It had come to this: centuries of culinary heritage devolved on my watch into a bunch of parsley liquefied in its produce bag and four limp carrots whose tips had shriveled black. I stood in front of my open refrigerator door as if something appetizing would materialize if I stared long enough. It didn’t. Just cold air and a stale smell. You grow up in an extended, food-centric family, and all you want to do is get away and be an individual. You get away, become an individual, and before you know it you’re a case study in modern alienation.
So I set out to reconnect with my roots—or at least my root vegetables.
The refrigerator of my childhood was nothing like this. Its shelves would be crammed with marinating shish-kabob, giant bowls of homemade yogurt, round wooden boxes of baklava. Finally, as a concession to the assimilation-hungry Americans—my brother, my sister and me—two cans of Hawaiian Punch would hunker in the door rack like tourists who’d stumbled into a village festival.
Living in our suburban Long Island house, along with my parents and siblings, was a collection of aunts, uncles, and visiting relatives who’d show up from Damascus, Boston or Beirut and stay for six weeks, six years, forever. With all these people to feed, the refrigerator was packed so full that to get at the leftover chicken, you had to move a bag of string cheese, a bowl of olives and a jar of fig preserves.
“Poor starving Armenians!” people used to blurt at me when they learned of my ethnic background. They were excited to dredge up what to them was a piece of trivia, as if they’d nailed an answer on Jeopardy! To me, though, the words signified an intractable Otherness. My parents were survivors of the early 20th century Ottoman Turkish genocide of the Armenians. Over the years they’d moved from country to country—Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, the United States—pushed around by war or the threat of it, always starting anew. By the time I was born our Armenian identity was defined more by the abundance of food than by its dearth. But to my Long Island classmates, our ways were odd—strange accents, garlic-wafting foods, a tendency to hold side conversations in foreign tongues. I didn’t know where, if anywhere, I belonged.
The question remained open years later, when I turned from my empty refrigerator to a bookshelf and took down a volume entitled Treasured Armenian Recipes. The book’s cardboard cover was stained. Its red plastic binding was unraveling.
Cracking the book open, I saw that it was published by The Detroit Women’s Chapter of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, first printing in 1949. “He who does not know whence he came will not care much where he is going,” states an unsigned introduction. “Our young folk should be aware of their roots. They should be able to tie the present with the past. This knowledge we believe will make them better Americans.”
I’ll call the woman who wrote this—I’d bet a tray of baklava it was a woman—“Deegin Detroit.” Deegin is the Armenian word for “Mrs.” I picture Deegin Detroit as a plumpish woman wearing a diamond ring or two to make sure you know she is neither poor nor starving. She is the wife of a doctor, or maybe a rug merchant, with three scrubbed children. Deegin Detroit is a first-generation immigrant to America. She might have been born in Turkey or somewhere in the Middle East. She knows your homeland can become someplace where you’ll be killed for being different, for practicing the wrong religion or walking through the enemy part of town. Yet the legacy she strives to leave is that we must savor the “fragrance and flavor” of each fruit “in the garden of humanity.”
“These recipes, thus, are a heritage of the mixed influences of diverse impacts,” she writes. “Some of them can be found today in use among the Arabs, the Persians, the Turks, the Syrians, the Greeks, the Jews. They are representative not only of Armenia but of the whole Near East.”
It’s a statement of remarkable generosity, since every Armenian knows we invented it all and everybody else copied us. Except they put in too much salt.
Turning to the title page I saw that my mother had written, in her precise script of those days, “To my darling Cathy, With love, Mom. Feb. 1977.” She was fifty-six years old then, younger than I am now. She had three grown children, all gone from home, and was beginning to realize that none of us would carry on the traditions. I was the youngest, twenty-one, living in San Francisco and enjoying America’s bounty of hallucinogens and skeevy men. Mom must have given me the book thinking to leave me a trail of breadcrumbs to the life she’d envisioned for me. Who knows, if I made a pot of dolmas, maybe next I’d squeeze myself into pantyhose and marry an engineer.
