Blog co-author Paul Marion recently discovered the blog of a friend of his from Dracut High School – Bette Skandalis – who is now a writer living in Cambridge. On her blog, called First Lines, Bette writes about “the interplay of food, family and love” with many of her stories grounded in the Greek-American family culture in Dracut and Lowell. Here’s a recent story that Bette was given us permission to repost. The full story is on her site here:
“In search of grape leaves” by Bette Skandalis
“John once ate thirty dolmades!” It’s my mother talking. The “John” cited is my nephew, although it bears noting, since there are more Johns in my family than a bordello. John loves the chopped hamburg; Imagelamb and rice- filled grape leaves, cooked all day in a pot and finished with an eggy sauce–although one time they became his undoing. He had skipped school and was headed for the beach, on an old country road in our town where he thought he could escape undetected. To his dismay, his elderly grandparents waved to him that morning from the side of the road as he passed. They were picking young, tender leaves for their supper.
My mother removes a pot from my cupboard. She is visiting us in Cambridge for the summer. One hundred leaves would be rolled for a small gathering of friends–who specifically requested the dish– the following evening. Earlier in the day, she commiserated with my sister on where to find grape leaves.
“Ma, I saw some on the Cape. They might be too old, though.”
“Portia, I told Bette to stop by the rotary on the way home today. There were loads of them–and not just the old ones either. The young tips!” I was not about to risk my life on Route 6 to gather weeds.
My mother’s eyes are wide and angry at the memory.
“The wild ones are so much better than the cultivated.”
“I picked a thousand of them once and froze them.”
“They’re too mature by July.”
“We need a few dozen at least for a small batch.”
“Small batches” of anything in my family means cooking for fewer than an average graduating high school class. I remember my mother telling her granddaughters that she had been baking baklava all afternoon for a church fair.
“How many did you make, Yaya?”
“I made fifty. Dozen.” Fifty would have been impressive.
Back in the day, my mother was the undisputed leader of the Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church kitchen. She was worshipped, and considered a legend, both for her industrial strength cooking prowess, and her industrial strength. I visited the church kitchen one day only to find my mother coming out of a pantry with a fifty-pound sack of flour wrapped around her neck like a fur stole.
Now my mother tells my sister something Portia already knows. (This is a family trait).
“I refused to work with the jarred ones they bought once at the church.”
I picture my large mother, like Sally Fields in Norma Rae, on top of a folding table in the church basement, holding a sign that proclaimed, “No jarred grape leaves! Never!”
My mother and sister continue to discuss the relative merits of purchased versus gathered grape leaves. It occurs to me that I have been nourished on overcooked weeds for fifty years. My mother suddenly appears to me in a vision, an anthropology book portraying weed-eating peasants, with the caption reading, “… these people killed and ate what they gathered and grew.” This caption could also have been the title of our family biography. Nonetheless, my mother looks very healthy; how bad can these greens be? And surely, some clever entrepreneur has figured out how to harvest, sanitize, package and sell them to civilized people.
At 18, I chose a college that ensured I would live away from home. Intuitively, I knew that a lesbian with aspirations to be a writer would not thrive in my little town. My secret lover from high school, I’ll call her Jane, was a year older than me, in college, and dating a man. She told me what had happened between us was over with now, and it was time to get on with our lives. A year later, she was married, but that didn’t feel like a life for me. I associated my town and everything in it, including the food I ate, as a stern and compelling teacher whose course I’d rather not repeat.
Unencumbered by history, friends have always craved my mother’s dolmades, and it takes little prodding to convince her to make them when she visits. The fact that they are weeds only adds to their atavistic yet glamorous appeal, like eating food cooked on a campfire in the woods. I am stubborn, though (again, in the family tradition), and refuse to believe that, in the twenty first century, with excellent local services, we really have to gather our supper.
My mother hands me a list.
“”Bette, here’s what we need: One box of rice, four pounds of hamburger and one hundred and fifty grape leaves.”
“Where do we buy the grape leaves?”(Like I said, I’m stubborn.)
In answer, my mother glares at me. Finally. she speaks.
“You know we don’t buy them, Bette.”
She says this line to me in such a way that I expect the next line to be, “we steal them,” or, “we murder them.”
