Food, Family, and Memory

mehagian familyThe following is an excerpt from "Siren's Feast: An Edible Odyssey" by Nancy Mehagian, a culinary memoir that captures a colorful era and features over 40 traditional Armenian and vegetarian recipes.

When I was growing up nobody talked about dysfunctional families, so it took me a while to realize how fortunate I was to have the parents I had. They never argued in front of us and truly seemed to enjoy life and each other. My brother and I were rarely left behind on trips, including seeing the Folies Bergères when it first came to Las Vegas. I have to admit my childhood was somewhat idyllic. Perhaps too idyllic.

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florence italyFrom the time I was in nursery school until I graduated from high school, I never spent a summer in my home state of Michigan. Most summers we went to Maine, but for three summers, we headed not to the rocky, Atlantic coast, but across that ocean to Europe. The middle summer when I was fifteen, we explored England, Italy and France deeply and passionately. My mother, possibly the best trip planner ever to draw breath, spent nearly a year before the trip selecting the perfect bed & breakfasts,  auberges and pensiones for us.

The things we wanted to see were an odd mixture of The Things One Sees in Europe (The Coliseum, The Louvre) and things my father wanted to see (the famous “Black Madonna” of Urbino). A consummate networker long before the days of the internet, my mother communicated her charm and enthusiasm via weightless, pale blue aerogrammes that appeared in the mailbox all year, one memorably addressed to “La Famiglia Graham;” by the time we boarded the plane for Frankfort in June, deposits were made, and an assortment of feather beds, duvets and hand-embroidered pillow cases awaited our travel weary bodies.

We fell hard for Florence, so hard that my mother cancelled our reservations in Venice and booked an extra week. Our “insider” guide was a colleague of my father’s, an Italian professor named Bob (and a “real” Italian), the leader of a group of Michigan State University students studying  in Florence for the summer session. Bob had rented a villa at the top of an impossibly steep hill lined with Cypress trees to which we ascended one afternoon for bread, cheese, olives, and a plate of salami, soppressata, and prosciutto.

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Trolling for Mackerel - Lucy DahlWhen I was a child, for two weeks every summer, my family would go to a small town in Norway called Fevik. We would stay in a hotel called the Strand Hotel, which is, now, a home for the elderly. We were a large family, four children, (I was the youngest), my mother, my Norwegian father, and his sister, Else.

Our days were filled with expeditions that usually involved catching our lunch, by crabbing or trolling for mackerel which we would cook over a fire on a nearby island that was deserted, but for moss and heather.   

I never understood why we couldn't stay at the hotel for lunch, like the other families. The explanation was always the same, it was too expensive and there were too many of us, something that I now fully understand.

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ImageTwo weeks before Thanksgiving, my five-year-old son began making paper hearts. He had discovered how to make a perfectly balanced heart by carefully folding the paper first. There seems to be a metaphor here, but for what I’m not certain: maybe for love, maybe for the way my son approaches every task, perhaps for both of these things. Years later, as an adult, he will design and make models of water treatment plants, bridges, glass windows that are a full story high; he will marry a woman who sometimes wears a hardhat as she performs bridge inspections.

In 1989, at the age of five, he is making hearts. He uses up a package of oversized construction paper; he appropriates post-it notes, his father’s business cards, and his older sister’s loose leaf. He rummages in the drawer where I keep wrapping paper and cards from Christmases and birthdays and baby showers, and he begs for sheets from the yellow legal pads that I use for my lesson plans. I suggest in vain that he turn his attention to turkeys, pumpkins, horns of plenty.

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My favorite all time saying is that 'you can pick and choose your friends but not your family.' Perhaps that's because I have some extended family members who are constant reminders of that famous quote.

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My immediate family is very close as well as my 1st cousins, aunts and uncles and for the most part, I would choose to be friends with them. However, I do have some cousins "that don't know me and I don't know them" and would prefer to keep it that way. I have been known to desert my grocery cart and flee when I catch a glimpse of them at the grocery store. These people and their lifestyles made Jeff Foxworthy rich and famous.

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