“What is that?” I hear someone from across the table ask. I look through the rows of kids clutching their lunch trays to see a girl looking at me. “It smells gross.”
I go to respond when someone else seems to take interest in my food too.
“Yeah, what is that?” They ask with a disgusted face.
I look at them in partial confusion, mentally preparing to defend myself and my food. It’s my first day of kindergarten, sitting in my assigned lunch seat. How do they not know what grape leaves are? “They’re grape leaves.” I answer back to the first girl with a forced smile.
“Oh, she says, “they look like turds.”
I went home that afternoon to tell my parents about my first day of school, especially lunch. I told them how embarrassed I was to eat after what that girl had said. I mean who would want to continue eating something that was declared a turd in front of your entire class? I asked them why no one knew what a grape leaf was, to find that apparently not everyone ate the same things as me. At age 6, I was shocked. I simply thought that everyone in my kindergarten class ate what I ate. I knew I was Arab, but at the time that only meant that my great-grandparents came from some country that I couldn’t find on a map. As I got older, I continued to learn more about how my family wasn’t exactly like those at my school. No one at my school ate kibbeh, baked beef, lamb and onions cut into squares, or sfiha, a light and fluffy homemade bread with beef and lamb tenderly encased it its center. And no one ate my all-time favorite food, grape leaves.
After elementary school I moved to a new public junior high, and for the most-part, comments about my food came to a halt because I started ordering from the cafeteria. I did get occasional comments about how my house always smelled like garlic, or my food looked and (if they actually had the guts to try it) tasted weird. But what started to happen was that I heard older kids saying things about how Arabs were terrorists, often pronouncing the word “Arab” incorrectly. Of course none of those kids said anything directly to me, as many people did not know my family came from Syria and Lebanon.
Once I was in high school, I started to learn how to make some of my favorite foods, like grape leaves, which is when I learned the most about my family. Every time my family had a party, my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents would all assemble, so my parents would make grape leaves. This was a family affair because this dish usually took most of the day to make. And I have a HUGE family. So we would begin the long journey of preparing the many pans of our grape leaves, which we called famous because everyone said my parents made them best.
We would then drive to a store in Lansing, where my entire family got all their Middle Eastern food necessities. Right when you walked through the door you were hit with a hundred different smells that seemed to transport you from Lansing to a whole new world. Spices were held in containers, similar to candies in a candy store, with a little scooper on a coiled plastic cord attached to the side. Fingers; a Middle Eastern dessert, were also sold in trays near the front, while lamb was sold in the back.
After we got our ingredients we went home and immediately opened the jars. As we grabbed the dripping grape leaves out and flopped them down onto the freshly wiped counter, my mom would begin speaking. She would begin with how my great-grandparents came to Kalamazoo, Michigan from Syria and Lebanon. How their children never learned Arabic because her grandparents likely felt isolated from their community, where everyone spoke English. She would tell us that our last name was actually changed to sound more American, even though people still pronounced it wrong. As she talked, my siblings and I all listened as we filled the leaves with lamb, beef, rice, and the spices. You had to roll the meat and leaves perfectly, not too tightly or the leaves would rip, and the meat would spill out, and not too loosely or they would come undone. At this point my mom would be talking about the current state of Lebanon and Syria. How we would never get to go there because the once beautiful countries were now war-torn and dangerous. This always made my mom upset and for a moment she wouldn’t speak.
Finally, we would take the pans, overflown with the stacks of grape leaves, and stick them into the oven. As they were taken to the oven my siblings and I would watch. It was always a victory if one of the grape leaves didn’t roll over and plummet to the floor.
While the leaves baked my family would clean the house and get ready for the party. And after a couple of hours... we would still be waiting for the grape leaves to finish baking. So we would hang out for a while longer, and finally, once it was way past an appropriate time to eat dinner, we would sit down and load our plates with grape leaves and say grace. The next few hours would be filled with conversation and eating.
And now every time I snap into a slightly sour grape leaf and feel the warm, savory meat on my tongue, I don't think about what that girl said to me at lunch years ago. I think about my family. My big Arab family, and my great-grandparents who preserved my family's history, my history, through food.
But I was also thinking about how to get seconds before my siblings and cousins did.