When one dish has the power to connect two indelible moments.

By Stephanie Gravalese
May 03, 2021
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Ninos Envueltos | Dominican Stuffed Cabbage
Credit: Ellen Mary Cronin

The social worker contacted 14 families before they found a foster home that would take both me and one of my two brothers. This was back in the winter of 1993, in Boston. There had been a snowstorm, and it took hours to drive from Boston's outer edges to rural western Massachusetts, to the small Cape Cod house down the road from a dairy farm where our foster family lived.

Sitting down to one of my first meals with them, I didn't know what to make of the dish on my plate. It looked like a burrito, but tasted nothing like one. It was a golumpki, a faded yellow-green cabbage roll filled with ground meat, onions, and spices. The cabbage leaves had a slightly bitter smell. I remember thinking, These are as big as softballs! I didn't understand how these flavors went together. I unwrapped the parcel and did my best to eat only the meat and rice that I recognized.  

I later learned that making golumpkis was a multi-day project. Boil a whole winter cabbage until the leaves are tender. Trim the leaves so they lie flat and fill them with a mixture of ground beef and pork, cooked rice, and spices. Then place the rolls seam side down in a large roasting pan and put them in the oven for a long time until the meat is cooked through. Sheila, who made the golumpki, could always tell by smell alone when they were ready.

I remember Sheila at the kitchen table with a plate of cabbage leaves to her left and a bowl of the meat-and-rice mixture to her right. She was an assembly line of one. Golumpkis were always made in big batches and frozen, and would make appearances at meals over the next few weeks. 

On that first night in their house I remember looking at my brother; he was the only thing that didn't feel foreign. The dish, the people around me—it all felt so strange. I didn't know it then, but these people would become my family. Sheila would become my mother. 

Many years later, when my younger brother and his fiancé were pregnant, I reconnected with my birth mother at my sister-in-law's baby shower. I hadn't seen her in over 25 years, by choice. I was angry at her for much of my life. By then, I understood addiction, teen pregnancy, and other factors that led to her not raising us, more so than I did last time I saw her, at age 13. Seeing her was overwhelming. It was like I was that 13-year-old once again. 

Four months later, I learned that my abuela would be coming for the birth. Lovingly referred to as "The General" by my brother and sister-in-law for her sweet but direct personality, she planned to travel from Santo Domingo to Boston. It felt important, almost necessary, to see her and meet her as my adult self. As someone who grew up without most of my first family, it felt like connecting with her was connecting with myself.

I was beyond nervous about meeting her. Growing up without most of my biological relatives, I always thought about her: Did I look like her? Was she kind? Would she like me? I had hoped that she'd be proud of the life I had built for myself. A month after my niece was born, I drove from my home in western Massachusetts to a Boston suburb to see my niece. My excitement overpowered my fear of the unknown. 

My abuela arrived with my mother, and we hugged. The last time my abuela had seen me, I was an infant. It was a homecoming. She was excited to share that she had made lunch for everyone. She had been cooking with my birth mother earlier that day and brought a small ceramic dish to accompany the yuca and queso frito that my brother was cooking. When lunch was ready, I saw something I recognized: tiny parcels wrapped in cabbage leaves—not so different from the ones my mother had made for me that night decades before. 

They were long and slender, like stuffed grape leaves, smaller than the fat galumpkis I remembered. They were niños envueltos Dominicanos. While the rice, cabbage leaves, and ground beef were very familiar to me, there were some noticeable differences: the cabbage rolls were dark green and didn't have a bitter aroma. Unlike the kidney-shaped golumpkis, the niños envueltos were thinner and wrapped tightly and secured with a toothpick.

I took my first bite of the Dominican dish, which translates to "swaddled child." The flavors felt familiar, and they woke me from my moment of déjà vu. While golumpkis are a meal on their own, we ate these smaller rolls with queso frito and yuca. I felt gratitude with each bite. 

The rest of the afternoon was a cathartic whirlwind of English and Spanish, with my birth mother and my sister-in-law translating as we ate and shared stories. I couldn't help but reflect on the importance of the day. Not only had I met with my Abuela, whom I always wondered about, but she also cooked for us, a true extension of love. To me on this day only felt like the beginning, where I might have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of where this food comes from and my connection to it. The thing is, the power of food ways has shown me that these connections can come full circle. 

Get the Recipe: Niños Envueltos Dominicanos (Dominican Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)