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Mama's labor of loaves A lot of things have changed since Nagibe Betros opened her bakery in 1957, but her Lebanese flat bread is still the same.

Nagibe Betros, known affectionately as "Mama," has been making Lebanese breads for 50 years.

That's 600 months of waking before the alarm goes off and setting off for her small bakery, Lebanese Bakery, now on Elmwood Avenue in Kenmore.

That's 2,600 weeks of flipping rounds of dough -- called "threshing" -- so that the rounds will produce "markook," or flat bread. The Lebanese bread is perfect for grilling or dipping into tabbouleh, or yogurt or hummus -- all of which Betros makes and sells in the small Mediterranean market in front of the bakery.

And sure, the work is a little easier now than when she and her late husband Pete Betros opened the place in 1957 -- it was originally located downstairs from their flat on Grant Street. Electric mixers now combine the high gluten flour, water, yeast and salt and "rounders" now shape out the pocket breads for sandwiches; daughter Rosemary Lunghino helps keeps things moving.

But the markook is still Mama's baby, and she works it every day. "I'm going to do it until I die," she vows.

Even when she broke her collarbone several years ago, she stayed on the job. (The doctor later said threshing provided better therapy than anything else he could prescribe.)

The bread is sold in many local restaurants, and at the Lexington Co-op on Elmwood Avenue.

Ask how many breads she has supervised during her lifetime and you won't get a straight answer. Mama is a tad superstitious, referring to the "Evil Eye."

Lunghino estimates about 400 loaves a day.
It's fair enough to say, however, that well over a million of those breads have provided sustenance through the years to restaurant patrons, festival-goers, and just plain folks that Mama has befriended. And there are a lot of those.

Chef Mike Andrzejewski, who grew up on the same block as the bakery in Kenmore, remembers when he'd be coming home early in the morning when he'd see Mama on her way to work. From time to time, he'd find little packages of bread or tabbouleh, or hummus at his front door.

"She's one of those generous people who love to spread good food around," he says.

"When I make, I make lots," explains Mama.

The Betros' story was once a typical one. She was a young girl who came from her home in Lebanon to visit family, and she was introduced to American born Pete, whose family was Lebanese. He was, at that time, delivering bread for a "little old lady friend in Olean." They were married two weeks later; she never went home.

The couple opened the bakery on Grant Street and had two daughters, Rosemary and Amelia (who once owned Amy's Place on Main Street), eventually moving to Kenmore, where the bakery has been standing for 42 years. Pete died 15 years ago.

In addition to the flat and pita pocket breads, the Bakery also sells Mama's Grape Leaves in Brine, Meat and Squash Pies, Baklava, Yogurt, and spices like zahter (a form of oregano). They sell orange blossom water and rose water, tamarind syrup, and nuts and grains.

Still, Mama has seen plenty of changes in her time at the ovens and behind the counter.

"All the old bakeries are gone," she says, referring to the mom and pop places that once existed around the city. Many have been supplanted by supermarket bakeries. She's seen old-time beloved restaurants (like the late Cedars of Lebanon) disappear too.

But there's a plus side. As Western New Yorkers began to travel they became more interested and more accepting of alternative foods, many drawn to them because of their health benefits. Middle Eastern food is not considered particularly exotic in Western New York today.

"When I used to bring my lunch to school, the kids would laugh at me," recalls Lunghino. That would probably never happen now.

As for Mama -- she's happy, and she has every intention of sticking around. She hasn't returned to Lebanon in many years -- "my customers are my family," she says. "I love my customers." And then she smiles.

"I love my bakery too."

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com

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>Stuffing your pockets

What's in your pita pocket? Anything and everything.

Any deli meat, any cheese, any vegetable and any dressing will work. But why stop there?

Here are 10 different stuffing suggestions to get you thinking, many of these adapted from ideas of an old friend, Marge Hanley, retired food editor at the Indianapolis News.

You can use these fillings for wraps too, but here's a tip to remember: If you're adding a juicy filling or dressing, line the bottom of the pocket (or the outside of the wrap) with lettuce or chopped cabbage to keep the drips at bay.

1) Corned beef, sauerkraut and Russian Dressing.

2) Mini meatballs, tabbouleh and chopped mint.

3) Smoked turkey, pear or apple slices, blue cheese dressing.

4) Western omelet with salsa.

5) Tofu, avocado, mushrooms, bean sprouts and herbed mayonnaise.

6) Goat cheese, cucumber, green onion, tomato and lettuce

7) Shrimp, sliced marinated artichoke hearts and green onions

8) Smoked salmon, thinly siced cucumber, green onions, capers and yogurt dill dressing.

9) Feta cheese, finely diced vegetables, leaf lettuce

10) Refried beans, shredded lettuce, topped with melted cheese.

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