That’s where my family was first assigned to live, once we’d been granted refugee status by the United States. My parents picked up the few belongings they hadn’t left behind or sold off, said goodbye to family, and boarded a plane to New York City with 10 American dollars in their possession.
Upon landing at JFK, they were told that plans had changed. We’d no longer be living in Rhode Island, because they couldn’t accept any more refugees at the time. Can you imagine? Spending weeks studying, researching and dreaming about your new home — only to be told that you’d be getting on a different plane, to a different, unknown city, with a different future in store for your family.
My dad used the very last of his cash to buy some baby food, and then we boarded a flight to our final destination: Twin Falls, Idaho.
Dolma — or stuffed grape leaves — is the dish at the heart of one of my earliest childhood food memories. The mixture of meat, onion, garlic and herbs is so intoxicating, I’d often try to sneak raw teaspoons of it as a kid when my mom wasn’t looking. When cooking it myself for the first time a few weeks ago, for a dinner party we were hosting for friends, the scent of it placed me right back in her kitchen.
The best dolma are made with the freshest grape leaves. Once we’d settled into a permanent home later in life, my grandpa would plant vines right outside the kitchen window, so my mom and grandma could reach out and trim them with kitchen scissors as needed.
Since fresh leaves aren’t typically accessible, the rise in popularity of Middle Eastern cuisine has lent itself to some extremely acceptable canned options (like the ones I used for this recipe, below). However, in 1993, canned grape leaves weren’t a realistic grocery store item in the middle of Idaho.
One day, my parents decided to load me up into the stroller and take a spin through the neighborhood. Along the walk, they noticed some vines sprawling out into the road. Upon closer inspection, they realized it was a grapevine! Overjoyed by the serendipitous discovery on a suburban road and eager for a taste of home, my parents plucked a dozen leaves, tucked them into their pockets and continued along the walk.
Not much further down the road, we were surrounded. Multiple cop cars, sirens screeching.
My parents were dragged back to the grapevines by the police. The owner of the property that contained the grapevine — whose house was so far past the road that my parents didn’t even stop to think they might belong to somebody — came down to confront them. The police explained that we needed to apologize to the owner, then got into their cars and left us alone with him.
My mom apologized to him in broken English — she was the only Sarkisov who had any grasp of the language at the time. He looked us over slowly: “You know,” he said, “I could shoot you right now and no one would care.”
It’s difficult to move past an experience like that. It’s even more difficult to come to terms with the fact that this man was probably right. Over a few grape leaves, and because we were refugees — with no English language skills, no family to contact, and no realistic way of defending ourselves and our rights — he probably could have done away with us on the spot.
When the world becomes punishing and dark, it’s hard not to think back to experiences like these — one of many that my family probably shares in common with other refugees. My mind is constantly fixated on how fortunate my family is, but my heart continually breaks for those stopped at borders and killed in streets, over even less than fresh grape leaves. Those that may never get the chance to know what a beautiful country America can be.
Patriotism takes on a multitude of forms. For many, it seems to mean football and camouflage hats, beer cans and U-S-A! chants. I like those things, too. But for me, patriotism is the unwavering love for this country and its opportunities that I see from every single one of my family members across the dinner table.
People write, cook, cry, rally, march and protest all over the country every day just to grasp whatever hope they can find. Often times, I find it by sharing a meal with powerful individuals — those who I know are making me a better and more intelligent person before we even finish our first bottle of wine.
However you find yours, I hope you do this week, and in the weeks to come. I hope you rally and you march and you fight. And in the meantime, if you’re in need of some comfort food, my family’s recipe for stuffed grape leaves is below.
- 1 pound ground chicken
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 2/3 cup jasmine rice
- 1 large white onion
- 1 large tomato
- 2 teaspoons
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Large handful of dill, minced
- Large handful of cilantro, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 teaspoon paprika (optional)
- Chicken broth (optional)
- Mix the ground meat, rice, onion, garlic, herbs and seasoning in a large bowl. Add warm water as you mix, only a few teaspoons at a time until the mixture is sticky, slightly slimy and well-combined.
- In a large stockpot, place a small dish upside down at the bottom, as pictured. This will collect the foam from the meat when it starts boiling and will prevent the dolma from moving around.
- Begin rolling your dolma. Take a leaf, and place it shiny side down on your workplace. Spoon an appropriate amount of mixture into the center (eyeball this, but it's usually one large tablespoon per large leaf). Fold the left side in, followed by right, then roll upward from the bottom.
- Arrange all of the dolma neatly in the stockpot as you go. Pour water over until all of the dolma are just barely submerged (I prefer to use chicken broth, for added flavor).
- Roughly chop your tomato and place it over the top. Add the tomato paste, butter, some extra herbs and seasoning. Bring to a boil.
- Once the dolma are boiling, cover the pot slightly and let it cook at a very low temperature, about 30 minutes or until your rice is cooked through.
- Serve hot. We like to pair ours with a mixture of buttermilk, pressed garlic and minced dill!
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