"What is that?" I hear a girl from across the table say. I look over to see that she is asking me.
"It smells gross."
I go to respond when another kid seems to take interest in my lunch too.
"Yeah, what is that?" They ask with a disgusted face.
I look at them in partial confusion. It is my first day of kindergarten, sitting in my assigned seat at lunch. How do they not know what grape leaves are?
"They're grape leaves." I answer back to the first girl with a somewhat forced smile.
"Oh," she says. "They look like turds."
I went home that afternoon to my parents to tell them about my first day of school, especially lunch. I asked them why none of the kids in my class knew what grape leaves were, to find that apparently not everyone ate the same food I did. At age 6, I was shocked. I thought everyone ate the same things. But I soon learned that my family did eat different foods. I knew we were Arab but at the time that simply meant that my great grandparents came from some country that I couldn't find on a map. As I got older I learned more about how my family was a little different from the kids that I went to school with. None of the kids that went to my small charter school ate kibbeh, cabbage rolls, sfiha, or grape leaves. I also learned that none of them were Syrian and Lebanese like me. I got comments all throughout elementary school and even throughout high school about how my house always smelled like garlic or my food looked and tasted weird. And I also heard kids say things about how Arabs were terrorists, often pronouncing the word "Arab," incorrectly.
Since then a lot has changed. Although much of my family's history has been forgotten, it is not gone, and most of my family's history that we remember has been taught to me through food.
Every time my family gathered to make a special dinner, it was always a family affair because Lebanese dishes usually took most of the day to make. And I had a HUGE family. Multiple siblings and almost 30 first-cousins. So we would gather around a table and begin the long, long journey of preparing our famous grape leaves. We would start by grabbing the bundle of leaves out of the jar they were in (if we didn't pick our own from my aunt's backyard) and flop them down right onto the counter top that was freshly cleaned. Now a lot of people have never seen grape leaves before and don't know that it is truly a leaf pulled from a bush, stem-and-all. But it is.
We would begin by cutting the stem out (or the vein as my family called it). No one wanted to bite into a soft grape leaf to have their teeth find a hard stem. Then we would start stuffing them. A mix of lamb and beef with rice, all seasoned with Syrian pepper, salt, and some other spices were rolled up into the leaves. Finally we would stack them all together, as closely as we could get them, and stick them into the oven. This may sound like a simple process, and it might be if you aren't making them for your entire family, but this took hours. We would roll close to a hundred grape leaves, sometimes even more depending on the occasion. Our pans would be overflowing with stacks of grape leaves. Each time they made it into the oven without one rolling onto the ground was a victory for our entire family.
Those hours where we were rolling the meat into the grape leaves and then waiting for another couple of hour for them to cook, were filled with laughter, stories, and sometimes (okay, every time we made them) arguments. But that was my family. And when we weren't arguing I was being told stories about my mom's sisters, my cousins, and sometimes my mom's cousins whom I had never met.
My mom would also tell me about my great-grandparents. One who came from Syria and the other from Lebanon. And every time she told me about them I wished I could meet them. Ask them to teach me Arabic or to help my family make one of our Lebanese dishes. Ask them what Syria and Lebanon were like when they were alive, as my family told me that I would likely never be able to see it. I wanted to ask them why they wanted to come to America, and why Michigan? I wanted to know what our last name really was, because they changed it to sound more American when they came. There was a lot I wanted to ask them, but I also wanted to thank them. Although they felt they had to conform to America's standards and some of our traditions and language were lost along the way, they preserved a lot of our history. A lot of my history. They traveled thousands of miles to get to America and start a family. They deserved to be thanked and remembered.
And by the time that story was done...we would still be waiting for the grape leaves to finish cooking. So we talked for a while longer and did other chores, but at the end of the day we would load our plates with grape leaves and Lebanese rice, say grace, and snap into a grape leaf. And instead of thinking about that girl at lunch who made fun of my food years ago, I thought about my family. My big Arab family.
But I was also thinking about how I could get seconds before my sisters did.