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Arts & Life

Learning Who You Are Through What You Eat


The long Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer for many in the U.S., but it's also a time when ethnic churches hold massive food festivals to celebrate their origins. For food writer Michele Kayal and her young daughter, Syrian festivals -- and the preparations for them -- are an enduring link to the past.By Michele Kayal/NPR

Get recipes for Hummus, Stuffed Grape Leaves (Yebrat), Middle Eastern Meat Pies (Lahem'ajeen), Phyllo And Nut Pastries (Baklava) (above) and Arabic Coffee (Ah'weh Arabe).

"You know what I like about church?" my daughter said one Sunday, her patent leather shoes clicking down the flagstones.

Ummm ... God? Praying? Understanding that you must never, ever, ever have sex?

"What?" I asked.

The bread. This is a kid who grabbed my chopsticks as a toddler to decimate a plate of pad thai, so it wasn't strange that she would hone in on the food aspect of church. But while "bread" wasn't the answer I was expecting, I realized it was the answer I had been hoping for.

My daughter is ethnically Indian, as is my husband, and our frequent trips to Mumbai keep that part of the family's culture alive. But how to communicate to my child the other half of her story, from the Syrian section of Brooklyn, where every Sunday after endless "Ahhhh-meeens" my grandfather and I would walk to the bakery, a steamy basement off Atlantic Avenue where I would punch down the puffy loaves of khoubiz ? pita bread ? as he and the baker drank sweet, cardamom-scented coffee and spoke a rolling, guttural Arabic? How to pass on the fruity tang of pomegranate-stewed eggplant as it fills your grandmother's foyer, or the embattled cadence of a half-dozen aunties shouting about the best way to shell pistachios?

Church ? a Middle Eastern Catholic church like the one my grandfather used to take me to ? was the only way. Bread, of course, is at the center of the church, the godly meal dipped in wine and offered by wrinkled old men with accents exactly like my grandfather's. But there is also coffee hour, where the same old men drink that strong, sweet ah'weh arabe, where children devour bowls of anise-flavored wheat berries called slee'ah, where during Lent we share spinach pies, hummus and other meatless dishes. And where every Labor Day we celebrate our heritage the only way we know how: with a massive food festival.

This weekend, ethnic churches from Belmont, Calif., to Boston will showcase their Polish pierogi and Portuguese caldo verde, their Italian pizzelle and Greek souvlakia. For uninitiated Americans, these precious cultural icons offer a window into the culinary foundation of our country. For third generations like myself and for our children, the festivals ? and the preparation for them ? open a magic passage to the vanished kitchens of our grandmothers.

"Kifak!" the ladies at my church greet each other as they enter the banquet hall early on a Saturday morning.

My daughter runs to hug a few of her favorites. "So sweet," they say in Arabic, pinching her cheeks ? hard ? the way my grandmother used to pinch mine. She twists away, as I used to, then sits down at the long table set with big bowls of ground lamb and rice. We work from cookie trays of freshly boiled grape leaves, picking the tenderest, most perfectly formed ones first, in our quest to make more than 2,500 yebrat, stuffed grape leaves in lemony tomato sauce.

I flatten a leaf and attempt to show my daughter how to fill it with meat, then roll it up like a cigar, but she waves me off. "Mommy," she says with 6-year-old disdain, "I can do it by myself."

I retreat to another station and watch as she rolls a few, badly, and places them proudly on the tray with the perfectly formed specimens of the grannies. She chats with them, telling them about kindergarten, and listening as they speak their unfamiliar language. "What a good job," they say in accented English. "Such a big girl," they flatter. "Can you say 'yebrat?' " they teach.

When she's not looking, I do surreptitious quality control, re-rolling her grape leaves the way my grandmother used to re-roll mine, until my fingers became so deft, so full of memory that I could no longer recall ever learning it. She rolls, I re-roll, the Arabic weaves in and out of the accented English. We do this through the first pan of grape leaves, five layers deep, 300 in all. Then one of the grannies puts her arm around my girl's narrow shoulders.

"Habibi" ? sweetie pie ? "do it this way," the granny says, tucking the corners of a leaf just so. My daughter watches, then rolls her leaf with fingers half the width of the cigar she's making, doing exactly what I had tried to show her, but this time without protest.

She rolls and rolls, like I used to at my grandmother's sunny dining room table in Brooklyn, the one covered with plastic. The next week, she pinches the edges of meat pies, her tiny fingers joyfully sealing the corners like Play-Doh. She learns the word lahem'ajeen, "meat pie," and carries a whole tray ? 50 pies, an hour's work ? into the kitchen as the ladies hold their breath, but say nothing, patting her on the back when she returns.

Like me, my daughter will likely never speak Arabic. She may never visit the Middle East. But if my prayers are answered, our visits to church will give her more than daily bread. They will give her grape leaves and meat pies and baklava and the Arabic words that go with them, our enduring ? and at this point ? only link to the heritage that necessarily grows fainter with each generation.


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