Coming to North Carolina — at a time when there were only 200 Armenians scattered throughout the entire state — the lack of exposure to all-things-Armenian was a shock to my system.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- It was after nine. The kids were finally in bed. I pulled up a chair to the kitchen table and started rolling grape leaves.
Being Armenian was always something that was just part of me. I'd been raised in an Armenian Apostolic church until I was eight. Heard Armenian and Middle Eastern music all my life. Eaten Armenian food five nights out of seven, and danced in an Armenian classical folk group that toured the country when I was in high school.
Our group danced at Music Hall in Boston. Symphony Hall in Philadelphia. Shriner's Auditorium in LA. At the Felt Forum in New York and twice at Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall really stood out for me because I was a senior and somehow I'd sold enough tickets to justify renting a bus that took 75 high-school friends and teachers from New Jersey into Manhattan to see me in this spectacle. All of them were stacked in two rows in the highest balcony. I doubt anyone could really tell which one was me in that sea of heavy stage make-up, fake long brown braids and flowing veils. Even in the cavaliers number (where I was one of four females dressed like and dancing with the male horsemen), I didn't know how anyone could have spotted me — especially from the fourth balcony! But after the show when they all crowded backstage, they insisted they knew which was me and amid all the hugs and kisses and backslapping, I felt really proud having all those people experience what it meant to be an Armenian.
Before then, my Armenianism only came across in very isolated ways. Once, when I asked a best friend if she wanted to eat over, she said, "Oh good! I love eating at your house. You eat exotic all the time!" And when I got married (to an odar, a non-Armenian) and my husband's family was ushered into our church, I can still remember the oohs and aahs and people talking about how ornate and beautiful everything was and so foreign. This was a ceremony that I'd always dreamed about — wearing crowns and being proclaimed the "king" and "queen" of a new kingdom. It was an elaborate ceremony. I'd always taken it for granted, because I had always been surrounded by what was Armenian.
More than folk-dancing, food was probably the strongest link to my heritage. Armenian cuisine is a melange of lamb, squash, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and onions. Cracked wheat and rice pilaf. Ground coriander and parsley. Like most Middle Eastern cuisines, the ingredients used in Greek, Arabic, and Turkish foods are much the same, but the seasoning and the method of cooking are often different. For example, keuftah or kibbe is fried by the Arabs, baked by the Greeks and boiled by the Armenians. Dolma, (vegetables stuffed with meat and rice) is a mainstay of Armenian cooking and one of my favorite dishes. Yet, even among Armenian households, there's a wide variety of dolma and yaprah (stuffed grape leaves).
In our house, dried baby eggplant skins, grape leaves, tomatoes, green peppers, and squash were stuffed. Our favorite was yaprah, but it was the most labor-intensive and tended to disappear quickly from the pot. My mother's sister, Aunt Maddy, specialized in an appetizer known as yalanchi or sarma (meatless stuffed grape leaves that were served lemony and cold). My father's niece, Auntie Armenine (AR-men-neen), never made the dried eggplant but only used fresh baby eggplant instead which was a whole 'nother taste. And my Aunt Arpine (AR-pee-neh) made stuffed and rolled romaine lettuce dolma that was served hot with cold yogurt on top — yum. Even my mom had her variation — stuffed cabbage cooked with peppermint that was totally delicious. As you can see, dolma holds a place of importance in my life.
When I first went away to college, the family joke was that when I came home — even before I said hello to anyone — I would say, "Is there any dolma?" Inevitably, it would be waiting on the stove or it would be first on my mother's cooking list. The kitchen table would be cleared — it's quite a project making dolma and yaprah. You've got to get the ground lamb or beef, the rice, the chopped onions and parsley mixed with the lemon juice and tomato paste and pulp (from the tomatoes you've hollowed out for stuffing), all seasoned with allspice, pepper, garlic, and salt. After everything is mixed, the stuffing and rolling begins. The grape leaves have to be rinsed of brine and carefully separated. If the leaves are broken or too small they need to be pieced together, stem to stem (one upside down above the other) with the shiny sides away from you. I can remember my grandmother telling me to look for too much stem and snip it off with my fingertips before starting to roll. I heard everything she said, but most of the time, I'd just watch the others roll.
When you're rolling, there is a knack. You've got to roll tightly enough for the yaprah to stay together while cooking, but loosely enough so that the rice has room to expand. You never know until you're on your own and forced to roll alone, how you'll be. I've discovered I'm quite a roller, but that didn't happen until my forties.
