Legend has it in our family that the first time my mom, Mary Ellen, went to meet her future mother-in-law, my Armenian grandmother Rose wouldn’t even turn around from washing the dishes. When it was time to sit down for the pot roast dinner, Rose wouldn’t look in my mom’s direction. Bringing an ordad—a non-Armenian—into the Cherkerzian family was a big deal, and Rose made sure it was known loud and clear. She had three sons, and each one was to bring home an Armenian girl who could cook Armenian food and fit into the Armenian circle. No exceptions.
My father would bring flowers and chocolates to the house over the next year, and my gentle Papa, with his soft demeanor and cigar in mouth, would shake his head at my father and ask, “Why did you do this?” My dad persisted. He was in love with my mom, who was set up as his first patient when he opened his dental practice. Even at my parents’ wedding in Syracuse, New York, where my mom grew up, they practically had to chain Rose to the car seat to get her to attend the festivities. But one day, Nana Rose left the front door open, and my dad knew that things would be better from that day on.
My mom, behind her strawberry-blond hair, hazel green eyes, and perfectly petite frame was no stranger to bullies. She had three older brothers who toughened her up from a young age. And she knew the way to an Armenian’s heart was through the stomach. So she learned how to cook hearty staples and more time-consuming delicacies, taught by Nana Rose.
Little by little, Nana Rose understood that Mary Ellen made an excellent Armenian wife. The two of them would drive around the suburbs of Boston together, picking up grape leaves for dolma, to be stuffed with minced meat and rice. Making the sugar cookies called khurabia bonded Rose, my mom, and ultimately me. When I went away to college, I’d call Nana, often not even saying much of anything, but just knowing that she was on the other end of the phone was comforting enough.
My mother and I loved eating baklava while listening to the family history—how Papa and his twin brother escaped the Armenian genocide, getting through Ellis Island dressed as girls and then living in a Massachusetts orphanage where they learned English. After embracing the Armenian heritage, my mother and grandmother had a loving relationship; there was never any competition between the two women—so different yet so similar. I always appreciated how feminine they both looked: hair done, nails painted, makeup applied (not too much). They were both perfectionists—quiet, proud, and independent—and they both encouraged me to do exactly what I wanted to do.
My friends often exclaimed, “Your house smells so good!” (usually the buttery pilaf my mom was making for dinner. To this day, it’s a staple in my home, and my sons help to measure the rice while listening to stories about their Nana Mary Ellen or Great Nana Rose.
Andrea Cherkerzian Dennigan is a former art dealer turned fitness and yoga instructor in Boston, Massachusetts, She can be found at Backstage.
4 T. butter
1⁄2 c. vermicelli noodles, broken into 1⁄2-inch pieces
1 c. Carolina Rice, rinsed
2 c. unsalted chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste
In a heavy saucepan over a medium flame, melt the butter.
Add the vermicelli, stir and toast until golden brown, about 2 - 3 minutes.
Add rice, chicken stock, and salt, and bring to boil.
Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until all liquid is absorbed. Do not stir.
Take saucepan off heat and let sit for 5 - 10 minutes.
Add pepper to taste if desired.
Serves 4 – 6.