The Syrian-Lebanese Cuisine of the Appalachian City Whose Mayor Doesn't Want Refugees

In November, Roanoke mayor David Bowers cited Japanese internment camps as a reason why the city shouldn’t accept Syrian refugees, completely disregarding the culinary contributions of the many Syrians who migrated here over the past century.

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Feb 3 2016, 9:00pm

The mustachioed image of Sam Ferris Saleeba stares down from above the front door inside Appalachia Press in downtown Roanoke, Virginia. "Ferris"—his surname once he dropped "Saleeba" in an effort to assimilate—is engraved in the stone at the base of the threshold.

Surrounded by screen prints and vintage posters, Sam's grandson, Ray Ferris, stands just inside the doorway in this shop in the heart of downtown Roanoke, next door to the still-newish Taubman Museum of Art, a $66 million hot mess of sharp angles and glass. A barrel-chested lawyer and city council member nattily dressed in a suit, Ray Ferris is a third-generation Roanoke businessman—deep roots for a city that wasn't founded until the late 1800s.

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Sam Ferris Saleeba looks down from above the doorway to his former confectionary, now home to Appalachia Press. All photos by Suzie Kelly.

If the name "Roanoke" sounds familiar, it's because it went viral in November when Mayor David Bowers cited Japanese internment camps during World War II as a reason why it shouldn't accept Syrian refugees. The discordant statement not only flew in the face of Roanoke's status as a destination for refugees—it's home to a refugee resettlement program that's found homes for Bhutanese, Bosnians, Iraqis, and Somali Bantu in recent years—but it also disregarded the contributions of the many Syrians who migrated to the city in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th.

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The counter at Aesy's Restaurant, founded by Lebanese Roanokers in the 40s.

All six of Bowers' fellow city council members rebuked his statement. Ferris drew parallels between the experience of his grandparents on both sides, who left the Syrian Ottoman Empire before the outbreak of World War I, and today's Syrian refugees.

"My ancestors fled Lebanon for very much the same reason that the Syrians are fleeing," Ferris says. "My grandfather on my mother's side, they were going through the villages conscripting young men to serve in the Ottoman army; he didn't want any part of that. My grandparents on the other side were starving to death, so they wanted to get out. What's happening today in Syria is a different force, but it's the same thing."

Of course, when Ferris' grandparents migrated to America, "Syrian" meant something far different than it does today. Before World War I, the Ottoman Empire incorporated not just Syria as we know it today, but the bulk of the Middle East, North Africa and southeast Europe. Between 1880 and 1920, about 150,000 people left the Ottoman Empire. Lumped under the general category of "Syrian," many came to America through Ellis Island before moving west to industrial cities like Detroit, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, and Roanoke.

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The shelves at Mediterranean Goods Market, a halal grocery store and lunch counter in Roanoke.

Roanoke, which marks an eastern gateway to central Appalachia, became a city when the Norfolk and Western railway built a hub there in 1881. Its rapid growth attracted a significant number of Maronite and Melkite Catholics, who arrived from what is now considered Lebanon. The first immigrants established themselves before family members followed.

In various parts due to an entrepreneurial spirit, a language barrier, and straight-up racism, the immigrants often opened their own businesses and clustered together in neighborhoods, which they often shared with a growing number of Greeks also migrating to Roanoke at the time.

Lebanese-owned businesses popped up all over: The confectionary owned by Ray Ferris' grandfather Sam was one of a half-dozen different Lebanese/Syrian establishments in the city market by the 1920s.

Lebanese grocery stores became neighborhood staples. These stores sold not just groceries, but also newspapers, comic books, tobacco, light sandwiches, soft drinks, and beer.

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A gyro wrap at Mediterranean Goods Market, a halal grocery owned by first-generation Syrian immigrants.

"In Gainsboro and old Northeast before urban renewal, practically every block had a Lebanese grocer on it, and the family lived upstairs," says Matt Chittum, a third-generation, half-Lebanese reporter who explored his cultural history for a 2003 series in the Roanoke Times.

These fledgling immigrant businessmen weren't afraid to flout convention and political pressure: In 1902, the city's clerk's union wanted all stores to close at 7 PM. According to Raymond Barnes in A History of the City of Roanoke, 53 stores owned by Syrians refused to go along.

But although the Lebanese continued to live apart and make the cuisine of their culture behind closed doors, the food they sold out of confectionaries and grocers felt much more traditionally American. Think burgers and blue plates, not kibbeh and rolled cabbage.

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The old sign that hung above the Lebanese-owned Commodore Inn, now restored to its neon glory.

"It was a struggle by immigrants just to survive," Ferris said. "They had to serve up what the customers wanted, and they didn't perceive they wanted Arabic, Lebanese food. But we ate it at home."

