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Dorie’s Grape Leaves

A family recipe fills an old cook with new hope

Dorie's Grape Leaves

If you ask me, there are basically two kinds of cooks: the one who follows directions to a T, adding exactly a teaspoon—no more, no less—when that’s what the recipe calls for.

Then there is the “pinch-of-this-and-a-dash-of-that” kind. Good luck getting a recipe from this cook for any dish. You just have to stand back and let her make it.

Not that I always knew about such things. I’m Leba­nese and, in my culture, the women cook the meals and the men eat them.

In the old days the closest I came to the kitchen was scrubbing some pots and pans at the end of the evening at family get-togethers. Otherwise, the kitchen was off-limits.

My wife, Dorie—a by-the-book cook—knew how much I loved my mother’s traditional Lebanese dishes, so at those get-togethers she followed Mom around and took notes, translating Mom’s pinches, handfuls and shakes into recipes with actual amounts listed by each ingredient. She put the recipes in a big brown loose-leaf folder, and over the years that folder grew in-to a treasure trove of traditional Lebanese dishes.

After my mother passed away, Dorie took her place in the kitchen as the official cook at all of our family get-togethers. I retired in 1990, and Dorie and I moved to a house in rural Missouri. Our seven kids were spread out on both coasts, so we figured that the house would be a perfect central location for the whole family to gather.

But Dorie got sick. Just four months after we moved, she passed away. Like a lot of men who lose their wives after a long marriage, I could barely bring myself to walk into the kitchen. Better to eat at the corner diner for the rest of my life than feel that awful emptiness in the spot that should have been brimming with warmth and activity.

One evening, getting a soda out of the refrigerator, I saw the large brown loose-leaf folder Dorie always kept on a shelf over the stove. Something told me to get up and open it. I found page after page of recipes. My mother’s reci­pes, each one carefully jotted down in Dorie’s own careful and unmistakable hand.

Why not? a voice inside me asked. Maybe this would make me feel close again to Dorie, to my mom. A way to ease the ache of loss, a way to connect through something we all loved.

For my first attempt, I decided on stuffed grape leaves. If you’re Lebanese, you love this dish, and my mother’s were the best.

The next day at the supermarket it took me forever to find all the ingredients on the list. Back home in the kitchen it took me longer still to find, and identify, all the pots, bowls and other implements I would need.

After some false starts, I was standing at the kitchen counter in front of a kettle full of rolled grape leaves. Did they look exactly like they did when Mom and Dorie had made them? Not quite. But they tasted good. Delicious, in fact. Dorie had gotten the recipe just right.

With that first cooking attempt out of the way, I was ready to try again. Stuffed squash, lamb meat pies…you name it, I tried every family favorite from that old brown loose-leaf folder. And guess who’s now the new cook at all of our family gatherings?

Life today isn’t the same without Dorie. It never will be. But I thank God for the wonderful years I was blessed to live with her, and I embrace my new life.

Now you’ll often find me in the room of the house I’ve come to love the most: the kitchen.

Try making Dorie’s Grape Leaves yourself!

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