I was born to a white American mother and a Syrian-Armenian father. His family is Armenian, but lived in Kessab, Syria, before immigrating to Massachusetts. But growing up, I had little contact with his family and culture, including its rich Syrian and Armenian food traditions. His own presence in my life is limited and distorted by his history of violence towards my mother.
My biological father's aggression was explosive. Some of my earliest memories are of him making death threats to my mom and throwing a lamp at her. I remember watching from the hallway, too afraid to intervene. Sometimes, I would cover my ears and run to my room, putting a pillow over my head to muffle his yelling. I took refuge in the pictures in fairytale books. The Twelve Dancing Princesses was my favorite.
Much of this violence happened in the kitchen. For years I had a fear of knives, though I couldn't remember them ever having been held in anger. I blamed myself for being powerless to protect my mother from his outrage – his fists, his hands, his threats.
When I was four years old, my mom had the courage to walk out of this abusive marriage. She drove me across the country from Oregon to Connecticut and started a new life with my very white, very suburban grandparents. Far from the Armenian foodways of my early years, I grew to become familiar with roasted potatoes, boiled peas, meatloaf with ketchup, and vanilla pudding from a tub.
Much to my mother's surprise, when I was in middle school I developed a love for Armenian food. One day at the grocery store I asked if we could buy a jar of olives. My mother can't stand olives, but she let me have some. After this mini-revelation about the difference in our palettes, my mother started bringing home different things that she thought I might like – flatbread dipped in hummus with lots of garlic, labneh (strained yogurt) served with mint, rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon, and dolmades, a dish made of grape leaves stuffed with spiced rice. Even though I hadn't eaten any of this since I was little, I couldn't get enough of them. And I loved eating these savory dishes with my hands – it was finger-licking good.
These early Middle Eastern cravings were sated by our local grocery store's deli section, where I found olives sold by the pound and grape leaf wraps stuffed tightly into cans or plastic containers. But that wasn't enough for me. I wanted to learn to make my own.
The opportunity came a few years later when I was in high school in New Hampshire. An Armenian cousin I hadn't heard from for fifteen years contacted me over Facebook. "I'm not sure if this is the right Devi," she wrote, "but I figure it's worth a shot because your name's not that common! I'm getting married in Boston this spring and would love for you to be a bridesmaid in my wedding."
I stared at the screen, shocked that she had reached out after all these years. This cousin had been my favorite when I was younger. She was the older one who gave me sheets of sparkly stickers and painted my nails. Would it be worth it to reconnect? Curiosity drove me to type out a tentative yes. I wanted to know if I would have anything in common with her and the rest of this family. What did my taste buds know that the rest of me hadn't found out yet?
I saw my cousin and my grandmother for the first time a few weeks later, on my way home from an ice hockey game. I stopped in at my aunt's house, waiting in a living room that I remembered from one Christmas when I was two or three years old. I was worried that I hadn't showered and smelled like sweat. I tried to pull my hair back in a way that looked presentable.
Even after 40 years of living in the USA, my grandmother doesn't speak much English. And I don't know a word of Armenian. When Nana walked into the room, she hugged me, held my hands in hers, and wouldn't let go. She cried sitting next to me on the couch. She had more wrinkles around her eyes than I remembered. The skin on her hands was dotted with freckles. I stared at her hands, trying hard not to break down. We relied on my bilingual cousin to translate.
My grandmother sent me back to school with a doggie bag full of foods she had made: salty cheese and tabouleh and mohamarra (a red dip with walnuts as the base), plus twisted sugar cookies and a handful of cucumbers and tomatoes from her backyard garden. Food became her way of expressing her affection for me, and I expressed my gratitude by devouring all that she offered. I wanted to eat my way back into my heritage. We began communicating through food.
Back in my dorm room, I closed my eyes as I ate Nana's dishes alone. I felt full in a way that I didn't know I had been craving for years. I wanted to feel connected to my Armenian family, but I didn't know how to disentangle those connections from the memory of my biological father's violence. Could I miss a kind of togetherness I had never known?
After the first reunion, I was welcomed back into an Armenian community I barely remembered, with my grandmother's kitchen in Watertown, Massachusetts at the center of it. Cousins and aunts and uncles filtered in and out all day, stopping for a thick cup of black coffee paired with one of my grandmother's shortbread cookies twisted like a braid. No one left the house hungry, and leftovers were always available from the fridge.
