Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you what you are. Yes, you are what you eat. Or are you? It’s hard to believe that such a simple saying conjures up so many different opinions from people. In fact, the saying probably has its origins in Christianity and Holy Communion, but gained modern popularity when Adelle Davis, author of “Let’s Eat Right To Keep Fit,” came along in the 1960′s and blamed her cancer on the “junk food” she ate in college back in 1923.
What Adelle didn’t know was that Multiple Myeloma is probably caused by a defect from birth in chromosome 13 and/or 14, and exposure to certain chemicals. Considering that she received her MS in biochemistry back in 1938, it makes more sense that she was exposed to carcinogens years before proper care was taken regarding exposure to chemicals in college labs.
In a way, we really aren’t just what we eat, but what we touch and breath, and how and where we live. Humans are amazing creatures, but we all have tiny flaws in our personal chemistry that can catch up with us if we do not use moderation in our daily lives.
I was thinking about moderation the other day as I melted a stick of better in the Dutch oven that I inherited from my mom, via my sister. The smell of the melted butter wafted through the air, drawing family members into the kitchen.
“Are you making pilaf?” my daughter questioned. “I hope it doesn’t come out watery like it did last time you made it.”
Ahh…the over-moist pilaf disaster of March, 2012. I cringed a bit, smiled, and replied, “No. It won’t. I’m using specific amounts for Linda’s food blog. It has to be perfect.”
My daughter smiled, said, “Good,” and took one last whiff of the foaming butter as I began to stir in the 2 cups of fine egg noodles. I was sinning a bit, using salted butter, but knew in my heart that pilaf always tastes best when the butter is salted. The butter heats differently, and the foaminess coats the thin noodles better, resulting in uniformly brown wonders nesting in the fragrant Jasmine rice. Yes, I have broken from tradition, not using Uncle Ben’s Converted, or Carolina Long Grain rice. It’s good to change things up a bit.
Earlier in the day, I had used 8 oz. of organic Pasture Butter in my recipe for Armenian Choereg, a nigella seed studded coffee roll that I only make once a year at Easter. I grew up having these tasty wonders on a regular basis, but find that keeping them special endears their presence more, and keeps our waistlines slim.
Moderation. 3/4 of a pound of butter later and I’m thinking moderation? Well, yes I am, as I could have easily used another stick making Baklava, but substituted my favorite butter-flavored spray in its place. I stopped using butter in this dessert 15 years ago, and only recently divulged the secret to making this healthier version of a Greek/Armenian delicacy.
Did my parents use moderation in cooking? Most likely. I know that my mother used olive oil in cooking, many years before it became popular. She was an advocate of healthy eating, as she had grown up on a farm, and rarely ate processed foods. She even made her own yogurt, which I refused to consume. Disgusted with me, she insisted that I purchase my own Dannon yogurts.
My mom blamed my father’s diet as a child for his heart problems. “Too much lamb fat,” she would say. My dad’s family struggled when he was very young. His father had been killed in the Armenian Genocide, and his mom had escaped to America with her two young sons. She worked in a shoe factory for many years, and depended on her extended family for financial help. A large portion of my relatives settled in the same neighborhood in Binghamton, New York, and I remember always being around family as a youngster.
My grandparents were all deceased by the time I was 6 weeks old, and my only remembrance of my paternal grandmother is in the photos that I have of her holding me as a baby. For me, the closest person I ever had to a grandma was an elderly woman named Mrs. Boghoshian. She was the mother of my dad’s secretary, and lived in one of the few houses in a very run down neighborhood of Depression Era apartments.
My memories of going to her home are some of the fondest I possess, and tears of joy threaten to explode from my eyes whenever I think of that glorious woman. She was all of 4 feet 10 inches tall, and reminded me of the gypsy woman from the original Lon Chaney “Wolfman” movie, complete with her babushka. Mrs. B adored me, and was thrilled to show me how to make many of the wonderful Armenian foods that escaped my mother’s limited repertoire.
Mrs. B was the most wonderful cook that I have ever had the pleasure of dining with. She grew her own grapes, the leaves of which she would stuff and steam into the best “Sarma” I’ve ever tasted. Because my parents often helped her family out financially, she repaid us with food. My mother would usually take one or more of us kids with her to have lunch at their home on a Saturday.
A typical lunch would include some incredible black olives, oil-cured, and full of wrinkles and saltiness. I remember having mild basket cheese and crunchy dried chick peas along with her famous olive oil bread. This bread is something that I never learned how to make, and countless searches on the Internet, and through piles of Armenian cookbooks, has failed to produce a recipe for this yeasty wonder. Some days, she would make a beautiful tossed salad instead.
If the weather was nice, we would sit outside under the grape arbor on a well-weathered picnic table. We may have either a spicy vegetable soup, or if it was a special occasion, Mrs. B might make a yogurt soup with whole wheat, mint, and tiny lamb meatballs. She made the best Armenian porridge from hurled wheat, and chicken, which was served with melted butter and toasted cumin. Called “Herissah,” this is still one of my favorite comfort foods, and extremely cheap to make.
Of course, her Keuftah, ground lamb and bulgur patties stuffed with either cumin and mint-laced potatoes or a cumin spiced ground lamb and parsley mixture, was a huge treat, as was the occasional splurge of Chee Keuftah, the Armenian equivalent of Steak Tartare. On occasion, we would have homemade Sou Boereg, which is a cheese stuffed dish, made with a special pastry dough that one boils in water before baking. It isn’t at all similar to lasagna, but made with the same amount of painstaking effort.
Lunch was always finished with dessert, and whether it was her homemade fruit leather with huge chunks of walnuts, or her famous apple pie, I always left there with a full belly and a smile on my face. I was scared to death of her husband, Abe, because he only spoke Armenian, and I had no way of communicating with him. Over the years, I grew to adore him, and was devastated when he left his beloved wife a widow after 60 years of marriage.
We would always leave with food, and my mom left her money and bought her bags of groceries. Mrs. B grew the most beautiful tomatoes, and her Armenian flat bread, or “Lavash”, was straight out of the Old Country, and baked on the hearth of her gas oven. Sprinkled with a bit of water, dotted with butter, and heated up in the oven, one would experience what Manna from Heaven must taste like. This was seriously incredible snack food.
Recently, an old friend asked me to contribute some Armenian recipes to her food blog, cookingskewl.com. Of course, I agreed, and before I knew it, she was asking for more! It seems as if many people are fascinated by Armenian food, which is similar, yet different from its Greek, Turkish, and Lebanese counterparts. Because Easter approaches, we decided that I would create an Armenian Easter Feast as an alternative to ham or turkey.
The result includes Lamb Shish Kebab, along with Rice Pilaf and Baklava. You can read all about it and get the recipes at the following link. Please scroll to article entitled : Changing Tradition: An Armenian Easter Feast
Mrs. Boghosian lived to be 102 years old and passed away
when I was 30 years old. She attended my wedding when I was 23, and met many of my dearest friends on that day. I did not have had the opportunity to say goodbye to her, but dedicate this blog to her as my tribute to her legacy, with much love and thanks for allowing me to share her incredible food, and for teaching me to appreciate my heritage as a first generation Armenian/American.
At first, I was reluctant to write about food for My Ink Project, but once I smelled the melted butter, I realized that not only did the smell make me happy, it brought forward one of the best tattoos on my soul. The memory of a miniature old woman who cooked magical food, and filled my heart with her love.
Wishing you all the best Spring season of your lives! May you enjoy the rebirth of the earth, and find joy and happiness in who you are, and in what you eat. Much love, Mel…aka…lovechild