Updated: Feb 16
25 years ago I was 21 years old and working as a server at an Eastern Mediterranean restaurant. My experience there shaped me and changed my life forever. It is also where I connected with Parsley for the first time and I’d like to share some of my memory of that time, place and plant with you.
This restaurant was exceptional on many accounts; first of all, it was a dream location to go to work at everyday; set in a beautiful Spanish colonial courtyard with a center fountain and Jacaranda trees. Because it was in Southern California, the weather was lovely almost year round, and much of the seating was outside on the courtyard. In addition, there was a multi level interior, and an art Gallery attached to the restaurant that had fantastic shows with amazing world renown artists.
The food was delicious. EVERY SINGLE DISH- amazing and authentic.
There were Shabbat dinners on Friday nights, and regular Turkish nights, and Balkan nights, and Belly dancing and Flamenco performances.
There were several musicians who played regularly. Some memorable ones were a local Brazilian band and UCSB middle Eastern ensemble, and there was always an accordionist on site. Lunch or dinner. It would either be Rebecca, a local woman with beautiful deep purple/red hair. When she played it felt like we were transported to Paris in the 1920s. Or it was Branco, a Serbian refugee, an elder accordionist. Legend was that he was a super star back home. I don’t doubt that he was. I have NEVER seen or heard anything like his accordion playing. He was Heavy Metal. He was the most blood and bone chilling Baltic folk music. He was magic. And sweet. And didn’t speak a LICK of English. I would bring him cake after his set and we had a cool friendship somehow with just smiles and hand gestures.
The proprietors cared about their employees; they celebrated and took care of us like no other business I have worked for before or since. They fed us amazing food, provided free yoga classes (before there were yoga studios on every corner) and communicated-we had staff meetings regularly. They wanted to hear from everyone. They wanted everyone who entered the space to have an experience.
This was a Jewish owned business with several Muslim employees.
The staff (front and back of the house) were from all over the world: Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Italy, Chile, Mexico, Serbia, USA. I loved my co-workers, most of us became great friends and this is also where I met my husband.
The experience was more than a job waiting tables, it opened up the door for me to learn about Mediterranean culture, music and food. It inspired me to study what is now one of my passions and obsessions; Ancient Art and History.
One of the more powerful components that stays with me from this experience is that I learned about the Kurdish people, who before that, I didn’t know anything about.
There was a Kurdish employee, (out of respect to him, I won't publicly share his name as I don't have permission to tell his story) I'll call him F. He had won the lottery in Turkey to come to the US. He said goodbye to his family and made the trip to the US alone in hopes of a better life. This was very painful for him as he had a wife and a small daughter that he was separated from indefinitely. F had an education in Turkey, possibly multiple degrees, but because of the horrific mistreatment of Kurdish people in Turkey, this opportunity was a better option for him. He spoke no English when he arrived. The proprietors of the restaurant I worked at found out about him and his story and hired him as a kind of a janitor. They also helped him with a place to live. He swept and mopped at the restaurant and worked hard while he learned English. After several months, he moved up to lunchtime busser, eventually working dinners. This was a position he took seriously and was proud of. I was impressed at the time, but now, the more I think about him, my heart breaks and also bursts with this story. How difficult it was for him to be away from his loved ones, in a completely foreign land, learning the language, all alone. This is so many immigrant and refugee stories, and for me, it never gets old. My throat tightens and my heart burns a little when I think about the struggle of so many of our ancestors and that this is STILL happening with so many people today. There is something even more heavy for me with F's story because the Kurdish people have had a horrific experience in this world.
This was the mid-nineties. Internet was new. Websites were new, email was new. No social Media. CNN 24 hour news was still pretty new. The world was the same and also different. Or maybe the way we experienced it was just different. There was less immediacy. There was more space. We all still had landlines. Yasser Arafat was still alive.
