Family Traditions are my favorite thing about the Holidays

The holidays are my favorite time of year. My family comes together and we enjoy each others’ company and continue the traditions that I have known my whole life.

My immediate family on my mother’s side is gigantic. My mother is the oldest of four, and everyone has their spouse and two children. One of my cousins is also married and has two children. So when we get together for the holidays  (or someone’s birthday or just a family dinner), you’re talking about 19 people, depending on who can come.

On Thanksgiving and Christmas, my extended family gathers to celebrate. This includes several Aunties and Uncles and Cousins, and Second Cousins, and Third Cousins, and Fourth Cousins, etc. etc.

In short, lots of people, lots of food and lots of good memories.

Last week, I went over to my Thea-Thea’s house to help her roll grape leaves for the holidays.

Thea-Thea is Syrian for “grandmother” and grape leaves are a traditional Middle Eastern dish that we have been having for as long as I can remember. The traditional name for the dish is ‘warak dawali’ or ‘dolma’ if you are looking for the Greek word. We called them ‘grape leaves’ because the grape leaf is one of the main components of the dish.

The essential ingredients for a good grape leaves recipe include fresh lamb meat, grape leaves, rice, salt and Syrian pepper or spices. Additionally, you will need lemon juice, lots of water for boiling and more salt.

My Thea-Thea’s recipe is as follows:

  • 12 lbs of lamb meat (amount of lamb meat depends on how many rolled grape leaves you want to make or how many people you intend to serve; since we have a large family, we make a bunch and then tend to freeze some to eat throughout the year)
  • 4 jars of grape leaves (unless you have a grapevine in your backyard, your best bet is to find grape leaves jarred in brine; again the amount of grape leaves depends on how much lamb meat you are using)
  • Eyeball the amount of rice. Not too much. Not too little.
  • Add the salt and Syrian pepper to the rice and lamb meat mixture.
  • Mix with your hands until good.
  • Taste (!) to see if you added the right amount of spices.

Bam! You’ve got your base ingredients. Now it’s time to roll everything together.

(Author’s Note: Make sure you’re ready to devote a significant amount of time to the rolling process. Invite some family or friends over if you plan on making a big portion of the dish.)

We tend to work on cutting boards and have tin foil ready to wrap up portions.

Make sure you’ve got your meat and grape leaves ready.

First, you lay your grape leaf flat. If there are any stems, cut them off.


Next, you add an appropriate amount of meat towards the bottom of the leaf. The amount of meat depends on the size of the leaf or how stuffed you want your leaves to be.


Then you “roll it like a cigar”. Start to roll from the bottom up. Make sure you tuck and roll tightly and fold in the sides or your meat will fall out when you cook it.

Continue until all of your lamb meat is gone and you have piles and piles of stuffed grape leaves.


Place the stuffed grape leaves into a plastic bag and refrigerate until you are ready to cook.

The cooking process is as follows:

  • Place the stuffed grape leaves crisscross in a large pot.
  • Add water, salt and lemon juice. (Again, you are eyeballing all of these ingredients. Family recipes passed down through generations never include measurements. You just have to go with your gut feeling and hope for the best. Eventually, you will get it right 🙂   )
  • Cover the pot with a plate. (This will create a suction in the pot which will keep the grape leaves down at the bottom of the pot instead of unraveling and floating to the top.)
  • Boil for an hour.
  • Taste test to see if the meat is soft and the rice is done and to make sure you didn’t add too much lemon juice.
  • Then you’re good.


I have been helping my Thea-Thea roll grape leaves for the past 3 years now. It’s a messy process. You’re going to get lamb meat under your fingernails, juice from the grape leaf brine tends to run along your work space, and, if you are sitting for too long, your shoulders and lower back might ache a bit.


I can say from personal experience, the best food is the kind that you make with your hands. The best food is the kind that takes a long time to make because you want it to be perfect and when your family eats the food that you have spent hours preparing, you know that they know that you have put so much of your love into that food that it makes it a thousand times better.

I love sitting with my Thea-Thea and just talking with her. We talk about what is going on in our lives but what I love the most is when she talks about our family and all of the memories she has from her childhood. And I love love love how her Jersey accent comes back from time to time on certain words.

Being a part of this family tradition is one of my favorite part of the holidays. I enjoy getting to spend time with my Thea-Thea and I get to practice making a recipe that I will pass on to my own family some day.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: 16. The Lakehouse | The Bookworm Confessions

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