Reinventing the meal:
His food cravings once got David Warda arrested. He was strolling in Cincinnati, where he'd recently moved, when he spotted wild grape leaves growing in an unmowed patch of roadside greenery. He started gathering them, chewing on a few.
"Wild grapes are inedible, but the leaves are flavorful and tender," explains Warda.
Two policemen, puzzled by his foraging and by his white pajama outfit, stopped him and asked where he was from. "When I told them Michigan, they arrested me," says Warda. "They thought I had escaped from the state mental hospital, which was nearby, and was eating the shrubbery."
Warda's wife got him released, but the incident did nothing to curb Warda's cravings for grape leaves -- or for a host of other exotic eatables.
Now he's written a book about those foods, a self-published volume called Assyrian Cookery. It's part recipe book, shedding light on a little-known but ancient cuisine, and part scrapbook, full of charming stories and snapshots from Warda's growing-up years (he was born in 1948) in Flint.
The book's title refers not to modern Syria but to Assyria -- the ancient land of Warda's ancestors that has vanished into parts of Iran and Iraq. At its height, Assyria's empire stretched from Egypt to Iran, but it hasn't existed as a country for more than two millennia, ever since it was overrun by other mid-eastern factions in battles from 612 to 609 B.C.
Yet, Warda and thousands of other Assyrian Americans still identify themselves as a distinct people. Around 8,000 of them will be in Dearborn for the national convention of the Assyrian American National Federation opening Wednesday and running through Labor Day at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
They'll arrive from all over the country -- besides Flint, sizable Assyrian communities exist in Chicago; Modesto, Calif.; New Britain, Conn.; and Yonkers, N.Y. Flint was once home to 4,000 Assyrian Americans attracted by jobs at General Motors, Warda says, but that number has dwindled as GM has shrunk its operations there.
Still, Assyrian Americans are a tenacious people who've managed to preserve their culture's language, music, dances and, of course, cuisine.
If you've tried Greek or Arabic foods, Assyrian dishes won't seem entirely strange -- stuffed grape leaves, flatbreads, goat cheese, yogurt, tomatoes, lots of lamb. But there are differences. Assyrian foods also reflect influences from what are now Iran and southern Russia -- cilantro, tarragon, dill and basil as flavorings, stuffed onions and eggplants, fruits and nuts as desserts (but never filo pastries), tea from a samovar.
Young Warda had a healthy appetite. In the book he tells how, as a toddler, he embarrassed his mother by drinking the cream off the top of the unhomogenized milk on neighbors' porches. So he had no trouble devouring the Assyrian dishes made by his mother, aunts and two grandmothers (by tradition, women do all the cooking in Assyrian families). But at the same time he hankered for American food, too, especially when he and his brothers (he was the second oldest of eight boys) got kidded for taking stuffed grape leaves to school in their sack lunches.
"We wanted the other kids' bologna sandwiches and Twinkies, but they wouldn't trade with us," recalls Warda, laughing about it now.
But it was the Assyrian food he missed when he left home to study theater design at Wayne State University, so he taught himself to cook it. He kept right on cooking when he went on to work in New York, Paris and most recently Cincinnati, where he's been teaching costume design at the School of Creative and Performing Arts.
Now married and the father of a son Aryeh, 12, and daughter Anna, 10, he's still the family cook (his wife Rena "does restaurants," he says). Since Rena is Jewish and Warda is Roman Catholic, these days he cooks for a double calendar of holidays. (Most Assyrians follow the Assyrian Orthodox faith, but Warda's grandmother converted to Catholicism out of gratitude to French nuns who sheltered her in a convent in Iran after she fled a massacre of Assyrians early in this century.)
Actually, cooking is about to dominate Warda's life, since he's planning to retire soon from his teaching job. Besides writing the book, he's been doing some catering, teaching cooking classes and is putting together a 13-part cooking series for the local Cincinnati public television station, which he eventually hopes to offer to cable networks.