When I first lived away in Boston, dolma was on the table when I arrived home. Then I transferred to school in New York and I was close enough to my parents or assorted aunts to get a dolma-fix at someone's house when the craving got too strong.
Making dolma on my own seemed so intimidating. Even my older sister in California had never tried it. She just waited for my mother's annual visit or the once-a-year church bazaar when you could purchase plates full of yaprah and take them home. Every phone call home she and I kept whining about wanting dolma, and my mother kept saying, "You've got to MAKE it. You can do it. You've just got to try. How can you tell until you try?"
When I had my first children, boy/girl twins, it seemed that getting around in Manhattan with two infants was quite impossible — unless you had a car, a chauffeur, or another set of hands. Open double strollers weren't allowed on buses. The idea of traveling down flights of steps to the subway was terrifying. The thought of placing them one at a time, from stroller-to-cab, and leaving both unattended on the seat while stashing the stroller in the trunk, was just more than my maternal instincts would allow. It was time to move out of of my beloved city. My husband and I moved to New Jersey, three miles from my parents, to be closer to help. It also brought us closer to a steady supply of dolma.
My husband commuted into the city to teach and I'd be home with the babies. Almost every weekday morning my dad would come over so I could run errands — but he wouldn't stay home alone with them. He didn't feel he could handle them on his own (he was in his 70s), so with the twins strapped in their car seats, I would drive all over — to the post office, supermarket, bank, shoemaker, or discount bread store —while my dad stayed in the car with them. It was great having a built-in chaperone. After we finished running errands, in the middle of the day he'd go back to his house to nap and then around 5:00, he' d come back, but my mom would be with him and they'd stay with the kids while I drove to the train station to pick up my husband. The trunk of their car would open and inside would be the meal for that night. Gouvage, baked lamb chops, keuftah, or dolma would waft into my kitchen and when we got back from the train station, dinner would be waiting. It was heaven.
But when the kids were two-and-a half, all that quickly changed. For a set of reasons, we quite quickly left New Jersey and (new-jobs-in-hand) relocated to North Carolina. The lifestyle was better, the housing cheaper, the weather was great. But all was not great. Besides not having our families, the other big problem was: no Armenian church, no Armenian grocer, no ARMENIANS! It was going to be a long stretch between dolmas.
My mother mailed her recipe to me but it sat on the counter for months. Sheer desperation to have dolma gave me the nerve to dive in and finally try to make it on my own. My husband was supporting me all the way because even he was missing the taste of dolma. My first solo pot of dolma was not a failure. My husband and children alike praised the outcome and even I couldn't stop smiling at the taste of my first attempt. Okay, so it wasn't exactly like my mother's, well, actually pretty far from my mother's —the whole top layer was plagued by partially cooked rice, and all the geenj (liquid or juice that you got to sop the bread in) disappeared. Still, it was worth repeating!
At first it was really hard. I was frustrated by how difficult it was to find ground lamb and by how expensive it was. When my parents came to visit, my father would search the supermarkets and be perplexed when he couldn't find ground lamb. "Buy the whole leg," he instructed, "that way you can tell him how you want it and you know what you're getting." Then he'd bemoan the price of lamb. "Don't buy it unless it's $1.99 @ pound or LESS!" he'd yell.
"But Daddy, if I wait for it to be $1.99, we'll never have lamb! I've never seen it for that price. It's $2.99 and $3.49 and even $3.99! I'm lucky if I get it for $2.69 and at Easter, I might see it for $2.49."
"That's ridiculous!" he'd holler.
Once I adjusted to the price of lamb, I had the problem of getting the sumac. The sumac was really sumac berries (not the poisonous kind, I have always been assured) that had to be boiled in water to create the geenj that was poured over the dolma and in which it cooked. Sumac created a delicious lemony-sour liquid that was absorbed into the rice and made the taste of the dolma what it was. You had to have sumac.
Someone told me to ask the upscale grocery store to get it for me and they did — to the tune of $9.00 @ lb.! (I didn't dare tell my father.) But I did commiserate with my sister and when she heard what I was paying, she began sending sumac in the mail because even with the postage, at $1.49 @ lb. it still less by half. Now there was little standing in my way.
So late last night, sitting at my kitchen table, handling the mixture, rolling the leaves, I thought about all those women who endured and survived the massacres. They survived to roll grape leaves. Smelling the sumac boiling on the stove, I felt the loneliness of being here at a table — in a kitchen far removed from the time and the place and the circumstance of my childhood.
Though the dolma would be finished at 11:00 pm, and I would "steal" yaprah to taste, even that taste wouldn't fill the emptiness I felt — being here alone among the odars.