A grandson continues to forge a relationship with his late great-grandmother through a beloved family tradition of creating Greek dolmades
By Dylan Sharp
As I walked through my backyard, the grapevine I have taken immense pride caring for stopped me dead in my tracks. Though the vine likely would be considered hideous by some who laid eyes on it, the jumbled leaves and crazy growth patterns throughout the white trellis was a magical sight. After seeing the vine in Yaya’s yard turn light brown and shrivel up, the deep green vines were a magical sight. The thriving vine in my yard made me immensely proud, and I knew that Yaya would have been proud of me, too.
Since I’ve had teeth, and a mind strong enough to grasp the concept of preference, Greek dolmades, or as they are commonly referred, “grape leaves,” have been my favorite food. Grape leaves were first introduced to my palate by my great-grandmother, who we used to call Yaya.
Despite being the most kind-hearted, welcoming, and positive person that I have ever encountered, Yaya had a life that was nothing close to easy. She was born on July 15th, 1928, and spent the first few years of her life living in Greece with her mother, father, brother, and sister. When she was about four years of age, she and her family journeyed to America by boat, as her mother and father sought a life free of hardship and corruption. The part of Greece that they had lived in previously could be compared to Compton in crime rate, and murder. In fact, Yaya had witnessed her grandparents be brutally beheaded by the Turkish prior to her departing from Greece.
Arrival in a new country didn’t immediately mean an easier life. As is the case with many immigrants, when Yaya and her family arrived in America, they encountered many troubles. The first encounter that most immigrants of the time had with America was processing through Ellis Island. After a long voyage, immigrants received no relief, as the confined and claustrophobic conditions of Ellis Island were horrid. As a result, disease was prosperous. Additionally, immigrants were met with nearly inhumane evaluations of their personal worth before they were granted admission or turned away from America
Yaya and her family made it through the screening process uncomfortable, but unscathed. After passing through Ellis Island, Yaya and her family ended up in Reading, Pennsylvania. They had searched for a place to live for a few days, and there just so happened to be a vacancy on Buttonwood Street.
Though they had a roof over their heads, Yaya and her siblings, Gus and Helen, had new hardships to overcome in America. Unlike a majority of the other children in Reading High, Yaya, her brother, and her sister didn’t even know how to speak English. They had to learn to understand and speak English before they learned how to read and write. This inconvenience not only made them feel like outcasts, but set back their learning many years, and they had to play catch-up with the rest of their classmates. After public school concluded for the day, the children that attended Reading High School would go home to their families, eat dinner, and play with the other kids in the neighborhood. For Gus, Helen, and Yaya, however, that wasn’t the case. When they got home from public school, they would be lucky if they ate before they were shipped off to the local Greek church to attend Greek night school. Gus and Helen despised Greek school, as it added to already long days and didn’t help them understand their new surroundings any better.
But Yaya had a different perspective. Even at a young age her mentality was mature and even slightly wise, as she saw night school as an opportunity to cling to her Greek heritage. The language spoken, history taught, and values instilled at Greek school connected Yaya’s old home to her new surroundings, causing feelings of comfort and stability that the rest of her family never received.
Unfortunately, Yaya’s parents encountered many issues when they first arrived in America, such as attempting to communicate with those around them, despite only speaking Greek, as well as trying to find jobs within the greatest stages of the Great Depression. Her father eventually found a job, but it was grueling and labor-intensive. Breaking down his body, and being physically exhausted, was the only way for him to make any amount of money, as he didn’t know, or progress his knowledge of English.
As a result, Yaya’s family wasn’t able to progress in society, even after the Depression, as the language barrier made it hard for her father to obtain any better jobs. They remained impoverished, and could not give Yaya, Gus, or Helen any assistance towards furthering their education, or their societal status.
In turn, Yaya never learned how to drive, never went to college, and often held down jobs that were not highly regarded. Owning a vehicle, having the ability to drive, and going to college, were all privileges, and signs of wealth, at the time that she grew up in, and her family was certainly not well-off. Despite not being able to take advantage of life’s amenities, she met and married a man who I would later call Pappou. Not only did he overlook her poverty, but he loved her for who she was. His name was Otto Sattler. They were happily married for more than sixty years, and they had three children, named Michael, Cally, and Kathy.
The family life gave my great-grandmother a context for her love of Greek culture, a place to work out all that she had seen her mother do and all she had herself learned at Greek school. While her children were growing up, Yaya developed a strong love for cooking, like her mother once had. Her favorite meals to cook included pork and potatoes in tomato sauce, spaghetti and homemade meatballs, and Greek dolmades.
Grape leaves were always a family favorite. Her children loved them, and later, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren also adored them.
Yaya always said that grape leaves reminded her of living in Greece, and on Buttonwood Street, as they were made often when she was growing up. Eating them used to give her a sense of relief, as she could connect great times that she had with her parents with the taste, and smell, of the grape leaf. Since her children took a fond liking to the grape leaves, she decided to plant her own vine in her yard on Fairview Street. Yaya and Pappou bonded over keeping the vine healthy, so it provided big, ripe grape leaves each summer.
