The Family Bandit

Food did grow on trees, where my grandmother grew up, and it was free for the taking. Vasiliki Boukias—we called her Yaya—spent her childhood in a town on the Greek Peloponnese peninsula called Megalopolis, and even after she moved to suburban Phoenix in the 1980s, Yaya continued her foraging ways as if she were still in Greece. She scoured the neighbors’ yards, and every night my family would sit down to a dinner that included freshly cured olives from the Smiths’ tree, or steamed greens harvested from the Joneses’ flower bed.

The principles of property lines and rightful ownership were irrelevant to her. “Why I no take it?” she’d ask in her jumble of Greek and English when my mother tried to steer her toward lawfulness. “They no going to eat horta [dandelions], they think it’s a bad weed, and the olives are falling to the floor, a waste!” Even more valued items such as figs and lemons were justified. “No, no, they have too many!” she’d declare. “They’re not going to eat all of those tseeka [figs].” Eventually my mother gave up on her attempts to reform my grandmother. She’d just help Yaya stuff the grape leaves, tucking away a bit of guilt with each dolma she rolled.

As a child, my affinity for climbing trees made me the perfect accomplice to Yaya’s larcenous escapades. Several times I was caught dangling from an olive branch as the trees’ owners returned home, my fingers stained a reddish brown from the olive juice.

“Hello, dear,” my grandmother would say to them, smiling sweetly.

You don’t have to forage for grape leaves; you can buy them in stores. Try this recipe for Yaya’s dolmathes.