I grew up with this tradition. It has become something I have been doing for the past several years. My cousin Chris has been doing it for even longer. It is an old Armenian tradition that my grandparents generation brought with them from the yergir or “old country.” Armenians call the leaves derev, which just means, um… duh…. leaf. We also used the Turkish word yaprak which was no more clever than the Armenian and means leaf as well. But when Armenians and Turks say derev or yaprak in the singular, it really means grape leaves.
We pick them and use them to make sarma, or what the Greeks call dolmades. The leaves are cleaned and blanched. If not used right away, they are either frozen or canned for later use. The stuffing of the stuffed grape leaves, is either a meat based but most often a rice based mix of spices, onions, pignolia nuts, and olvie oil. The mixture is rolled like small cigars in the grape leaves and neatly arranged in a slow cooker. There is art in the picking of the leaves, the making of the stuffing, the rolling of sarma, and even the cooking.
I really only focus on the picking of the derev.
Back in the day, the picking of the leaves was mostly women’s work and you used to see mostly older ladies picking leaves along the roadside from the vines that grew wild. They were dressed like they had never left the “old coutnry” even though they had been in the US for thirty years. They were Greek, Arab, Assyrian, and, of course from my perspective, Armenian.
My mother’s mother, our beloved, enigmatic, and inimitable Grannie, used to do this. She took me, as far as I can recall, just once. I must have been 11 or 12 years old. I remember driving around in her sky blue Ford Falcon. We would drive until she saw some vines and leaves. I presume she had a method or idea where she was going. To me, it just seemed that we were kind of aimlessly in search of the derev. We stopped and picked some here and there. I do recall being that helpful in what as to me at that young age a relatively boring outing. Obviously, that one trip had an impact on me.
Even when Armenians of that generation were not hunting for derev, they would loudly exclaim “derev” and point whenever vines were spotted on a car ride. I would look and just a clump of trees and bushes along the roadside. I could not tell which were grape leaves from the density of the flora.
My how times have changed.
I riding my bike around the roads and bike paths near my home here in Chicago’s North Shore, I have learned to spot derev. They are everywhere. I think it should be the state vine of Illinois. I spot them when riding my bike and driving my car. I find myself channeling my Grannie’s generation by pointing and saying “derev.” There may be a genetic component to this behavior.
This is the only remotely agrarian thing I do. My people were farmers two and three generations ago. They grew things and tended animals. They sowed and planted. They harvested and reaped. They tending livestock, lets say chickens and maybe sheep, and slaughtered them. I have never done any of that. To me, the food chain is basically grocery stores and restaurants. Killing and dressing a chicken? Catching and gutting fish? Sure, I know abot such, but only in concept.
My dad would tell stories of his maternal grandmother, Almas, on the farm they had in Andover, MA. She would go into the yard, catch a chicken, put her foot over the neck, and slice its throat. My father in-law, who ran a grocery store in Waukegan for may year, told me how they would get crates of live chickens. As customers would select one, they would put the head of the chicken in the noose end of rope that was nailed to the table. They would then throw the chicken and break its neck. The would then de-feather, gut, and dress the bird for the customer. As I said, these are concepts to me. I cannot imagine doing any of it unless forced to by what I can only classify as apocolyptic changes in the world around me.
But, I do pick derev.
It has become a hobby and passion. It is nothing obsessive. In terms of both hobby and passion, it is minor. I pick a few hundred leaves every year which is the equivalent of two to five bottles of storebought leaves. My cousin Chris in Michigan is much more prolific picking several hundred leaves.
Back in the days when I had a small aspiration of being a hippie, one of the draws was the concept of returning to the land; living a simpler life and all that. There was a strong message which for some turning into a yearning to grow our own food. Picking grape leaves is the closest I have come to any of that. This is the one, and again I emphasize, very minor thing I do in that regard.
I did contemplate planting an apple orchard when living in Connecticut. But, it was nothing more than a contemplation. I did, on a whim, buy and plant a strawberry plant. But, since I did not fence it in to protect it from deer and rabbits, the little plant was eaten to the ground the first night I planted it. Sure, I thought of growing vegetables. But that truly required excavating a plot, building a fence, buying and replanting seedlings, fertizlizing, watering, and tending. I was exhausted just thinking about it and confirmed again that I was a much better contemplater than an implementor.
|Aram's Black Walnut Tree|
My most successful planting occurred in 1981 when my son was born. I was cutting the lawn and found a black walnut seedling. Instead of mowing it down, I decided to replant it. It was only four inches high. I had no expectation that it would survive the summer let alone the first winter, but it did. It has survived until today when It is a majestic, towering, and nut bearing tree in the backyard of the house we moved from in 1989. I am quite proud of what I call Aram’s tree. I was sad to leave that tree when we moved.
