100-years of grape leaves

Being of Lebanese descent but born in the United States, this trip was for her husband. They visited his family, ate delicious food, and brought home the start of a plant that is still growing today. 

In 1947 Edna, her husband, and her young son traveled to a New York harbor and began their sea voyage to Aita, Lebanon.  

Traveling by steam liner meant spending two weeks on the ship getting there and two weeks crossing the seas to come home. They would be separated from their five older children for three months. 

After arriving home, Edna planted the grapevine she had carried and nurtured across the seas. This vine, planted 76 years ago, is still growing and providing for her family just as the original plant provided for her husband’s family thousands of miles away. 

Rolled grape leaves, a Lebanese specialty, are filled with meat, rice, and spices. For this recipe, the leaves are more important than any fruit that the vines might produce. 

As the small start – planted in the early fall all those years ago –  began to grow, it produced leaves that would be picked by the hundreds. Legend has it that Edna would stack her cooker full of leaves, blanch them, then turn the pot over and lift – just like magic, never disturbing the mile-high stack. 

With five children who each had growing families, friends, neighbors, and a young garden writer stopping by, the cooked grape leaves were always in demand. I have a fond memory of being told I was there enough and knew my way around, so I should help myself and not be shy. That same hospitality was extended to many. 

The grapevine grew, and supports were built. Eventually, one granddaughter had a home and garden where she continued the grapevine’s legacy. It wasn’t easy; it took at least three times transplanting pieces of the original vine before it began to grow. 

The new starts were planted in full sun. As the vines grew, so did the support needed to keep the vines off the ground – remember, grapevines are climbers and need a strong support structure to hold the heavy vines. 

What started as a simple chain link fence running the length of the garden now has lattice and wood beams attached, reaching at least 8 feet tall. The grapevine has covered this and more! 

The foliage dies back each winter, leaving an intricate web of woody vines. There is beauty in the sculpture of the vines.  

Come late April, the leaves appear. Knowing when to pick the leaves is tricky. If left on the vines too long, they become gritty and tough. It picked too soon; the leaves are not big enough to hold the meaty goodness when rolled. The size of a lady’s palm is perfect.   

The technique for rolling and the recipe for the filling was something Edna shared with her daughters and their daughters. Even today, as the generations continue to make grape leaves with their children, there is much gratitude for the lessons learned in the kitchen and the memories of working together as a family. 

Not only do the vines provide leaves for humans, but the vines and leaves also provide shelter for animals. This spring, one very protective mamma bird has nested at the end of the vine hedge. She squawks and flutters when visitors come near her. Don’t worry, mamma bird – I’m keeping my distance from you! 

Now, Edna’s granddaughter is a grandmother of seven and her garden has matured. The grapevines may be the star, but there is much to see. A bricked courtyard with tables, chairs and a firepit were added during the last few years.

I was surprised to look behind the house and see a greenhouse full of veggies, flower borders, and a pirate ship. That’s right – a pirate ship! Here grandchildren and neighborhood children sail and look for treasures. Maybe their love of the sea is inherited from Edna – maybe they just love pirates. 

The grapevines that began growing in a faraway country now have deep roots in West Virginia. New starts are being shared with other family members to continue the vine’s story. These vines have provided history lessons, cooking lessons, and gardening lessons for five generations of Charleston residents. It is a small world, after all.

Grape Leaf Rolls 

100 grape leaves

1 cup uncooked rice

1 ½ lbs. lamb, coarsely ground  (not too lean)

Pepper, cinnamon, all-spice to taste

1 Tbsp salt

2 lemons

Wash grape leaves and pour boiling water over leaves to soften. Wash and drain rice. Mix rice, lamb, spices, and juice of one (1) lemon. Place about one Tablespoon of meat mixture on the veined side of each grape leaf. Spread across in a line, turn in the side ends and roll up completely. 

Line bottom of pan with 3 or 4 grape leaves or a pan rack. Place evenly in rows in layers, crisscrossing each layer. Use an inverted plate to hold down rolls. Add water to cover. Bring to boil: the reduce to low heat and cook 20-30 minutes. Add juice of one (1) lemon five (5) minutes before removing from heat. 

Can be served with a side dish of Leban (Yogurt).

Recipe is from the Shums ‘il Bir Syrian -Lebanese Cookbook. https://www.shumscharlestonwv.com/product/ShumsilBirCookbook/2