other. A world in which the suggestion of macaroni and cheese grape leaves––a synthesis of my two favorite foods––makes such perfect sense that the only thing more unordinary is us not having thought to try cooking them before.
I imagine Teta watching me, tsk-tsk-tsking but with a grin inching its way onto her cheeks as we rationalize this decision––unsure whether to be surprised or flattered at this creative attempt at calling back her memory.
The as-yet un-barbecued chicken was set out to thaw and the macaroni water was put on to boil. I can take care of myself, too.
A few weeks after our dinner at Makario’s, I tell Sedo I’m applying to graduate school. His eyebrows lower in confusion and he tilts his head to the side, like I am something beyond all comprehension. He asks me what I need with more school when I could have a husband.
He doesn’t understand I have more oceans and continents to cross and more love to give than my tenuous culinary skills will allow. He finds it unfathomable I wouldn’t want a life like the one he gave Teta and I wouldn’t want a husband who would treat me like he treated her. He doesn’t see that I couldn’t love my future husband, whom I hadn’t met yet, if I couldn’t live with myself.
He thinks being the provider in the relationship is enough, as if merely insuring one’s physical survival is the perfect expression of love.
I met the man I would marry and we moved to his hometown in Ohio, leaving Alabama and my Palestinian family a nine-hour drive behind us.
In the spring, we bought a Cape Cod house that could be described as cute, when all traces of foliage were still dormant from the winter’s cold. Later the flowers of summer arrived, then the vines of fall.
Vines twisted themselves around the drain pipes, the porch column, and the trellises with my partner’s hop plants. We cut, ripped, and sprayed. We reclaimed the parts of our home the vines wanted to take from us.
When the dead vines had been pulled from where they clung and taken to the side of the road with the rest of the yard waste, one last vine sprang up by the porch, as close to the front door as was possible without curling up the steps and coming inside. Its tendrils pointed skyward, as if in greeting to all who entered the house. Unlike the vines with the bright green heart-shaped leaves we’d been battling, this one was darker green and shaped like a chubby trident.
“That one’s a wild grapevine,” our neighbor, an expert horticulturist, told us. “It’s an invasive species and will take over if you don’t kill it.”
I remembered the grape leaves my partner and I made in his old apartment––the ones stuffed with mac and cheese and barbecue chicken. We rolled those grape leaves late into the night, baking one batch in the oven to ensure the chicken cooked and the cheese melted while continuing to roll more. We made four casserole trays full; pounds of them blended together in the trays so the ones with different fillings were indistinguishable from one another. We liked the surprise of biting into the fat-fingered leaves, not knowing what we were going to get.
They were, of course, nothing like my teta’s. The barbecue dried out in the oven, though the mac and cheese remained creamy thanks to the chemical wonders of Velveeta. Although the latter tasted good in its own way, the texture took some getting used to. There was an initial impetus not to like our grape leaves no matter how they tasted. The vestiges of what is “traditional” and “authentic” lingered.
After dinner, we’d put the remaining three pans of grape leaves in the freezer and forgotten them in the move. I imagined the landlord throwing them out, having no idea what sort of food they were or even if they were edible. Perhaps he thought, as I once did, they were cigars.
I thanked my neighbor and assured her I wouldn’t let an invasive species live. But later, I pretended to forget, and let the grapevine grow.
We have lived in our house a year and another winter is waning into spring. The curls of the grapevine enliven and bounce from their dormancy, growing up and outward, a strand tangling itself about the bottom porch step and reaching toward the road.
The grapevine is plant and memory, ivy and nostalgia, creeper and reminiscence, invasive species and welcome guest. Not one thing, but many; a multitudinous life.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.