Fifty years later, that vine stood just as tall, and wild, as it ever had before. The vine was overflowing with leaves, making it look messy. There were vines growing in zig zag patterns throughout a chipped, white painted trellis. I was used to Pappou always planting pretty plants that smelled good in the garden, so I was not sure what to make of this hideous plant.
Four-year old me then decided to ask Yaya and Pappou, “Why do you have such an ugly plant? All of the other ones are pretty, why isn’t this one?”
Understanding that four-year olds don’t have much of a filter, Yaya kindly responded, “It may be ugly, but do you know what you do with all of those leaves? You make grape leaves with them!”
Confused, I asked Yaya, “What are grape leaves?”
She responded in a shocked manner, “Wow! Come to think of it, I guess you never had them. I’ll have to make a batch for you to try!”
The next time that I visited, Yaya remained true to her word, and was making grape leaves for me to try. She mixed countless ingredients in a big glass bowl, including ground beef, rice, diced tomatoes, onions, fresh parsley, salt, and pepper. She then rolled the mash of ingredients into small balls, which were then encased within green leaves from the vine outside, creating dozens of rolled grape leaves, ready to be cooked. She boiled the uncooked grape leaves, and ten minutes later, she pulled them out one-by-one with tongs, each one steaming like dry ice. The steam gave off a wonderful aroma, that reminded me of hamburgers fresh off the grill, but I still had reservations about biting into one of the steaming, green, mini-burrito resembling delicacies that were sitting in front of me. Despite knowing that I enjoyed a majority of the ingredients by themselves, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I tasted them together. I thought, “If I don’t like the grape leaves, Yaya might be upset, because I’d be the first in my family to feel that way about them. Maybe I shouldn’t try them just in case I don’t like them. Or maybe I should try them. After all, everyone does love them. There has to be a reason, right?” With my mind racing, and my heart beating fast, all it took to persuade me was hearing Yaya say, “Try a bite!”
Finally, I bit into a grape leaf for the first time. My sense of smell didn’t fool me, as the heavenly scent of the steam was the perfect prelude to the wonderful taste of the grape leaves. The crunch of the leaf splitting between my teeth perfectly balanced a soft texture with the coarse texture of rice and ground beef. After chewing for a few seconds, hints of tomato and onion came into play. The added flavor integrated flawlessly with the glorious taste of ground beef and rice. It was at this moment that I had discovered my favorite food.
At this point, the maternal affection of Yaya was not on my mind. I was endlessly devouring the grape leaves, with no regard for anything except feeding my hunger. The new flavors that I was introduced to were too delicious to cease eating. I consumed the marvelous delicacy until I felt sick to my stomach. Grape leaves were the best thing that I have ever tasted!
Eating the grape leaves was not enough for me, however, as I desired to know how everything worked, due to the giddy feeling that I got when I learned something new. As a result, I decided to ask Yaya and Pappou to teach me how to make grape leaves.
When I asked them to teach me, I distinctly remember Pappou taking me out to the grape leaf vine and telling me how to select the right leaves.
“Now, Dylan, visualize a ball, a little bit smaller than a ping-pong ball in your hand. If you think that you could fit that ball inside of one of these leaves, without any of the ball showing, then you should pick it. If it’s too small to do that, don’t pick it, so we can let it grow some more.”
Following his instructions, I visualized a sphere in the size of a little bouncy ball, then tried to imagine the leaves wrapping around the ball. After I picked the leaves off of the vine, I placed them inside of a wicker basket that was lined with a paper towel. Once I was done, Pappou surveyed the inside of the basket, and seemed proud. Although I picked some leaves that were too small, Pappou commended my efforts and told me to take the leaves inside to Yaya.
I rushed inside, excited to show Yaya the leaves that I plucked off the vine, all by myself. When she saw the leaves, she reacted similarly to Pappou. She smiled and told me that I did a great job. I felt honored that Yaya and Pappou were both proud of me, since their approval meant so much to me, especially at that age.
Meanwhile, Yaya had a pot of boiling water on the stove, and carefully placed the leaves inside of the pot.
“Yaya, why did you put the leaves into the boiling water?” I asked. “In order to kill all of the bacteria on the leaves, you have to put the leaves inside of boiling water. The heat will get rid of all the germs that are on the leaves.”
While blanching the leaves, Yaya took out the ingredients for the stuffing of the leaves. By hand, she measured the perfect amounts of ground beef, rice, diced tomatoes, onions, and fresh parsley. Yaya explained, “Growing up, my parents never used measuring cups, they always just remembered how much of each ingredient to put into the mixture. That’s how I learned how to do it, too.” After putting all of the ingredients into the enormous glass bowl, Yaya mixed them together, for about two minutes, using a wooden spoon.