Now my mother is the one wandering off the edge, and she isn’t coming back. The doctors say she has Alzheimer’s. At age ninety-two, her handwriting, when I ask her to sign tax returns, is a feeble stagger, just like her walk. She doesn’t cook anymore, though she still makes coffee, which she pours carefully into tiny porcelain cups with a shaky hand.
“What’s wrong with me?” my mother keeps asking. “Why can’t I think?”
“They call it a memory disorder,” I tell her. “You go to the doctor. You tell him you can’t remember things. And his diagnosis is that you can’t remember things.”
She laughs. For Armenians, irony and coffee are the last things to go.
I had a sort of memory disorder myself—the kind you get as an immigrant kid escaping ancestral burdens. When I was growing up, the defining characteristic of my people seemed to be loss—of homeland, friends, furniture, of family members who’d appear in sepia photographs like ghosts. The past seemed to demand something of me I could not give and to offer me something I could not take. Reaching for my copy of Treasured Armenian Recipes, I yearned for that state of rooted self-possession Deegin Detroit refers to in the introduction. I also wanted to make a dish for my mother that would light up some of her dimming neural pathways, give her a sensory tug back to selfhood. And I hoped she might on some level see that, in this battle against forgetting, her message from 1977 had come through.
The table of contents includes tass kebab, derevi sarma, patlijan karni yarek. “These recipes are as original and close to the people as folksongs and legends,” Deegin Detroit writes. “They have been handed down by word of mouth from grandmother to grandchild. …Thus herisah, shishkabob and the pungent zest of the grapeleaf sarma will not perish from the earth.”
I’ve prepared all these dishes occasionally. Still, this business of not perishing from the earth should have been left to hands less feckless than mine. Give me an heirloom, I’ll lose it. Give me a tradition, I’ll defy it. Give me an expectation, I’ll flee it. But time was running out. I wanted to stop and make some conscious choices about what to keep and what to let go. And I wanted to share some sweetness with my mother before it was too late.
What caught my eye wasn’t a recipe from the book. It was one tucked between the pages, in my mother’s handwriting, on a torn-out sheet of notebook paper. The page was thin-ruled, yellow with age and spotted brown. “Filled cookies,” my mother had written at the top, drawing a line under the title with a straight edge for neatness. The ingredients for filled cookies are butter, sugar, eggs, milk, vanilla, salt, baking powder, flour, dates and nuts. I remembered those cookies. They were pretty, tapped out of hand-carved wooden spoon molds that she’d moved continent to continent with her from Lebanon to Morocco to the Episcopal Senior Life Community in Rochester, New York. I bought the ingredients and drove the fifteen minutes to the patio home my mother shared with her sister Maida.
When I arrived, Mom and Maida were finishing their lunch, which they always ate at 1 pm sharp sitting on the living room couch watching Days of Our Lives. “Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives,” the TV voice intoned. The characters in that show never seemed to age, even as my mother and aunt transformed over the decades from hale youngish women to frail old ones. My mother’s hair was all white now. Her skin looked like tissue paper someone wadded up then tried to smooth out again. But her eyes were merry.
“Daughter!” she said as I bent down to kiss her cheek. “How nice to see you!”
The TV blared because both women were hard of hearing. “WE WILL BE TOGETHER AGAIN, I PROMISE,” said a star-crossed lover to his mate, who lay hospitalized in a coma wearing false eyelashes. The sisters sat riveted until the commercial break, when Mom hit the mute button.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“To make filled cookies. Maida said I can use your kitchen.”
Much of what little cooking I do these days is in their kitchen, to give Maida a break and to leave some food behind in their refrigerator. It’s my way of trying to feel a little less helpless in the face of time, which these days feels less like sand through the hourglass and more like a locomotive smearing us all on its tracks.
“Why filled cookies?” my mother asked.