Pre 9/11, there had not yet been an invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria. Millions of people who were affected by the Bush administration atrocities of war and Islamophobia were still alive and going about their lives. There was never perfection to any time-and I am not pretending that it was all good. BUT there was a moment, a short lived moment, of a kind of glimmer of peace in the region we call the Middle East. Or maybe we were just completely absolutely still able to be hopeful.
I wanted to share the story of this restaurant because I would not be doing what I am doing now if that seed had not been planted so long ago.
My years working there helped shape my Mediterranean identity in ways I had previously not had exposure to. I didn’t grow up around many other Mediterranean people, and until I had this job, I didn’t realize what a massive void in me that was; not being around the culture, music and food of my ancestors.
This experience also allowed me to understand more deeply this: when we recognize each others ancestors. When we see eachothers ancestors in eachother.
This was before 23 and me and ancestry.com. I grew up thinking I was half northern European, half Southern Italian. I was told as a child my Italian side was also Greek (because Calabria was Magna Grecia) and Albanian. I didn’t have any other context for that, so I just identified as Italian.
So when I was around Turkish, Egyptian, Lebanese people at this restaurant, they always thought that I was too. Their ancestors recognized my ancestors. Years later when I get my 23 and me results back, I see that yes I am still half Italian, and that Italian is actually just a blend of the Mediterranean. Balkan, Turkish, Egyptian, Levantine, Cypriot, they all show up on the Italian side. And you know, I could feel those ancestors joy when I was surrounded by the languages music and foods that they recognized. I felt an activation back then, 25 years ago, but I didn't have the language for it at the time.
I have written about and spoken publicly that I regard plants as ancestors that lead the way in activating our ancestral connection and memory.
A plant that did this for me those many years ago was parsley. The often overlooked, at one time scorned as only a “garnish”.
Aside from eating tabbouleh and seeing it as a garnish as a kid, I had no relationship or interest with this plant.
So then I worked at this magical restaurant where the baker was a wonderful Turkish woman who made the best (along with everything else she made) Pide (Turkish pita bread). This warm fresh bread was brought to each table along with a dip made with Parsley, Olive oil and Balsamic vinegar. This dip blew my mind. Like most things that I love in life, it was simple and powerfully delicious.
I continue to make this dip regularly, it has become a staple in our home. And the best is going out to the garden and harvesting fresh parsley for it. Parsley is an easy plant to grow, even in a container.
With an over 2000 year old history of cultivation in the Mediterranean, beginning as medicine, then food, Parsley is a powerful symbol of death and rebirth, the Underworld, and an Herb of Persephone. The Greeks believed that the herb parsley grew from the blood of a hero named Achemorus who was killed by a serpent.
Since the 1990s it has had a resurgence not seen since the Renaissance when the Medici family planted it all around their homes.
It is densely packed with nutrients and vitamins. It is recommended for all with the exception of pregnant people, kidney issues, specifically kidney stones and renal insufficiency, and those with hyper or hypotension. If you are on any medications, speak with your health practitioner before working with any herbs.
So now, I want to share this beloved recipe with you.
I will call it Bistro Med Parsley dip because I have no other name for it.
You will need:
1 bunch of fresh flat leaf parsley
1-3 cloves of garlic to taste
Olive Oil (EVOO)
dried chili pepper flakes depending on desired amount of spice (1/8-1/2 teaspoon) *optional but recommended
I have also added fresh oregano to this dip (about half oregano half parsley)
You can do this by hand, or In food processor:
finely chop garlic first before you add anything else
then add washed fresh parsley (leaves and some of stems), salt and chili peppers
blend so that parsley is finely chopped
add olive oil and vinegar
pulse several times to blend
place in bowl, add more olive oil and vinegar
Enjoy with Fresh bread to soak up the oil and vinegar, I recommend leavened breads like baguette, ciabatta or pide.
It is a powerful mouthful and part of the fun when the parsley stays in your teeth.
a warning: they will. lol
This can be made in a large batch and frozen or kept in the fridge for several days.
It is best made several hours before consuming so that the parsley and garlic are infused in the oil and vinegar.