My great grandmother and grandfather Kayal were shopkeepers in Aleppo, Syria. When great grandfather Nicholas died, great grandmother Amelia sent her two eldest sons, Naim and George, to America in hopes of easing their life. She later sent her eldest daughter, my grandmother Naima, accompanied by our friends, to join her brothers. Great grandmother promised she would soon follow with her remaining two daughters and two sons.
My grandmother Naima, whom I only called Sitto, meaning grandmother in Arabic, sometimes spoke of her trip across the ocean in August of 1912. She was just 14 years old, feeling alone and anxious about her journey and new life. She shuddered as she remembered that month aboard ship and being in the “belly of the ship.” She remembered how sick the ocean had made them and believed they would perish as the ship tossed them about during a bad storm. She’d been on that ship with people speaking many languages, away from her family and the country she knew, wondering what lay ahead as they docked at Ellis Island, New York.
I learned my grandmother’s history in bits and pieces during our life together. She had married as a young girl of 15 to my grandfather, Bashir. Her two brothers, Naim and George, soon married after arriving in America as well. Great grandmother, Amelia, “Mellau,” arrived a few years later with her daughters Zekeya and Jamila. The two remaining sons, Aboud and Antoun remained in Syria at this time. The family was all settled in Paterson, New Jersey by 1918. Within the next several years my grandparents produced four sons and a daughter, my mother, Mary.
The community continued to grow and even managed to thrive between the period of the Great Depression and World War II. Paterson was filled with many Syrian and Lebanese families, shops and markets and, just as it was in Syria, the homes and businesses were all centered around their church. This community continues to this day and I reflect, with pride, that my grandparents were among the earliest parishioners of this great church. Although the magnificent old church tragically burned down in 1972, the newly built church now located in Woodland Park, New Jersey, is still the anchor for this vibrant Syrian-American colony.
At the time, St. Ann’s Church was fast becoming the hub of the Syrian and Lebanese community. Its parishoners celebrated their religious holidays, summer festivals or Mahrajans and winter galas or Haflas, all welcoming their growing and recently arrived families. Later, as I grew up in that community, with our relatives and friends all nearby, I too was immersed in our culture and had a great sense of belonging.
My grandmother, Sitto Naima, was always there for us as my sister and I would come home from school to these ethnic foods, breads and the sweets she made. It was in these adolescent and teen years that I gained my moral compass, my love of tradition, and my admiration for the incredible Syrian cooking all around me through the example of my grandmother.
In later years, as a young married woman, I found myself moving to the Midwest. I was just twenty-six years old and, for the first time, off to a new place with my husband and our three very young children. Family, friends and the Syrian community I grew up with were all left far behind. Like a college student away from home, I suddenly became aware of all the ethnic cooking I couldn’t produce and had only watched my grandmother make. I knew, all too well, if I wanted to give my children any kind of a heritage, I had better start preparing these dishes.
I began to telephone my grandmother and ask for advice on how to make this or that. This prompted me to start a journal in which I painstakingly transformed her “handful of this” to a half-cup of that. In time, my simple spiral notebook caught the fruits of my own labors. Her recipes, scratched out here and there with revisions or corrections and little slips of paper that were Sitto’s instructions, were the real start of this cookbook. During those years, she and my mother would send packets of spices that were unavailable to me in the Midwest. These “care packages” would always be accompanied by a note, written by my mother, with my grandmother’s advice on how much spice to use in a dish. Those precious notes were a piece of “home,” encouraging me to emulate those dishes I missed so much.
So, over a period of years, I wrote down these recipes in my little spiral notebook. These wonderful dishes had been passed on from great grandmothers and mothers-in-law to family cooks as part of their daily lives. Thankfully, I was able to perfect these recipes while still able to ask these talented cooks for advice.
Many of the recipes I’ve collected and remembered are centered round a holiday or religious feast day. All of these foods have a tradition that was the backbone of the menu. Seasons, events and local customs all dictated what was served to the family, like a wonderful yogurt salad served at Easter to signal spring. As a youngster, I loved a wheat confection called Sleetah, which was served to honor St. Barbara’s feast day in December, complete with the song we all sung about her. Wonderful appetizers or Mazzeh, which would be served for guests, were healthful, colorful and nutritious.
Every time I open a jar of dried mint flakes, another memory of my grandmother comes to mind. Her use of mint, to make her basic spice paste for stuffed grape leaves or squash, would have her reaching for her heavy, well-worn brass mortar and pestle. She’d pound the coarse salt and garlic until pureed and then add the dried mint flakes to make a paste of these basic ingredients. In fact, all of her ground spices were to be pounded at one time or another in the old brass mortar and pestle, her Hehwan, brought from Syria. I remember how she relied upon it as I use it in my kitchen today. I sometimes use my garlic press or blender when rushed but I must say the mortar and pestle is by far a more authentic blending of the spices and garlic, infusing all these dishes with a deeper, richer flavor.
How I miss that little kitchen which had its roots so long ago in Aleppo, Syria. I picture my Sitto always in it, preparing one thing or another, stirring a fragrant dish or baking bread. As I came in from school, I remember the wonderful aromas of the day…garlicky or sweet smelling, redolent with spices in the air. To me, it meant love, for her family, for our heritage.