Not to leave Armené out of it, we decided to plant a tree in her first year. In her case, we bought a golden delicous apple tree. It was hardly a sapling as it was already six feet tall. That tree still thrives in the opposite end of the same backyard. I doubt the current owners of the house realize the significance of those trees. I drive by the old place now and then mostly to see the trees.
Picking grape leaves appeals to me on a few levels. First and foremost, it involves no tending and preparation on my part. There is no excavating,
|Armene's Golden Delicious Apple Tree|
Secondly, I do it when I want. Of course, I have to do it in season, All I have to do is be observant and find where the leaves are and when they look ready for picking. As being observant is the first cousin of contemplation, I find this quite natural.
Thus, I have found my little agrarian niche. For a few moments every year, I have kinda returned to the land, I have sorta become a hunter gatherer… well… at least a gatherer. It makes me feel marginal helpful in bringing home foodstock that did not come from the grocery store. And maybe most importantly, I was in another small way channelling that very special first generation of Armenians and keeping a bit of the “old country,” a place I barely know and certainly have never lived in.
Sidenote: OK… I will admit that the last few paragraphs reek of a load of neo-hippie psychobabble. At least that is what I would say if I was reading this instead of writing it. Of course, I added this observation myself instead of having to hear Ara Topouzian make the observation.In doing this for several years, I have learned something unexpected as well. I have experienced a bit of what all farmers, gardeners, and gatherers learned. I have learned about the year to year variation of the crop. This learning appealed to the statistician and quality management part of my education and work experience. I suppose that maybe some naturalist has written it all down, but I have learned a few things the old fashioned way. I have experienced them. It is a great ancillary benefit of my little hobby and passion.
The womenfolk, either of my parents’ generation or about my age, would always say that the derev are best picked before Father’s Day or the first day of summer. They believed after that date, the leaves would be too tough and veiny. In making sarma, it is best to have the tenderest, most delicate, and largest leaves possible. Plus, after this date, there is the distinct possibility of bugs eating holes in the leaves making them unusable.
What is the reality that I have learned? There is certainly some truth to the lore. But, I have also learned that there is always new growth right into August. I look for lighter color leaves that indicate new growth. It does become harder to find good leaves the deeper we are in the summer.
While the first day of summer might be a decent rule of thumb, I have noticed a fair of year to year variation when the first harvesting of leaves is best. The readiness of the first crop is dependent on rain and temperature. As temperature and rainfall vary, so does the best date for picking leaves.
Another thing I learned, and really no one had to tell me this, is this: no more matter how perfect the leaves look, if they are too high, amid blooms of poison ivy, or in a thicket that looks like tick heaven… leave them, pun intended, and move on. I am sure our first generation of derev pickers knew this because there are no stories of people breaking bones, dying, or getting seriously ill from picking grape leaves. Since they never articulated this advice, and many were fond of dishing out advice like pilaf, I am guessing they just assumed that none of their descendents would be that stupid.
There was a lot of lore about that first generation of immigrants not sharing where they found their leaves. They did not want others to find their little nirvana of vines and leaves. “You can help me to pick da derev, but you don’ tell anyvone vere ve go.” Maybe because leaves are so abundant around here, no one really cares to protect their gathering grounds. There is no need. In fact, the opposite is true. A few Armenians have noticed that I do like to pick leaves. They will tell something like the best leaves ever are at some location or another. One auntie told the best leaves ever were behind a church in my town. I checked it out. Nothing, nada, zilch. This leads to the next learning I have experienced.
Just because the leaves were unbelievable at a particular location one year is no guarentee that the leaves will be anywhere near as good the next year. In 2015, I saw a clump of derev on the way to church in early June. The leaves looked huge. I went back the next day and was amazed. I must have picked 75 perfectly tender leaves that were larger than my hand. The next year, I really looked forward to returning to that same location. There were still leaves growing but they were nothing special. In fact, I did not pick any from that spot. The spring of 2015 was very wet and cool. It made the leaves perfect in that location for that year. I have also noticed that places where leaves were good last year may still have vines this year, but the bugs found and ravaged them.
I would say that every other time I am out someone will stop and comment or ask what I am doing. The police often will do this. I am guessing they are doing their duty in checking to see why this goofball is picking leaves on the side of a busy road. I tell them what I am up to and they understand. Then, they ask if I would call them when the sarma is made. Just this past week, another cyclist stopped and asked if I was Assyrian. He told me how he used to go out derev picking with his grandmother. Virtually everyone that has done this with their grandmother has fond memories of the experience.
One lady, who lived across the street from a spot I was picking leaves, came running over when she saw me. Her gait and body language told me she was concerned bordering on the upset. Was I picking leaves from her special location? She asked what I was doing. I said picking grape leaves for stuffed grape leaves. She was immediately relieved. She thought I was picking the gooseberries which were growing around the grape leaves. I did not even notice them nor did I have any idea what to do with them if I picked them. We had a nice chat about our gathering hobbies.
Hmmm… enough for now. Out to gather up some more leaves.