Raves: Middle Eastern food tastes like tradition to this family
The table was covered with an array of dishes I'd never seen or tasted before.
Some of their names needed translations from the menu, like baba ghanouj (a spicy dip of mashed, smoked eggplant topped with garlic, oregano and oil). Others, such as stuffed grape leaves that looked like little cigars, were easier to guess.
Sitting in Ali Baba restaurant in Oakland, I was an instant fan. I'd come to Pittsburgh in the early 1970s for a program at Pitt and was soon discovering some of the city's many small treasures. I was across the table from the man I would eventually marry, in a small restaurant just opened by three Syrian graduate students, all of us launching into new things.
When our children, boy/girl twins, were born in the late '70s, things like dinners out became a thing of the past for a while. But once Chris and Jessie could walk, talk and use a spoon, off we went to Oakland to introduce them to the tastes of Middle Eastern foods.
They both quickly learned how to dip pieces of flat pita bread into hummus, eat stuffed grape leaves with their fingers, and manage the rest with their little spoons. It wasn't clear if they modeled their parents' enthusiasm, or if the fresh tastes and smells were just a match, but the meal was a great success.
It also was the start of a family tradition. While over the years we certainly tried and liked many other good restaurants around the city, our Craig Street spot became our favorite go-to place to celebrate special events like birthdays.
A short walk up the street from the Carnegie Museums, it was also a good wrap-up to visits to the old Dinosaur Hall and the library. Whenever we went, we'd order the same family favorites, then share them around the table, laughing and talking and teasing about who should get the last grape leaf.
When the twins hit high school, my husband and I separated, then divorced. That means, of course, lots of changes, including my children and I moving to a different house, and our day-to-day family becoming mostly a threesome.
But the tradition of Middle Eastern dinners continued. When college acceptances came in, followed by the flurry of packing up to leave home, we headed for Craig Street for one last shared feast, lingering over the table maybe a little longer than usual.
When college parents weekends came in the fall, my son's was first. His college was a great school, but the small Indiana town it was in was not noted for its restaurants. So I packed up Middle Eastern takeout, headed west, and surprised him with a picnic lunch that included a touch of Pittsburgh.
The very next weekend, I headed east to visit Jessie. Because Philadelphia is known for its good food, including Philly cheesesteaks, the notion of Middle Eastern takeout didn't cross my mind. A big mistake.
When Chris and Jessie were back in Pittsburgh for the holidays, they compared notes. "Why did Chris get shish kebab and grape leaves and I didn't?" my usually generous daughter asked. From then on, all parents weekends, east and west, included a small ice chest of Pittsburgh takeout. Great picnic food wrapped with good family memories.
Now the three of us have fewer chances to be together here in Pittsburgh because of travel distance (Chris) and a tight work schedule (Jessie). But this coming holiday season, they have arranged to come home so we can celebrate together.
Their Pittsburgh to-do list includes visits with their dad and grandmother, and a turkey dinner with all the trimmings that the three of us pitch in and do together. And last, but not least, it includes dinner at Ali Baba.
All three are reminders that while some things in life change, others, fortunately, stay the same.
First Published November 5, 2010 12:00 am