“We pick them.”
It still doesn’t register. We live in Cambridge, for Christ’s sake. The only thing growing by the sides of the road are cafes and yoga studios.
“Can’t we buy them? We have a Whole Foods market. They probably have some local Greek lady pick them…”
There it is. My mother could have invented the phrase “no means no.” Her “no” means “no further explanation required.” It means: Shut. The Fxxx. Up.
I fret. Where could we pick grape leaves in our urban neighborhood? After dinner, I have an idea.
“Jo, you and my mother should walk through East Cambridge with the dog tonight. There must be grape arbors that we never noticed. I’ll clean up while you go.”
My mother likes the idea.
“No, Bette, all of us will go.”
And with that, she’s up, moving her ninety year old frame towards the door, glaring back at us once, as if to say, “come on, bitches–these grape leaves are not going to pick themselves.“
I see my neighborhood with new eyes. Every Portuguese and Italian family for six blocks has a grape arbor.
This is Photine’s talk track as we walk for the next thirty minutes:
“That one’s too mature.“
”Can you reach? No. No good.“
”Too cultivated; the wild ones are better.“
”Bette! That’s ivy!“ She stares curiously at me, I think, unclear that we can share DNA.
Something catches her eye. It’s a grape arbor and pots of flowers in a cement yard painstakingly maintained by a small, old female. We observed over the years that his lady grows flowers in spring and summer and grapes in the fall. In the winter she sticks colorful plastic plants into her pots to look at until growing season begins. Jo and I look at each other with certain knowledge that Little Old Lady will never allow precious flora to be removed from her yard.
“Ma, I don’t think…”
Photine is already striding into the yard and up to the battered, metal screen door. The lady is already at her door, alert to poachers. Her head barely reaches to the screen half of the door. She opens it. Slowly. My mother stands over her in an intimidating way. LOL squares up.
“Ma!” I am appalled by the aggression.
I look over at Jo and the dog. Jack squats and poops, then signals that he is ready for this adventure to end by facing in the direction of our home. No such luck. Jo sports a Woody Allen smile.
My mother assumes LOL does not speak English, so she speaks loudly, enunciating every word.
The two of them exchange single words and phrases like a rapid-fire skirmish.
“TAKE A FEW?”
For a moment, I think my mother is going to rear back and slug her, so I intervene and say, ”Um, she is saying ‘no’ to you taking the grape leaves.“
Glare. My mother gives “no.” She doesn’t take it.
We walk on, Photine fuming and mumbling under her breath, ”grape leaves are not ready until October. What a liar!” My dog stops to pee on some ivy growing on a chain link fence. It occurs to me that I have most definitely eaten urine-tainted grape leaves, and I taste a little vomit in my mouth. A sign catches my mother’s eye:
Photine strides into our neighborhood Greek restaurant. She speaks fast, Greek to the Latina hostess. The woman smiles, not warmly, holds up her index finger and turns crisply to find the owner. My neighbors, occupying the ten or twelve tables of the establishment, turn to take in the potential drama.
The proprietor steps forward with two menus and a kind smile. His smile fades when my mother demands to know where he gets his grape leaves.
I had this same feeling while watching the part of The Godfather when Michael Corleone, hiding out in Sicily, negotiates a deal with the local Don—you know it’s not going to end well. I stare longingly through the windows of the restaurant at my family outside. Jack is barking viciously at two Irish Wolfhounds across the street. Jo looks apologetically at the owner of the dogs. Now I watch the owner of the restaurant speak, and I know he is lying.
“δεν ξέρω, δεν ξέρω“ (“ I don’t know. “).
Photine, finally, seems rational by the time we get home, and tells me to call my friends to inform them we are changing the menu for our planned dinner the following evening.
”Tell them we’re a little late in the season for dolmades. June is best for the grape leaves. We’ll make spanakopita instead.”
I didn’t bother. I expect that, by tomorrow, we will head to the North End. Then, on to Roslindale. There is an excellent chance by noon we’ll be back in my home town, picking the tips from wild grape vines I never noticed, driving along routes I never wanted to return to again, thinking about a time when I thought about treasures that lay beyond that road, not alongside it.