“I’m rediscovering my culinary roots. And I think the spoons are cool.”
“Your culinary roots? Good.” A carnivorous expression crossed her face. “Find me some basturma.”
Basturma is a dried meat of Anatolian origin—salted, desiccated beef (or camel, lamb, goat or water buffalo, if we are to believe Wikipedia) coated with cumin paste. My mother used to slice basturma onto mezze platters or fry it with eggs. The smell is something between a spice bazaar and roadkill.
Maida, sitting with a back brace Velcroed over her housecoat, piped up from her seat at the other corner of the couch: “Amerigatzee-nera basturma chen ouder,” she told my mother. Translation: “The Americans basturma not do eat.” When you translate Armenian syntax to English, you sound like Yoda. The words in a different order come.
My mother flashed me a disbelieving look. How could Americans not eat basturma? Do they know only of the hamburger and the pizza?
“I’ll see what I can do about finding some basturma,” I promised her, then checked out the pots on the stove. Maida had made bulgar pilaf with chick peas in tomato sauce, and a zucchini stew with onions. A container of yogurt sat on the counter to top it all off. I filled my plate and sat down next to them to watch. Somebody had killed somebody, but he wasn’t really dead, just imprisoned in a secret vault while his evil twin made the moves on his wife. Discordant music blared as the camera closed in on the villain’s scheming face. Another commercial break.
TRY OUR NON-DROWSY RELIEF FORMULA!
“Oof,” my mother said and clicked off the remote, because her show was over and there’s no formula for relieving the things that ail her. Maida hauled herself up from the couch, gripping her walker, and headed toward the bathroom. My mother refused to use her walker, preferring instead to make her way by half-falling against successive pieces of furniture. She rose slowly carrying her lunch tray, lurched to the kitchen, then stood at the sink rinsing her plate. Suddenly out of nowhere, Maida charged in like a linebacker and nearly knocked my mother to the linoleum floor.
“I’ll do that,” she said. “You go rest.”
My mother clutched the rim of the sink for balance. “I’m almost done,” she said.
They could barely stand up. And they were still fighting over the dishes. You want to get in the middle of that like you want to poke at lions.
A half century ago, the evening dish washing, as it was executed in our home, made Khrushchev’s shoe-pounding at the U.N. seem downright placid. Back then there were three sisters: my mother, Agnes; the middle sister, Maida; and the youngest, Matilda. The nightly battle would start when one of the sisters pushed back from the dinner table, walked to the sink, squirted Palmolive into a rubber tub and started filling it with water. Another sister would immediately jump up and hip-slam her toward Connecticut.
“I’ll do the dishes. You did them yesterday.”
“But you made the salad.”
“What is making salad? You worked all day.”
And so on. Eventually one sister would triumph while the others retreated to spoon leftovers into small containers.
Why couldn’t they just take turns? Why, for that matter, couldn’t they have just used the dishwasher?
Argue as they might over dishes, in all other respects the sisters closed ranks like an army defending its homeland. My mother was the eldest, born in the Anatolian town of Talas during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. When she was two years old the family escaped to Beirut, where Maida and Matilda were born. At age twenty-four, my mother married my father and moved to Morocco, then when I was two she became the first of her siblings to come to America. Her sisters joined us after their parents died, dragging steamer trunks full of lace doilies.
The rare non-Armenian visitor to our house wouldn’t have found what I imagined was a nice, normal nuclear family enjoying hot dogs from the backyard grill. Far from it. We were a histrionic stew of maiden aunts and visiting elders hauling great hanks of lamb out of the Buick to grill in skewered bits nobody “American” would recognize as shish-kabob for another decade.
Grilling the shish-kebab was my father’s domain. On special occasions, he’d appear in the back yard, wearing my mother’s ruffled apron and her sunglasses with the pointy frames, to squeeze lighter fluid on a heap of charcoal briquettes in a rickety three-legged grill. When the coals were glowing, he’d lay skewers of marinated meat and vegetables—onions, green peppers, tomatoes—over the rack and wait patiently to turn them at just the right flavor-capturing moment, meanwhile singing some Armenian love song—“I am burning, burning, I’m hot like a red stone”—to the audience of elm trees in our back yard.