In town the other day, Warda demonstrated his food prowess in a friend's kitchen on Detroit's east side. Wearing a knit skullcap and artsy tunic (should the police be alerted?), he concocts a picnic primeval -- he remembers the dishes from his childhood, but the recipes may well date back 3,000 years.
Warda mixes tarragon and shards of green onion and peppers into patties of ground lamb. He hands them to his son Aryeh (pronounced Ari) to grill outdoors.
On a nearby counter stands a hillock of goat's cheese, savory with chopped chives, cilantro, dill and hot peppers, ready for spreading on discs of flatbread.
Stuffed summer vegetables, already cooked, glisten on a platter -- eggplant, bell peppers, sweet onions, each filled with a mixture of rice, lamb and herbs.
Big bowls hold salads in riotous colors -- sliced beets, apples and onions with caraway; hot peppers with onions, cilantro and dill; and Armenian cucumbers and onions in vinaigrette.
For dessert, there's a platoon of sliced melons -- casaba, cantaloupe, honeydew -- to be scattered with cilantro and drizzled with lime-scented honey. Water for tea is heating in an electric samovar.
The kings of ancient Assyria would have happily dined at this table. And so do we.
Remove roots from green onion. Discard. Rinse, drain and finely chop onion.
Remove stem and seeds from hot Hungarian pepper and red bell pepper. Discard. Rinse, drain and finely chop peppers. Be sure to wear rubber gloves when working with the hot pepper.
Remove leaves from fresh tarragon stems. Rinse, drain and finely chop leaves to make 1 teaspoon.
Combine 1 pound ground lamb, chopped onions, peppers and tarragon. Salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Cover and chill mixture for about 30 minutes.
Wet your hands with cold water and divide lamb mixture into 4 equal balls. Shape each ball into an oval. Flatten ovals into patties.
Over white-hot coals, grill patties on both sides. The centers should be slightly pink and the surface lightly browned. Makes 4 patties.
Per serving: 184 calories; 8.2 g fat (2.9 g saturated fat; 40 percent calories from fat); 78 mg cholesterol; 129 mg sodium; 2 g carbohydrates.
Simmer beets in water until tender. Slip skins off beets under running water. Slice beets into thin vertical sections.
Peel and thinly slice 1 large Spanish onion. Peel, core and seed 2 tart apples. Slice apples into thin vertical sections.
Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large frying pan.
Add onion and apple slices. Cook until apples and onions are soft. Add sliced beets.
Combine 2 tablespoons vinegar and honey. Pour mixture over beet mixture. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon caraway seeds. Salt to taste. Cool to room temperature.
Chill in refrigerator several hours before serving.
Note: Analysis based on 6 servings.
Per serving: 174 calories; 9.3 g fat (1.3 g saturated fat; 48 percent calories from fat); 0 mg cholesterol; 96 mg sodium; 23.3 g carbohydrates.
Remove leaves from cilantro stems. Rinse, drain and chop leaves.
Remove sprigs from dill stalks. Rinse, drain and chop sprigs.
Remove stems and seeds from 4 hot Hungarian peppers. Rinse, drain and chop peppers. Be sure to wear rubber gloves when working with the hot peppers.
Peel and chop Spanish onion.
Combine the chopped cilantro, dill, peppers and onion in a large bowl. Salt to taste. Cover and store in the refrigerator.
Makes about 4 cups.
Note: Analysis based on serving size of 1 cup.
Per serving: 37 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 0 mg cholesterol; 77 mg sodium; 8.1 g carbohydrates.
Scrub melons; cut into wide slices and chunks. Do not peel melons. Arrange the slices of fruit skin side down on a large platter.
Remove leaves from fresh cilantro stems.
Rinse and pat dry leaves. Strew cilantro leaves over melon slices.
Squeeze juice from several limes. Add enough honey to sweeten the lime juice. Adjust to your own taste. Sprinkle the mixture over the melon slices.
Note: Analysis based on serving size of 2 cups.
Per serving: 199 calories; 0.8 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 4 percent calories from fat); 0 mg cholesterol; 26 mg sodium; 50.7 g carbohydrates.