The next generation didn't stray much farther. Ferris' father, Ellis, opened the Commodore Inn, a restaurant and beer joint that attracted customers with a neon-illuminated clipper ship. Ellis Ferris served only Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap—a demonstration of his loyalty to a distributor that helped him obtain a much-sought-after beer allotment in the waning days of World War II.

A few blocks down the street is Aesy's Restaurant, which opened in the 1940s with a similar business model, selling pure diner fare—eggs, bacon, biscuits, and gravy for breakfast, and a selection of burgers and sandwiches for lunch—along with beer and soda.

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The fatayer plate at Cedars Lebanese Restaurant offers two fried kibbeh, two spinach pies, two meat pies and two cheese sambousek.

In 1978, Roanoke Times columnist Mike Ives described longtime, now-deceased owner Josephine Aesy's management style: "To the uninitiated, she comes on as a shrieking harridan who will run a drunk out of her establishment in two seconds flat. Josephine brooks no back talk, and her regulars refer to her as 'the meanest woman in Roanoke.'"

Aesy's attracted a fiercely loyal clientele, including a banker who stopped by every day for a single beer on his way home, and a cast of regulars who used the same bar stools and drinking mugs every day. In the afternoons and evenings, Josephine often brought out traditional Lebanese food to feed her family and share with her customers.

As times and tastes changed, more immigrants have begun selling the fare of their home countries. Zorba's, a Greek-themed restaurant run by an Egyptian, popularized the cuisine of gyros, souvlaki and falafel in the 80s and 90s. In the late 90s, St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church launched an annual Lebanese festival with food, music, and dancing.

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Freshly made baklava at Mediterranean Goods Market, a halal owned by Syrian immigrants in Roanoke.

"The main spices that we use are cinnamon and allspice, salt, pepper," says Pauline Epperly, one of the women who cooks for the festival. "Greeks and us, we're very similar. We have the rolled grape leaves made with meat, and then ones made without meatjust rice and spices."

Kibbeh—a mixture of ground meat and bulgur that's fried, baked, or eaten raw—remains a central staple in the cuisine, along with meat and spinach pies, stuffed squash, and safsouf, a Lebanese variation on tabouli. The Lebanese also share baklava with the Greeks, although they season it with simple syrup flavored with orange water or rose water instead of honey.

At least two authentic, family-owned Lebanese restaurants opened and closed in Roanoke over the last decade. Then in 2013, Gaby Saliba and his family, who migrated to Roanoke from Lebanon in 2001, opened Cedars Lebanese Restaurant just one block from where Ferris ran his confectionary nearly a century ago. The menu at Cedars includes shawarma, baba ghanouj, falafel, raw and fried kibbeh, kebabs, and labneh—the sort of fare that Lebanese families have been eating in Roanoke for decades. Cedars did so well after opening that Saliba soon purchased and opened a nearby hookah lounge.

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Third-generation Lebanese Roanoker Ray Ferris talks about the historic market district.

Cedars' success confirms that traditional Lebanese food has finally gone mainstream in Roanoke. The restaurant does good business in a downtown district thickly populated with young professionals, office workers, and tourists. The culture that once was so stigmatized it drove men to open their open confectionaries has become so common that its roots are barely an afterthought.

Away from downtown, however, out along Williamson Road, a primary artery through the city's north end, a newer wave of immigrants is finding fertile soil in which to plant their own roots. Williamson Road has seen nothing like the redevelopment investment as downtown, but its nondescript and occasionally rundown-looking buildings hide a vibrant patchwork of international restaurants and grocers.

Here, Mediterranean Goods Market sits discretely in a generic white and brown building, marked by "shish kabob" and "halal food" signs outside. Bare walls surround shelves of bulk grains, spices, and other dry goods. Sam Sati watches from behind the cash register up front, while his wife Lind grills kofta and chicken in a kitchen set by a tiny dining space.

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Lind Sati looks out from the kitchen at Mediterranean Goods Market in Roanoke.

The Satis migrated from Syria—not Lebanon or the Ottoman Empire, but Syria as we know it today. They're not refugees; they came as most immigrants do, following family members—a sister who married an American, then the parents, then Sam in 2010 and finally Lind in 2011.

They, along with another halal grocer owned by a Nepalese family only three blocks away, serve a customer base that consists largely of other migrants from the Middle East, southeastern Europe, and Asia. During our visit, a young Iraqi man stepped in to pick up a takeout lunch.

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Cheese sambousek at Cedars Lebanese Restaurant in downtown Roanoke.

The Satis bring their own cultural spin to what otherwise looks like a similar menu to Cedars. They bake their kibbeh instead of frying it. Lind uses her own preferred mix of rose water and sweeteners in her baklava. She bakes a slightly different flatbread than what's found elsewhere.

The Satis are doing the same thing at Mediterranean Goods Market that Sam Ferris Saleeba did at his downtown confectionary 100 years ago: serving their community, selling a few groceries and specialty goods, and serving lunch from a kitchen in the back.