My father wielded the fire and steel, but the sisters ran Kitchen Central Command. In a food culture that contains so many items carefully wrapped, filled, folded or layered, you must think coordinated action.
“Does this hummous more lemon need?” Maida would say, sliding a teaspoon into my mother’s mouth.
“A drop it could take.”
“Should I cook two cups of rice or one and a half?”
“Make two, let there be abundance.”
None of the sisters cared if another one turned down a burner or added salt. Cooking was collective and companionable. You sliced, skewered, and skewered some more.
“Did you see what A. was wearing in church? What was she thinking?”
“The universe must not be denied the joy of viewing her magnificent breasts.”
“And the way she sits with her plump thighs parted leaves nothing to the imagination.”
“She goes running to her card games while her husband stays home hungry.”
My mother was trim, with brows like wings above her dark eyes. My father called her “Ako,” the family nickname for “Agnes.” Ako was the one who brought zest to mundane tasks, singing as she cooked, Protestant hymns from church or show tunes from South Pacific. When she made a dried-fruit pudding called anoushabour, she’d arrange cracked walnuts and blanched almonds over the surface in a mandala pattern, for beauty. To give hummous a red accent and sweet crunch, she’d sprinkle the top with pomegranate seeds, the ancient fertility symbol of Armenia’s original goddess. My mother also was the one with the nerves of a warrior. To have spending money when traveling to and from countries that outlawed currency export, she’d wind yarn around rolls of cash and knit booties on the airplane.
Some of the recipes my mother taught me, like anoushabour pudding, were ancient. Others evolved over the centuries as Armenians came in (usually disastrous) contact with Turkic tribes, peoples of the Levant, and American missionary ladies in sensible shoes. That I can wrap grape leaves and stack them like corded wood, handle filo dough before it dries out and roll stuffed kufte meatballs without having them fall apart are all testaments to my mother’s patience.
“Very good!” she’d say to me at the kitchen table, inspecting a sorry heap of rice-leaking grape leaves unraveling before our eyes on the cutting board. “Now, try putting a little less filling, and fold the sides in before you roll.”
Matilda was the most girdled and coiffed of the sisters, all knickknacks and uproar. But she was a true musician. I’d wake up to the sounds of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin rising through my bedroom floorboards from her piano below. Maida was the sneakers and tennis racket sister. She liked to carry a rifle through the Moroccan countryside on boar-hunting trips with my father and his friends.
If you saw the three sisters standing around the work table in their snap-front housecoats and Dearfoam slippers, you’d never guess that, living in countries so frequently close to war, they’d learned to fire pistols for self-defense.
“Did you hear what happened to P.’s son in Beirut?”
“The boy with the crossed eyes? What?”
“He stayed out too late visiting friends and tried to get home after dark. The militia beat him and bashed his head.”
“Those fools will not be happy until they have turned our Beirut into a graveyard.”
“May the dog shit in their mouths.”
In addition to war-making fools, the sisters despised negligent fathers, lying politicians and adulterers. “You can hang a necktie on a donkey but it will not make him a man.” On a lesser level of condemnation, they were always baffled when a nice Armenian boy or girl dated or married an odar, a non-Armenian, literally a “stranger.” How could they hurt their parents so? How could they eat that terrible takeout food?
“E.’s son is marrying a stranger girl.”
“She will go running to her card games while he stays home hungry.”
“E. is putting a good face on it. We are invited to the reception.”
“Eat before you go.”
“That family has been cheap since the days of the Sultan.”
“They will serve you the McMuffin and expect you to thank them!”
“What are you going to wear?”
“I will wear the blue. I’ll need to get my shoes dyed to match.”
