Like my rhyme? I thought it was clever. This past weekend was the beloved and ever-popular Lebanese Food Festival, hosted by the beloved and and beautiful families of St. Anthony’s Maronite Catholic Church in Richmond’s West End. It is a fun-filled weekend of eating, dancing, laughing, enjoying at least one thunderstorm, eating, and if you’re a parishioner, it includes chopping chicken, parsley, garlic, and other very ethnic and strong-smelling ingredients for the “white people” to consume. All proceeds benefit the church and a foundation which supports and cares for orphans in Lebanon. It is a noble cause, and a fab time.
Anywhoooos. This weekend had me thinking about My Big Fat Greek Wedding and how everyone thinks that movie is a joke. However, I’m here to convince you that the movie is completely fact-based and a truthful conveyance of practices, and is actually based on every and any ethnic family in the whole world. Let’s discuss. [PS can we please check out the cast list of this movie? It is like an alliance of Greek and Italian mob members!]
1) Eat something! This is a classic line from MBFGW, said multiple times and in multiple contexts, but the most notable of these is when Toula tells her mother she’s in love with Ian: “But Ma, I love him!” To which her mother logically replies, “Oh Toula! Eat something!” And walks away. Eating is a common concept which heals all evils across many ethnicities. Anyone who has any kind of strong heritage will tell you it’s not a Greek thing, it’s a Polish thing! Or it’s an Ethiopian thing! Or even it’s an American thing! But I still maintain that no one does eating like the Mediterranean cultures (I am loyal to my main heritage, the Italians, and honestly think we are the best eaters but Lebanon and Greece come in close second). So while at the Lebanese Food Festival, I probably encountered some form of this “eat something!” mantra at least 4 times per each hour I was there. The most memorable, other than the times in which I was commanded to eat more, happened when I was sitting at a picnic table with another family. 3 elementary aged girls, their mother or aunt, and a grandfather. Not even sure it was their grandfather but in this place, it doesn’t matter. Every grandfather is a grandfather to every child. So he’s standing there, the girls are giggling and talking with each other and the mother, and on the table is a plate of un-eaten cheese pies. No one is paying these cheese pies any attention and suddenly Jiddoo (Arabic for “grandfather”) points to the pies and demands that the girls eat them: “Who’s are these? Eat them!” Which he then repeats in Arabic, lest anyone not understand his demand to consume. He subsequently walks away shaking his head. The little girls eye the pies on the plate and each take one and start nibbling with looks of boredom on their faces. It’s normal, the demand to eat, and with such good food, who wants to say no!?
2) Marriage and babies. Toula says in the beginning of the movie, “There are three things that every Greek woman must do in life: marry Greek boys, make Greek babies, and feed everyone.” At St. A’s, there is no “Lebanese School” and they don’t necessarily come right out and teach lessons like “If Nick has one goat, and Maria has nine, how soon will they marry?” But God help you if you are single! Singleness is almost a disease, and if you are single for too long, there’s something wrong with you, but it’s ok because Lawwwwd do they have a match for you! And you will make beautiful children, so why not! Yenta is a Jewish name, but an easily translatable occupation. Right? Of course right! In my family, Yenta’s name is Momma Sassy and all of Twin’s aunts.
Example: While at the festival I was, as usual, hanging out with/clinging to Twin and Mimi (Mimi is Twin’s actual sister and my non-sister, since I clearly am an only child by birth, but blessed with these ladies as my pseudo sisters. Love you girls) as we eat, walk around, watch the dancing, listen to the ethnic music, and carry massive bowls of parsley to and from the food booth. At any given moment, if there was an aunt around (similar concept to the grandfathers: she doesn’t have to be your aunt, but you still call her “Aunt” and she knows you like she is your aunt), she would grill one or all three of us about our love lives. “Twin! Are you seeing anyone? Have you met Anthony?” “Mimi! I know you’re dating that boy, but how serious is it? I have a friend who has a nephew who is perfect for you! Oh you’re related to him, that’s right…” “Miss Sassy! Haven’t seen you in forever, how’s your boyfriend!? Oh! You don’t have a boyfriend! Well…” *devious scheming look that only moms and aunts have* “Come with me, you need to meet Anthony!” Oy. A few things of note here: remember how everyone is named “Nick” in MBFGW? Everyone here is named Anthony. Also, everyone in the church is related. And if you’re not related, you marry into that family which makes you related. Which means that, luckily for Twin and Mimi, they are not available to most the young men in the church as there is some kind of familial tie which binds them and prevents another tie from being tied. I, on the other hand, being an adopted Daughter of Lebanon and not an actual blood relative, am available to pretty much every un-married young (or old) man in the entire congregation. I keep a low profile so as not to be noticed or set up. It rarely works, but I like to pick my own, thanks.
3) 40 first cousins. As I mentioned above, practically everyone at this church is related. There are something like 5 or 6 main families, and they are the oldest Lebanese families in the area and have been attending St. A’s forever since whichever Jiddoo immigrated from Lebanon. Every or most families make trips to Lebanon to visit family, and thoughts of shipping daughters back to the motherland to find a husband is not a joke. The families set up sons and daughters to marry each other and the family cedar tree grows. Twin and Mimi have something like 4 times the amount of first cousins I have, and the circle of 2nd cousins grows exponentially and in general is too difficult to keep track of. And if you find a “white person” to marry, they better integrate themselves into the culture because otherwise awkwardness ensues. Picture Rodney and Harriet Miller drunk from ouzo and saying no-thank-you to “Greek meat, very good!”
4) Family be all up in your business, 24/7. Lots of times this is not an ethnic thing. If you have a big family or even a small family, if you’re close, they likely know too much about you for your comfort. But again, it seems the Mediterranean cultures do this best. They are always together all the time, eating all the time, gossiping, and sharing in each other’s joys, sorrows, accomplishments, and failures, whether they like it or not. Sort of ties into point #2 about marriage and setting up every available daughter with every available son. Toula explains to Ian the complexities and annoyances of her family by saying, “…Everybody is in each other’s lives and business, all the time! Like, you never just have a minute alone! Just to think! ‘Cause we’re always together, just eating, eating, eating!” And this is so true, but it is also true that while at times we all sometimes just want to be away from all the ethnicity and maybe have a small family with 2 first cousins instead of 27, deep down you know you’d never trade them in. At the end, Toula admits she would never do such a thing: “My family is big and loud but they’re my family. We fight and we laugh and yes, we roast lamb on a spit in the front yard. And where ever I go, what ever I do they will always be there.” I have never seen any lamb roasting on a spit in anyone’s front yard, and at the festival I’m fairly sure they marinate the meat in something delicious and roast it in an oven instead of on a spit, but the rest of the line is accurate. All aunts are freaking crazy. If their kids are too young to date, they will live vicariously through whichever niece or nephew is closest and attempt to set them up with any decent looking halfway respectable boy or gal they know. And you can’t hate, because you will do the same when you’re an aunt with 3 kids in 10 to 20 years (we don’t want to rush these things – 30 is not an expiration date ladies).
Love your family. They are crazy in the head sometimes most all the time, but you are not alone. Every other person on the planet has some kind of crazy relative or family situation. And you are just as crazy as they are and don’t realize it. So don’t be a hypocrite. Plus, sometimes those aunts know some really cute boys, so maybe you should keep an open mind…