I was instructed to show up at 10:30 a.m. with an instrument sharp enough to cut grapes from Latif Jiji’s one-of-a-kind, 100-foot-long, roof-climbing vine. Being included in this three-generation family tradition, I, as the roof-exploring “outsider,” was a little uncertain and didn’t want to commit an embarrassing faux pas so the day before the harvest, I emailed Latif asking what I could bring. I received the following, utterly charming reply:
I come from a tradition where when you are invited to my home you bring nothing. Guests in my house are royalties. If you bring anything we throw you out. –Latif
Hence, for one day in 2011, I became the “Princess with the Pruning Shears.”
“Google Chateau Latif and see what you get,” advised Latif Jiji, Manhattan’s only rooftop grape grower and wine maker. Several articles popped up, including one New Yorker article from September 2005. Ben McGrath, a far more skilled writer than me, described the nearly identical process I was participating in six years later:
“A dozen or more pickers, spanning three generations, worked for hours, lowering baskets from the roof via pulley, and leaning out windows to clip fruit-bearing stems. On the ground, others weighed the incoming loads by stepping onto a bathroom scale, bags in hand, and subtracting their own weight. Then they soaked the soot-covered grapes in tap water, and delivered them by the laundry basketful to a hand-cranked metal crusher in the back yard. After the crusher came a wooden presser—and a steady stream of grape juice, which was collected in a janitorial bucket and a plastic wastebasket, before being transferred to five-gallon glass jugs.”
With unsurpassed hospitality and ceaseless energy, Latif and Vera Jiji hosted a day filled with family – some biological, others through marriage and yet others through the irresistible pull of being part of this magnetic family. Breakfast was on the large kitchen table when I arrived, soon to be replaced by lunch and eventually an Iraqi dinner that I’ll be dreaming about for months to come. Homemade dolmas, stuffed beets and a dreamy Arabic eggplant casserole were all outdone by a spectacular dish called Tabeet, something I had never seen or tasted before. It is a chicken buried within rice, with tomatoes, dried apricots and raisins, with a strong cardamom flavor. The rice forms a delicious crust that holds the chicken mixture together so when inverted, it stands up and is served like a savory, crusty cake. This delicious Arabic feast, of course, was accompanied by chilled Chateau Latif 2009, slightly sweet, refreshing and very welcome after cutting over 300 pounds of grapes from the vine, sweeping up the sticky mess that fell to the rooftop and, of course, socializing – always socializing.
While on the roof with my borrowed Fiskars shears in hand, I listened to the Jiji’s grandchildren compete for the biggest bunch of grapes while friends, old and new, caught up with one another. Guests from Columbia, Barcelona, North Carolina, North Texas and Virginia and a couple from Beacon, New York swapped stories with City dwellers. One harvester was just back from a grant project in which he studied urban farming across the US. Another fellow grape picker is an editor at WNYC (the local NPR affiliate and my favorite radio station). A novelist with a daytime job as a speech writer for the UN Secretary General, who is married to a former lawyer turned literary agent, mingled amongst more than one professor and a psychiatric ER doctor from the hospital affiliated with Columbia University.. A darling 4-year with two weeks of music lessons under his belt sat me down before dinner to enjoy his concert at the Steinway in the music room. I was even quizzed by a culinary expert on my technique for making popovers as he shared his baking secrets with me.
Eight hours passed in the blink of an eye as the inimitable energy of New York City was vibrating in this narrow and tall, musical instrument and antique-filled townhouse where ideas, energy and love, flowed at full amperage.
Hours after our grape picking was complete, the grapes were crushed and the juice poured into five-gallon containers with the appropriate amount of sulfites to kill the yeast and sugar to kick up the fermentation, as I was saying my goodbyes around the room, Latif put his arm around me and asked, “You’re leaving so soon? Why don’t you stay a while?” He gave me a complement to cherish as he told me I fit in so well I am like another one of his daughters, and insisted that I come back at Hanukkah when the family next gathers to decorate labels for Chateau Latif 2011.