When the leaves were bacteria-free, Yaya took them out of the boiling water and laid them onto a paper towel. Once the leaves were all laid out, Yaya and I began to form little spheres of the ground beef mixture, which we placed in the middle of each leaf. Then, we folded the sides inward, followed by folding the top and bottom inward. The result: perfectly rolled grape leaves that were ready to be cooked. Yaya placed all the grape leaves into a separate pot, filled the pot with some water, and let the water boil, so that the meat and rice on the inside could cook properly. After about 20 minutes, Yaya turned the stove off, and let the finished grape leaves cool.Yaya and I repeated the process of creating grape leaves when they grew each summer from the time that I was four years-old, until I was fifteen.
Despite grape leaves only growing in the summer, everyone in the family still craved them when they weren’t growing. As a solution, the beloved tradition of freezing a batch of grape leaves at the end of summer and saving them for Thanksgiving was born. Thanksgiving served as a parallel to my family’s history each year, as an American holiday that’s dominated by turkey and mashed potatoes accepted the integration of Greek foods, such as grape leaves, and a dessert comprised of filo dough, chopped nuts, and honey, called baklava, to create a feast where no food was discriminated. Turkey is generally highly sought after in American households when Thanksgiving rolls around; contrary, my family treated the holiday as a Black Friday, of sorts, the grape leaves being the hot ticket item. Everyone crowded around Yaya’s kitchen table, which was covered with a slightly stained white tablecloth, anticipating the out-of-season batch of grape leaves to be ready to devour. In contrast to Yaya generally enjoying manners and politeness, she found great joy in seeing everybody crazily reaching for the steaming grape leaves that they had craved for months. Seeing this behavior gave her immense satisfaction, as she knew that, for a few moments, she was able to make all of the bad things in life disappear for the ones that she loved most.
When June of 2016 rolled around, I found myself craving grape leaves, just like every year. The only difference was Yaya wasn’t around to help me make them. A month beforehand, my mom received a phone call that would alter each and every one of my family member’s lives forever. The smiling face that always made sure everyone was well-fed and happy was no longer with us. Yaya had passed away. Everyone in the family was devastated. During the days leading up to her funeral, it felt like all light had been taken away, leaving everything dark, and dreary. However, when the funeral rolled around, a sense of stability was reinstated within each of us. It was like Yaya had her hand on each of our shoulders and reassured us that everything was okay. We honored Yaya with a beautiful funerary ceremony at Forest Hills Memorial Park, followed by a wonderful dinner at her favorite restaurant, The Hitching Post.
A week later, the family got together to clean out Yaya’s house. Going from the attic to the basement, everyone found a handful of items that reminded them of specific times with Yaya. Finding the mementos brought joy, coupled with intense sadness, as we wouldn’t be able to create new memories with her any longer. As we exited Yaya’s house, we all took notice that the grape leaf vine was brown and shriveled up. With Yaya’s passing, nobody had thought to tend to her grape leaf vine, thus, bringing the 60 year old vine to an abrupt end. Rather than being overly sad about it, my mom and two of my aunts decided that they were going to begin growing their own grape leaf vines, to honor Yaya, and the beloved Greek tradition that she introduced to us. My mom’s vine grew on a freshly painted white trellis.
Planting new vines was seemingly the only way to allow Yaya’s memory to live on, while simultaneously continuing the Greek heritage and traditions that she loved dearly, as she was no longer here to continue them. Despite all of the children, grandchildren, and myself being baptized in the Greek Orthodox church that Yaya attended night school in, none of us knew how to speak Greek, or had any involvement in the Greek culture. The only connection that any of us had to our Greek roots was the vine.
As June of 2017 rolled around, there were beautiful grape leaves ready to be harvested, once again. There was no sight more heartwarming than seeing enormous, chaotic vines growing every which way on the trellis. The leaves that were growing off of them were smaller than I was used to, but the vine was also new. The newly budding vine allowed me to make a connection to Yaya, as it felt like I was beginning a new connection with her through the green plant. As I began to tear up from the touching moment, I could almost feel her give me a hug and tell me that she loved me.
Ever since Yaya passed away, I have taken extreme pride in the thriving vine. Knowing that the vine has its dark green tone and is sprouting gorgeous leaves to harvest gives me a warm feeling in my heart, as Yaya once cared for her vine the same way. Although I care for the vine, since May 8th, 2016, I have avoided crafting another grape leaf at all costs. Not because I dislike them now, or because I’ve grown lazy, rather I’m afraid to face my feelings. I don’t want to make grape leaves if I’d have to do it without seeing her bright blue eyes and smile across the table when I look up. I don’t want to hear any other voice besides hers telling me what we need to do next. I don’t want to make grape leaves with anyone else. That was our thing, and it will remain our thing. Perhaps when I hear a little voice calling me “Pappou”, I will assume the grandparent’s role in keeping the tradition alive. Until then, I will continue to care for the grape vine, just like my Yaya and Pappou taught me.
A plant that I once considered hideous, now could not be more beautiful. The out of control vine reminds me of my Yaya and allows me to preserve her memory. As for the leaves that grow on the vine, they help me continue to grow my relationship with her, in spirit.