If my extended family ever gathered in one place, you’d see—in addition to Armenians of all diaspora nationalities—Lebanese Arabs, Russian Jews, Italian-Americans, African-Americans and Midwestern WASPS. When each of these first came on the scene, there was grumbling. Then there was dinner. Lasagna appeared. Tismmis appeared. Jell-O molds were graciously accepted and placed on the table with a silver spoon.
Carrying all this food-borne history, I drove to the Episcopal Church Senior Life Community patio home with my bag of filled-cookie ingredients. After the TV show was over I asked Maida where the molds were and retrieved them from a high shelf. They were of Middle Eastern hardwood, with tool marks roughing the handles and edges. Inside were carved patterns for pressing spirals, stars, circles and zigzags into dough.
Levantine Jews and Arabs call the cookies made in such molds maamoul. Jews sometimes use semolina flour. Arabs make them with an outside layer of farina, dusted with powdered sugar that coats your fingers, hands, and clothes as soon as you pick up a cookie. The cookies don’t know about the grievances these people have with one another, and at first neither do the children who reach for them.
A family friend, an Associated Press photographer, told me about an unusual gathering he’d attended in Beirut. In a land so ripped apart by war, this was a peace rally. All kinds of people were present. One sang Ave Maria. Another sang an Armenian song. Yet another sounded a Muslim chant.
“That Beirut, with everyone together—that’s what we could have had,” he said. His eyes filled with tears.
I hope it is never too late for us to have that Beirut, that United States, that world. That’s another reason I wanted to make the Armenian version of the cookies in those wooden spoons. Standing at Mom and Maida’s kitchen counter, I mashed the dates and walnuts together in a nut grinder. My mother came over to watch.
“You can add some lemon zest if you want,” she said. “It will taste good.”
I found some lemons in the refrigerator—perish the thought the ladies should be out of lemons—and grated them, filling the air with the smell of citrus and sun. Then I rolled the mixture between my palms into spheres.
“Do these look like the right size?” I asked my mother.
“It looks fine,” she said, and returned to the couch to read a No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel.
I thought about how much pleasure she takes in a worn book, a vase of flowers, a friendly visit. Who is this woman who for all those years found a way to get up and cook dinner, buy her daughter a tin lunchbox like the other children had, explain herself again to the sales clerk who couldn’t understand her accent, say go to whatever college you want we will find the money—all the time knowing the suffering that has happened and is happening and will happen again in this broken world, and that the only thing standing in its way is Deegin Detroit and her sisters everywhere, their willingness to set a big table.
“You’re so brave,” I said to her, as she turned the page of her book.
“Of course I am,” she said.
I prepared the dough, stuffed it, and tapped dozens of cookies out of the wooden molds. When they were out of the oven my mother decided they should be enjoyed with coffee. She stepped from the living room to the kitchen holding onto the couch, then a dining room chair, then a countertop, and turned a burner on high—a sight I pretended didn’t scare the crap out of me. She measured water into the coffee pot but then got confused trying to arrange the cups on a tray.
“I’m useless!” she said. “I can’t do anything!”
“You’re making coffee,” I said. “What could be more useful? And I would know none of this if you hadn’t taught me.”
I tried to tell her that just seeing the way she pours precisely to the rim of the cup is all the mindfulness training I’ll ever need.
As she emptied the last of the pot I could almost see, standing behind my mother as she prepared to leave, all the ones who came before: Her mother, Sima, who fed the family plain rice when there was no money for more. Her grandmother Sarafana, who appears in one photo as a bewildered young bride and in another a wide-hipped old lady teaching little Maida how to stuff dolmas. Others whose names are forgotten stretch back millennia to a pagan mother of my Hyastani tribe. This mother is young and knows nothing of the coming centuries’ joys or sorrows. But she knows what to do to make us possible. With her daughter watching, she plucks a pomegranate off a tree in Anatolia, cracks it open and scatters the sweet, tart seeds over the morning meal.