‘Grass’ in Everything: It’s a Good Thing
My mother was known to be an excellent cook and baker, but one day at the dinner table, when a youngster, I uncharacteristically piped up complaining, “Ma, do you have to put grass in everything you cook?” I was ignored as I used my fork to remove parsley from the Armenian potato salad. It was no use complaining. She was liberal in her use of herbs for cooking.
All this I remember as I sit at the kitchen table now plucking mint leaves one by one from their fibrous stems, placing them on the clean white linen dishtowel to dry for future use in cooking. I find it both relaxing and comforting. I did the same with a large bunch of dill so fresh, green, and exceptionally fragrant.
A mental visual of our large family dining room table emerges. It’s filled with white linen dishcloths laden with herbs in the drying stage for winter cooking use. All mom had to do was reach into the cupboard to get the dried herbs stored in empty peanut butter jars to put into tutmaj abour, and she had better not forget to put garbanzo beans in the soup, my father’s very favorite.
I can see her standing in front of her gas range adding the dill she dried in June to go into the lemony rice and onion filling for the sarma she was preparing in December for the Christmas celebration. There was no emergency run to the grocer for herbs because she was experienced and prepared ahead of time.
Our parents’ generation was way ahead of the cable TV cooking programs nowadays of how to enhance the taste of food by adding fresh or dried herbs. They had discovered the magical flavors of basil, chives, oregano, parsley, dill, thyme, and rosemary. Our moms knew all those decades ago, and one wonders if that talent was carried over from the Old Country or learned here in the free world.
Little by little, year by year, I began to mimic my mother, and my use of these herbs increased when I established my own household. What is Armenian potato salad without a liberal sprinkling of parsley and dill? I always add parsley to my cheese beoreg filling and basil in meatloaf. Lamb chops and lamb kabob cubes liberally dashed with oregano are unequalled for flavor. Cheekufta requires lots of fresh parsley and green onions.
“Yes, aghchigs, ‘grass’ goes well in many recipes as you now in your adult years have discovered.”
A bundle of fresh herbs lying beside a plate of deviled eggs or on an antipasto platter gives much eye appeal. Fresh mint leaves floating in a pitcher of iced tea or lemonade is simply inviting to look at.
I remember seeing my father leaning precariously forward in his garden, using a boning knife to remove what I thought was a weed from the cracks in the sidewalk, but what he called “per per,” or purslane by the English-speaking world. Out it came from its lonely position in the terra firma. I could see the happiness mom and dad both shared in this rare summertime discovery. The per per was a welcome unplanned crop that was a bonus to Armenian cooks. It was like a minor gold discovery, and they waited for its appearance every year. Whereas green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers had to be planted, per per sprouted on its own and was nature’s bonus gift to the homeowner.
Dad filled the colander with the per per, digging up all he could find. Mom washed it carefully, removing all evidence of sand. She then proceeded to steam it with onion and butter. It appeared on the dinner table to accompany the meat and potatoes topped with homemade madzoun (yogurt) infused with a mashed clove of garlic, salt, and pepper.
At the time, I thought it was an Armenian thing to dig up that flat growing edible weed for dining consumption. When it appeared on the dinner table, I waited for my father, the fussy eater, to take a portion. He topped the per per with garlic-infused yogurt. He clearly the fruit of his and mom’s labor. I had complete trust in my father and commenced to copy his indulgence. I became a believer, per per is delicious.
Years later, I felt the same euphoria as my parents when the purslane sprouted in my own garden. I too copied the steps of my parents in its preparation. Last year, I found it available at our local Oakland County Farmer’s Market grown by an Asian farmer. It may have been more easily available purchased at the market, but the thrill and excitement of the discovery could not match that of suddenly finding it popped up in my own backyard garden.
Our parents left us with many fond memories of family life. Having lost most if not all their family to the genocide, they felt family closeness was of the upmost importance. Female children were especially protected. A young lady was expected to behave in proper conservative fashion.
“Tdzaner getseer, don’t draw attention to yourself. Loorch getseer,” was another frequently used admonishment, reflecting parental expectations of lady-like behavior at all times.
The hundreds of grape leaves Dad picked from his secret growing places were at first washed, and the bundles were soaked in hot salt brine and put into jars. In later years, mom learned that grape leaves could be bundled and placed in the freezer without the brining process, thus eliminating the once tedious process.
I learned so much by observing mom and dad, including how to be a gracious hostess. They entertained often; our house was frequently filled with laughter, good food, and a lot of Armenian political conversation. I knew that is how I wanted to be when I grew up, and so it was. I grew up tall, Tashnag, and as a good Armenian American. Life was good.
Mom never had a cookbook to refer to. She didn’t need one. She must have learned some recipes from her own mother and later from her Keghetsi family by marriage. Everything was permanently recorded in her head after only hearing the recipe once.
Occasionally I still find a handwritten Armenian recipe tucked away in the drawer that she got from an Armenian girlfriend, usually a new cookie recipe she wanted to try. These finds are precious discoveries, but having no daughters leaves a feeling of emptiness about what’s going to happen to all the recipes she gave me, especially the ones in her Armenian handwriting.
Her friends too were excellent cooks and bakers. Deegeen Sarah and Deegeen Makrouhi made perfect pakhlava from scratch using their own homemade dough; Deegeen Elsig was known for her bastegh and roejik; Deegeen Yeranouhi for her rose petal jam; Deegeen Victor’s canned pears were unequaled; and Nevart’s pineapple upside down cake raised the roof at Sunday picnic gatherings at the “little park” on Commerce Road.
My memories are many and pleasing to recall. I may not have been born in the Old Country, but the thousands of miles from Armenia to the United States have been eradicated by customs, culture, and the desire to emulate that wonderful generation of people who survived the genocide. They live on in all of us. We are the fortunate ones who try to carry on the traditions that they worked so hard to instill in us, their children born in the free world.
God remains our last line of defense but being blessed with exceptional parents is a gift from both God and the fathers and mothers who created us. I consider myself more than fortunate to have had Mamigon and Takouhie for parents. I find myself knowing how important they were to me all my growing years, and just how much I still need them, even now.
Anytime I reach into a jar of herbs to sprinkle some into a dish, my face cracks into a smile as I remember how I used to say to mom, “Do you have to put grass in everything you cook, Mom?” Thank God she did.
Link: ‘Grass’ in Everything: It’s a Good Thing