I continued my visits to my grandmother when I started university in Boston. Some Saturdays, I cycled the five miles from campus to her home in the suburbs. She insisted that I wear one of her shirts so that the sweat on my back wouldn't give me a chill. She sat me down to eat more than I could manage and she always gave me food to take back with me. As I cycled back to campus, I wondered how I could ever make sense of my messy family situation – my heritage, my tongue, its cravings. I ate alone, too ashamed of my family's past to explain the excess of food to my friends.
One fall afternoon, I decided to take a cooking lesson from her. I rode my bicycle from university to visit Nana and she spent a few hours teaching me to make the stuffed grape leaves.
Nana didn't measure anything. She wrapped her dolmades with leaves preserved from the grape vine that shades the porch of her duplex home, the seeds of which arrived with her on the boat from Syria in the early 1970s. My recently-married cousin, who speaks fluent Armenian, stood by to translate and transcribe and make a guess of measurements. She sent me the recipe in an email a few weeks later. I carry it with me wherever I go. When I make dolmades, I make do with leaves pre-preserved in brine in a jar at the grocery, but one day, I hope to have a grape vine and a garden of my own.
I have since made dolmades in far-flung kitchens in New Zealand, Australia, and across the USA. Every time I do, it feels like building a temporary home, or the kind of home I wish that side of the family had been able to provide when I was younger – a place of warmth, love, and kindness, all expressed by making and sharing food. No violence in the kitchen. I love the communal nature of preparing and eating a dish that I can claim as my own, as part of my origin story.
My biological father was released from prison a few years ago for similar domestic violence charges to what he did against my mom. He has since moved back in with his parents. It felt too painful and complicated to reconnect with him. My memories of his violence are too vivid. To avoid him, I gave up my regular visits to Nana. I didn't tell her I was leaving. I couldn't. I had my mom call one of my aunts to explain that I couldn't maintain contact.
I miss her and our time together, but I have held onto the tradition of making dolmades. I can't choose my family situation, but I can choose how I honor its culinary traditions.
Every time I fold a grape leaf around a small pile of spiced rice, I reclaim some aspect of my Syrian-Armenian-ness as my own. By making dolmades, I transform the kitchen from a space of violence into a space of refuge.
Recipe for Stuffed Grape Leaves (Dolmades)
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Stack of grape leaves
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1½ cups rice, uncooked, washed
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup Crushed Tomatoes (or 2 medium tomatoes, cut in half and grated)
2 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
2 tablespoon dried mint
1 tablespoon dried basil (optional)
1 teaspoon Allspice
1½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
2 tablespoon sumac
1 teaspoon red pepper
1½ tablespoon salt
½ cup lemon juice
1 stick butter
2 tablespoon pomegranate syrup
Combine all mixture ingredients in a large bowl by hand.
- Line a large pot with grape leaves.
- On a plate, place one grape leaf face down. Remove the stem. Place a small amount of mixture in the middle (finger length and width). Fold the sides in, bottom up, then, roll up tightly. Repeat with more grape leaves until all mixture is gone.
- Add the wrapped grape leaves into the pot. Add in eight cloves of peeled garlic on top. Add three butter slices.
- Swish water in the mixture bowl and pour into pot. Add more grape leaves to the top. Place a small plate upside-down on top. Add a flat, clean rock as a weight.
- Create a broth of 3 cups water, lemon juice, tomato sauce, salt and crushed garlic. Pour the broth on top of filled pot, so that it fills the spaces between the tightly packed dolmades. The broth will drain through and cook the rice.
- Put the pot on a burner on high until it boils. Then reduce heat to low and cover. Let it cook for one hour.
- In a mortar & pestle, crush garlic, died mint, and salt. Add this into the pot and swish around to get into the broth for flavor.
- Drain the dolmades. Then find a serving plate and place on the top of the pot. Flip the pot upside down to transfer the dolmades to the serving plate. Garnish with lemon slices and serve hot or cold.
Devi Lockwood is a poet, touring cyclist and storyteller. She has traveled the world by boat and by bicycle to collect people's stories about water and climate change.