“I cannot count the good people I know who, to my mind, would be even better if they bent their spirits to the study of their own hungers” MFK Fisher
For my 12th birthday, Mamou—that’s what we called our round, four-foot-ten Armenian grandmother—gave me a cookbook: The Creative Cooking Course by Charlotte Turgeon. A young wolf when it came to books, I tore into the package. Seeing my surprise once the crumpled, thrice-cycled gift wrap had been ripped away—for I had up to that point demonstrated zero interest in cooking—she said by way of explanation, “Every girl must learn to cook if she wants a husband.” My desire for a husband at that point was considerably less than my desire to learn how to cook.
But I pored over that book in the months following; I turned its pages and marveled at things like lobster soufflé, coquilles Saint Jacques, vichyssoise and beef Wellington. It was a looking-glass through which I ogled an exotic adolescent world of Culture and Taste and Things Foreign—dim stars galaxies away from 1970s suburban Detroit. In pencil I marked X’s on the pages of things I especially wanted to eat (not cook, mind, but eat). I wanted to be transported to the cosmos they signified.
Maybe Mamou knew me better than I thought, for it turns out that gift dove-tailed nicely with my other youthful obsessions. I was always checking out Berlitz Teach Yourself language books from the library and solemnly reciting “this is the pencil” and “may I please have a serviette?” in French, German, and Russian like mantras capable of unleashing the secrets of the universe. I spent my allowance money on cheap Bantam paperback editions of Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Women in Love (incredibly, these books were for sale at the town’s rinky-dink gift/magazine shop, which perhaps shows how degraded popular literary taste has now become). All summer long I lay around on Mamou’s sagging brown sofa—lumpily bolstered with yellowed newspapers to keep it from collapsing in on itself—in the tiny, stifling living room of her Melvindale pre-war brick house, consuming novel after novel and dreaming of Hardy’s Dorset, Tolstoy’s St. Petersburg, and Flaubert’s Normandy. I wanted to be a Romanov (well, one of the luckier ones); I wanted to hold a cold, heavy Fabergé egg against my cheek. I wanted to speak French with the elegant ease of a courtier. I wanted dark, foreign men to love me and express their passion in long, sinuous letters. In all these richly embroidered flights in and out of time and place I never saw myself as a cook. I was, rather, one who eats.
Mamou knew I loved to eat the things she cooked. When dining at her house, I’d ladle up great Everests of her rice pilaf—each grain fulsome and separate and glistening with chicken fat and clarified butter—on my chipped, flowered plate, relegating the protein bit-players to the sidelines. I generally loathed red meat, typically cooked by my mother until it turned gray and tough as a Cossack’s boots. But I adored Mamou’s shish kebab, and her lamb-stuffed grape leaves—moist, tender and singing with parsley, lemon and mint—her homemade lavash, and the trays of wrinkled black olives, raw scallions, Armenian string cheese, and bowls of dried mulberries and sultanas that were always within arm’s reach. She took me on long walks around the neighborhood and showed me where wild grapevines grew in the most shabby and unexpected places: abandoned lots, disused baseball diamonds, at the dusty edges of gas stations. It was here she harvested her precious leaves. On the brown sidewalks of the fraying edges of Detroit, she had me taste all sorts of foraged herbs and grasses and flowers, culled from forlorn and forgotten crevices, and it was like finding small signs of a once-thriving civilization cobwebbed over by ruin.
Did we make a sight, we two diminutive creatures moving in the shimmering landscape alongside busy four-lane roads with no other pedestrians abroad—this was automobile country, after all—one of us old and plump, the other young and skinny, both missing some teeth? Mamou had never worn a pair of trousers in her life, preferring woolen skirts of modest length, and her iron-gray hair was forever sectioned into the two thick, ankle-length braids favored by Armenian maidens of yore; she coiled these around her head in a tight, serpentine configuration that lent her the air of royalty in exile. She wore thick support hose and cheap, open-toed, rope-soled wedge slippers with which she’d nudge about in the weeds, her fat little feet looking for treasure. I wore faded navy Keds and denim shorts and wilted in the heat, dragging my carcass along, but Mamou stepped smoothly—an endurance walker. Notwithstanding her many years in the Motor City and her long stints on two automotive assembly lines, she never learned to drive nor owned a car. So we explored the contours of that land as others had forgotten—or were fast forgetting—how to do.
Likewise I loved any “foreign” food my Armenian-speaking father exposed me to (he was, I now know, a closet gourmand). There were 1950s-era Chinese classics like the wonton soup at China Boy on Allen Road or chow mein and egg rolls at Lim’s Garden on Michigan Avenue; lahmajoon—my beloved Armenian pizza—and all the Middle Eastern specialties from the delis and bakeries of Dearborn; fresh tamales from Mexican Village and spanakopita in dark Greek Town tavernas; pierogis and polish sausage from Hamtramck; smorgasbord at the Sweden House (alas, Italian food in those days was a travesty that even I recognized as such). At that time Detroit’s immigrant base hadn’t yet been decimated and it was possible to conjure the World of victuals in a crazy hurly-burly filtered through an albeit Midwestern lens—orthodox church ladies with thick accents and parochial potlucks being the keepers of the flame. As a salesman, Dad was always on the road and delighted in bringing little surprises home, like jewels: escargots and Spanish sardines in shiny tins, wedges of liverwurst and limburger cheese in oily paper, beads of caviar glistening in small glass jars.
All of this had been merely a weak prelude to the revelations of the Creative Cooking Course. In its pages were symbols and signifiers, clues to histories and civilizations, archetypes and meanings to be decoded by my frizzy-haired Indiana Jones. The wholesomeness of Provençal lamb. The haute-bourgeoise swagger of beef Stroganoff. The naive optimism of baked Alaska. The colonial muddle of mulligatawny. The immense capacity for joy or tragedy held suspended like breath in the beaten whites of any soufflé. The utter nihilism of molded gelatin.
Yet even as the main thrust of its force was propelled by Old World tradition, there was another, opposing influence very much at work in the Creative Cooking Course—a kind of gastronomic Third Law consisting mainly of Jell-O salads, deviled eggs, and hors d’oeuvre gondolas fashioned out of creamy shrimp dips, radish roses and iceberg lettuce. It was a mash-up: Brillat-Savarin and Annette Funicello meeting at Cannes and spawning a love child. As improbable as a Hollywood musical, staid European hegemony and perky American impiety—like rival culinary gangs—had been flung together by Fate to tango in Technicolor. It was not without its charms.
And so this strangely prophetic book, bestowed upon me by my swarthy fairy grandmother, quietly and for some time fed a flame in me and stoked the desire to throw myself to the tides and be washed up on the shores of the unfamiliar world in order to seek sustenance there. But I’m sorry, Mamou—rather than spurring me on to learn to cook for any eventual husband, your gift made me resolve to find a man (and a foreign one at that) who would cook for me. Which I did.