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Heritage, family and identity

College Application Essay

Lamb, mixed with rice, garlic and spices, rolled tightly in grape leaves, then soaked in lemon juice and cooked with pork steaks — and a rock on top, to keep it all in the pot. It’s called Yebret, a Syrian family favorite.

I arrive at my aunt’s house in the late afternoon ready to begin the process of cooking this traditional ethnic food. Everyone’s there, of course: the Syracuse Syrians, plus the southerners from Tennessee with their slow drawl and entertaining accents and the northern branch of the family from Minnesota. We’re all gathered in the kitchen.

My aunt has prepared the lamb and we begin to work in an assembly line of sorts, adding spices and seasoning, stirring and thoroughly mixing it all together. Next I watch as the grape leaves are soaked in lemon juice and placed in a large bowl at the table.

It’s a tactile process. We shape the cold, raw meat with our hands, feel the stinging from the lemon juice, our fingers puckered from the brine.

It takes some skill to roll them perfectly. You need just the right amount of meat depending on the size of the leaf, and they have to be rolled tightly and evenly so they won’t fall apart while cooking.

The difference between my lopsided ones and my aunt’s, who has been making them for years, is quite comical.

All the, while the conversation is constant.

There are 17 first-cousins and somehow we all get along. We talk about everything under the sun: school, sports, friends and relationships — and we’re almost always laughing about something.

Often it’s me. I seem to be the butt of many jokes.

This tradition of cooking and catching-up defines my family.

I come from a big Syrian family. We’ve been here a century, yet we still hear the stories handed down of life in Aleppo. We also hear about the experiences of growing up in an immigrant community.

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