If you ask the right person in Providence today, they will tell you: in the fifties there were grape vines in every yard in Fox Point. In those days—Portuguese, Cape Verdeans, Italians, Armenians, Greeks, Irish—families from all over lived in the neighborhood. Items like olive oil were easy to find and everybody used their grape vines for different specialties, be it wine, Lebanese anisette or rolled and stuffed grape leaves. Catherine and George Abrams lived at 105 Sheldon Street for 58 years. Catherine was born at 99 Sheldon Street in 1933 and when she got married she moved next door. The Abrams do not speak Arabic, nor have they ever been abroad. Yet the food they ate was embedded in a culture thousands of miles away—the Mediterranean cuisine of their parents’ homeland, Lebanon.
Today Catherine and George live in Barrington with their daughter, Karen. The couple, now in their eighties, had to leave Fox Point two years ago; it was getting hard for them to live by themselves. Now Karen and her brother are around to care for them, but after three-quarters of a century in Fox Point, there are many things they miss. Still, some things come to them: every month, the priest from their Lebanese Maronite church visits their home to administer communion. And thanks to their daughter Karen, they still enjoy fresh, homemade Lebanese food.
Growing up, Catherine and her family often ate vegetables stuffed with rice, some meat, garlic, onions and spices. As Catherine explains, “We stuffed squash, stuffed cabbage, what else, stuffed peppers, we stuffed everything!” Another staple was kibbeh, a Mediterranean cousin of steak tartare and the national dish of Lebanon, which must be eaten the day that it’s made. Leftovers of the raw ground meat can be fried into meatballs called kofte. Every now and then, there were occasions special enough to warrant stuffed tripe: a mixture of ground lamb, rice, and chickpeas, sewn into the fatless lining of a cow’s stomach and boiled for hours. Sometimes, Catherine’s father would make sausages. She describes the process: “My father would get the casing of the lamb, just like the kind for hotdogs. He’d wash it, that was a big process, just at home in the kitchen, and then he would put it in his hand, and have a loop, and he’d stuff it and he’d stuff it and you’d get yards of sausage—sometimes miles, running around like that and he’d boil it. It was delicious. He’d stuff it with lamb, rice, spices that we use—the cumin, the cinnamon—onions cut very small, and olive oil.”
The hardest part was getting fresh lamb. For that, there was a meat market downtown, or the Armenian butcher on Federal Hill. Often the family made a whole Saturday trip out of going to Federal Hill, taking the trolley car or walking. There, they could find men with vegetables on pushcarts, mostly from local farms. The finds were worth the trek: “You always want it fresh, you don’t want dried or canned anything, it tastes completely different,” Catherine explains. “I mean, packaging, cans, I didn’t even know what that was! I grew up knowing that tomato paste came in a can, and that’s it.” Back in Fox Point, there was Friends Market, still owned today by Mr. Pedroso, at 126 Brook Street. And the A&P Store on Wickenden, which was owned by George’s uncle. George grew up above it and later worked there for many years. The old A&P Store is now a nail salon.
A lot of ingredients were easier to find fresh and more affordable back in the fifties. Now, the Abrams have to get their lamb from Shaw’s or Stop & Shop. There was a point when they couldn’t get tripe anywhere, but then they found it at the Compare Supermarket on Broad Street. Even there, Karen struggles to find what she’s looking for: she doesn’t need it cut up for stew like the Mexicans, nor does she eat that rubbery dark tripe they sometimes have.
Catherine and George’s story is one piece in the mosaic of cultures that make up Fox Point. Today Brown students live alongside the last Portuguese, Cape Verdean and Lebanese neighbors still around. There are only a few blocks between sushi on Wickenden and Portuguese sweet bread on Ives. Among these changing communities, grape vines continue to grow in the Point, and in the Abrams’ Barrington backyard too. Even though their kitchen has moved a few miles away, the national dishes from their distant homeland continue to simmer and stew: “What we grew up on is what we love. And if you can’t eat what you love, then you’re taking away a big part of what you’re trying to pass on.”
MAYA SIKAND B’13.5 stuffs everything.
ABRAMA’ TABBOULEH – serves 4
Catherine Abrams: “I’ve seen many recipes of tabbouleh, in articles and magazines, but it doesn’t look anything like the real thing—they put more wheat than anything.”
What you’ll need:
6 bunches of flat parsley, without stems
3 tomatoes, finely chopped
1 long English cucumber
1-4 bunches scallions
1 large bag of radishes, diced with ends cut off
1 bunch fresh mint
Juice of 1-2 lemons
Cinnamon, salt, pepper, ground cumin
4 cups bulgar
1. Rinse bulgar until water runs clear. Soak in cold water for 15-20 minutes, until it is soft.
2. Mix with chopped vegetables, lemon juice, and spices.
ABRAMS’ RAW KIBBEH
Large white onion, chopped
Palm-full of fresh mint
2 tbsp cinnamon and cumin
2. In a large bowl, mix:
1 ½ cups soaked bulgar (see tabbouleh recipe),
3 lb. ground beef
Make sure to keep this cold—either by adding in ice cubes directly or placing a large bowl of ice underneath—so that bacteria does not form.
3. Put on a platter
4. Eat with Lebanese bread, pour some olive oil over a portion in your dish, with chopped spring onions.
ABRAMS’ STUFFED TRIPE (GHAAME)
– serves 4
CA: “I’ve had many people sit at my table and say they wouldn’t eat lamb if you paid them, and they ate and—oh so delicious. I say, well you ate lamb.”
What you’ll need:
6 pieces tripe (available at Compare Supermarket on Broadway)
1.5lb. ground lamb
3 cups parboiled white rice
2 cans chickpeas
1/2 white onion
Syrian or Lebanese all-spice
Salt, pepper, extra-virgin olive oil
Needles – with large eye
Large pot (for boiling)
1. Purchase white tripe. Lamb will work, but around here you’ll probably find beef. Make sure it’s white and all in one piece.
2. Sew 3 edges of the tripe to form a pocket. Just like you would cloth into a pillow case.
3. In a large bowl add parboiled white rice. Mix with 1.5lbs of ground lamb. Add 1-2 cans of drained chickpeas. Add ¾ of a cup of olive oil, 1 tbsp spice, salt and pepper to taste.
4. Stuff mixture into tripe pockets until half full. Add one or two onion quarters, depending on size of tripe. Then add a bit more rice. (Don’t fill to the top, as rice will expand).
5. Finish sewing to close pocket.
6. Place in a pot of water so that the trip is just covered. Bring to boil and cook at medium-high for at least two hours. Test: ready if a fork goes in easily. Serve with tabbouleh.