When I was a kid, we used to visit my grandmother in Brooklyn every Sunday, and I always wished I could have grown up there. It all seemed so romantic: stickball in the street, fishing in the pond at Prospect Park, taking the bus – the city bus – to school. At least that’s the way my Dad always told it.
My dad’s Brooklyn had changed by the time I was visiting in the 1970s. But the food had stayed the same. Every Sunday we would open the door to my grandmother’s building and a wave of garlic and lemon would waft down the marble staircase from her third-floor walk up. No matter how cold it was outside, it would always be steamy and warm in the foyer, filled with the aroma of whatever Sittau – the Arabic word for “grandma” – was making.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when my grandfather came to the United States from Aleppo, Syria, most of the Arabs in America were Christians from the cities of Syria and the area that is now Lebanon. The Syrians were great peddlers and later became shopkeepers, merchants and manufacturers, often in the garment and shoe industries. My grandfather, Giddau in Arabic, sewed in New York’s garment district and there’s an apocryphal story about how he invented some key part of today’s sewing machines that the evil shop boss patented under his own name. My father’s uncle owned a shoe business that sold to starlets. His other uncle owned a liquor store, where my dad worked as a delivery boy in the summers.
Sittau died more than 20 years ago, just as I became old enough to really ask her questions. Giddau died when I was a child. So all that really connects me to that world is the food – and the stories that my dad and my uncle can still tell. Here they are talking about two of my favorite dishes, fowleh ou zath (green beans in tomato sauce) and yebrat (lamb-stuffed grape leaves.)
For recipes, go to AmericanFoodRoots.com
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