In our modern day Armenian family, tradition still rules.
With the acquisition of son and daughters-in-law, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and a few beloved strays, our Easter table has stretched like Silly Putty over the years — growing from one extension to two, a child’s picnic table seating up to 12 little ones, and a contingency plan for overflow on the kitchen table and patio.
Our calculations are always off by a few place settings but it hardly matters. There will be plenty of food to feed the clan. Heaven forbid we should run out of pilaf.
As The Fresno Bee lands on my porch this morning, a trio of bunnies will already be holding court nearby, happily surrounded by blooming tulips and a Welcome mat. With any luck, I’ll have a few spare minutes to enjoy my daily ritual of coffee and newspaper before family converges to feast and celebrate.
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The holiday menu includes mezza (appetizers): tourshi (my mother’s award-winning marinated vegetables), yalanchi (stuffed grape leaves, rolled meticulously by Dan’s Aunt Marge), string cheese and hummus — all leading up to the piece de resistance: shish kebab (skewered spring lamb —seasoned by my one and only, Dan).
I’ll take credit for the pilaf (a medley of rice, bulgur and vermicelli browned in butter and slowly simmered in chicken broth), cheese boregs (phyllo-wrapped cheese and parsley), and something sweet for the palate, kourabia. Salads, Jell-O and other desserts will be provided by aunties, cousins and sisters-in-law (hint, hint).
In the blink of an eye, the table will be blessed as knives and forks dance in mid air. Young parents will corral kids to the table, cutting bite-sized kebabs, filling their plates, nudging them to settle down. Someone’s Disney cup will undoubtedly tip over, tears will fall, paper towels rushing to the rescue while adult conversation shifts from Hillary’s e-mail fiasco to the water crisis here at home. At some point, a quiet hum will serve as a positive indicator that the lamb is tender and cooked to perfection.
There will be second and third helpings until the women rise and head toward the kitchen balancing empty plates and assorted glassware. While coffee percolates a few sets of droopy eyelids will retire to the living room — craving naps but kept awake by energetic toddlers eager to dive into marshmallow Peeps and chocolate-filled baskets. Foil droppings will variegate our carpet, leaving a pastel trail to the front lawn, signaling it’s time for the Easter egg hunt.
Crazy and chaotic as it all sounds, I will watch with delight from my bird’s eye view at the kitchen sink.
Moments later, hands wading in soapy water, mind drowning in memories of Easters past and those absent from our table, I will chant my usual “where have the years gone” medley. Dan will interrupt my train of thought, whispering his uncensored assessment of the day so far, both of us pausing to take a deep breath.
Scouring dishes and memory, I’ll return to my private thoughts, anticipating the next round of food — desserts. It’s here I will quietly paying tribute to Auntie Rose, my reason, my obsession for, year after year, baking kourabias.
I first tasted these mouth-watering delicacies more than 50 years ago. One morning, the postman delivered a mystery box from relatives to her front door.
While my sisters and cousins played outside, I stood at her feet watching as she undressed the brown paper-wrapped package. Underneath was a battered Seescandy box with Mary See smiling up at us from the white, shiny lid. Inside were two layers of neatly arranged cookies, definitely not chocolates, each diamond shaped and dusted with confectionary snow. She called them “kourabia” or “shakareeshi” and gave me my first bite (Shakar is the Armenian word for sugar). Seconds later she stood on a kitchen chair hoisting the prized box onto the top shelf of her cupboard.
A few days later, when no one was looking, I hiked myself onto her counter and, on tiptoes, grabbed the box, only to watch the cookies fall to their tragic fate in slow motion. Landing like bombs on her linoleum, mini-explosions of powdered sugar and crumbs, I did everything humanly possible to hide my guilt. The harder I tried, the more visible and daunting the evidence became.
Caught in the act, I was tagged a cookie thief. From that moment forward, learning how to make the melt-in-your-mouth delicacies became a lifelong pursuit. It took me 30 years to master their making. With each batch, I pay homage (and still apologize) to Auntie Rose.
It is in these quiet, unspoken moments of time and memory that my own soul finds ultimate nourishment. Despite busy lives and the decibel level of family gatherings, they hold our most precious and guarded treasures: traditions, rituals and even recipes — handed down through generations, anchoring us as family.
Providing the true sustenance of life.