The day I learn how to make dolma, my hands smell of the spiced meat-and-rice filling for hours afterwards. It’s my first time visiting this family, although they’ve been here a while. I am invited to sit with Donn and the husband in the living room and I do this for a couple of minutes, but then I head off to the kitchen where the wife, Bea, is working nonstop. She’s chopping, she’s mixing, she’s mincing, she’s stirring. A feast is coming together in that kitchen.
When she sees me coming to join her, she puts her arm around my shoulders and calls me “daughter.” I have obviously done something right. She guides me down the hall to a cramped room with stained wallpaper, and sits me on a couch. We mostly stare at the floor, since her English is no better than my Arabic. I see her eyeing my silver bangles, obviously unimpressed. She herself wears gold from elbow to wrist, as befits her standing as a honoured wife and mother of several. It’s evident my husband doesn’t value me properly, since I am not similarly dripping. I make a mental note to at least wear my gold rings next times I go. I also make a mental note to guilt-trip Donn into changing this situation. After all, I gave him twins. That should count for something, right?
She calls in her daughter, 18, who has just finished at a local high school and can talk to me. Our chat turns to Arabic coffee, which I love. “I make it very well,” she tells me. “Come, I will teach you.” We join her mother in the kitchen, where I learn how to make Arabic coffee. Bea feeds me; a sort of lasagna made with spiced lamb and cream sauce, baklowa (Iraqi baklava, made with pistachios). She has guests coming that night, and before I know it I’ve volunteered to help make the domla. The daughter shows me how to fold up the brined grape leaves. It’s not hard, placing a handfull of filling into the center and tucking the edges in around it, but afterwards my hands smell for hours. Their youngest daughter joins us, and between our mix of languages we manage to chat and laugh.
Donn sits out with the men. This is a traditional house, so the men and women stay in separate parts, but I don’t envy them, sitting in a cloud of cigarette smoke while Bea brings them tea and other refreshments. The kitchen is where the action is, and I’m glad to be a part of it.