In my ongoing cultural and ethnic identity crisis, I have been attempting to connect more with the roots of my ancestors. Food is the easiest way to do this. Food contains memories from my childhood, and memories that don’t belong to me personally - of my grandmothers childhoods, of their parents, etc… but gluten intolerance complicates things. So over the last several years I have been trying to gluten-free-ify some of my families traditional recipes. The problem is that Armenians and Jews love gluten, (so do Italians, obviously, but I haven’t bothered with that cuisine much, I just go to a little cafe on 2nd ave run by a middle aged Tunisian man when I want my gluten-free pizza fix. It’s bomb.) While a lot of Middle/Near Eastern food is naturally gluten free, bread is still everywhere, which makes it hard for me to celebrate my Armenian heritage through food. And Ashkenazi food IS bread. This is so frustrating because food/eating is arguably the most important part of both of these cultures! ~ Both my Armenian and Jewish grandmothers have managed to simultaneously insinuate that I am fat while shoving more food down my throat. ~ Annoying and traumatizing - but most likely a manifestation of their own trauma as survivors/descendants of Genocides. It’s a scarcity mindset I think, and I understand where it comes from. The parallels in these two histories are wild. (I mean Hitler literally modeled the Holocaust off of the Armenian Genocide, “who after all, speaks today of the Armenians?”!!!) and I don’t think their similar relationships to food, and the ways these foods vary depending on what country the Jews and Armenians fled to, are coincidences at all.
Everyone on both sides of my family loves food, a love I have definitely inherited. And growing up with various health ailments and acupuncturist parents has also given me a passion for nutrition and *wellness*. But I’m not really interested in the white washed colonized wellness world of social media and food blogs. While I do think there are certain universalities when it comes to health, I think a major thing that the mainstream wellness movement is missing is eating the way our personal ancestors ate, of connecting food with stories and memories, of indulging in something delicious and maybe a little unhealthy because it feeds our souls and fills us with history. I don’t want to forget my families histories. Just because the world tried to erase us, doesn’t mean that we are gone or hiding. I want to get back to my roots, to eat the way my ancestors ate, with the reverence and joy of breaking (g-free) bread with loved ones, with their appreciation for what we have in spite of everything, but without their fear that it could all be taken away at any moment.
I am strictly not interested in being a food blogger. I think. It’s something I have half heartedly toyed around with when friends have enthusiastically suggested I start one. But that’s an oversaturated market and most of what I eat isn’t very interesting and I also don’t think I could ever write a recipe clearly enough for someone else to follow. I am the worst good cook. My food tastes good, but there is no method to the madness. I burn myself a lot, don’t always clean as I go, don’t measure things, don’t time things, borrow bits and pieces from other recipes, cross my fingers, and eat it no matter what because I hate waste. (I have a theory my hate of waste is in part my love of and fear for the environment and it’s ongoing destruction and part inherited scarcity mindset, thank you trauma, thank you genocide, thank you ancestors who had to flee before the bread had a chance to rise!)
Every time I see my now 99 year old Jewish grandmother she makes weinershnitzel (and usually latkes too, no matter the season.) Weinershnitzel, if you don’t know, is typically breaded veal cutlets (we make it with chicken) eaten in Austria and Germany. My Omama was born in Vienna in 1920 and lived there until she had to flee the Nazis and move to America. But food has a way of surviving borders and transcending place, and my whole life I’ve associated Omama with the foods she brought with her. With varying shades of brown and tan and potatoes and unleavened bread and harosis. (It is not the healthiest cuisine.)
Gluten free panko and matzomeal has made g-free-ifying these foods pretty easy, but the one thing there is no replacement for? Challah. I’ve been gluten-free for 8 years, but that doesn’t stop my Omama from offering me bread every time she sees me, and worrying that how could I possibly be eating enough if I’m not having bread! Where is the joy in life! What a poor thing how do I live?? But also am I getting fat? 🙄 The most recent time I visited for her 99th birthday she asked me if I still couldn’t eat bread. I said “No Omama, I still don’t eat bread.” She paused and looked around for a moment before replying, “Well what about Challah?”. “That’s bread, Omama.” “I know it’s bread, but it’s challah!”. It was our very own Jewish version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s I-don’t-eat-meat-that’s-okay-I-make-lamb moment. We laughed about it and then she tskd away, feeling sorry for me. (I do not feel sorry for myself by the way. Apart from specific cultural foods, I don’t miss gluten at all. It’s hard to miss things when you realize how good you feel without them.) While i may never experience the bliss of biting into a soft chewy piece of challah again, or drenching my dad’s challah French toast in maple syrup, I have at least perfected gluten free latkes (traditional and sweet potato variations) and a gluten free matzo that I can’t find a picture for. (And fortunately Yehuda delivers when I’m too lazy.)
As of late I am focusing more on trying to create gluten free versions of my Armenian family’s recipes. We have a beautiful little book my cousin Sara put together years ago, the Soghomonian Family’s Armenian recipes. I don’t know why I’ve hesitated making these for so long… maybe it’s partly the reverence I have for them, the memories of the flavors from childhood, rolling Sarma in my grandmothers backyard with grape leaves picked from her vines, pulling lahmajoon out of her freezer, reheating it and squeezing lemon on top before biting in. Maybe these memories are wrapped up in more than just the family trauma, but also my own, my dead mother, her rice pilaf that was the base of so many childhood celebrations and dinners.
I grew up very… American, I think. We all spoke English, Armenian faded as my grandmother aged, and was never passed down to anyone. But the things that undeniably set us apart, or at least made me feel that we were different, were foods, traditions, and my ethnically ambiguous appearance. In 2019 I am a 26 year old actor. I play characters of various Middle Eastern ethnicities, and I wonder about who I am. These recipes offer me just one glimpse in. I don’t think that they will give me concrete answers, but they make me feel connected to something, and to someone.
A couple of weeks ago I made gluten free lahmajoon for the first time ever. I used a recipe for the base that I found on the internet, and my family recipe for the meat topping. It was different of course, but when I took them out of the oven, squeezed lemon on top, and bit in, they brought me back to childhood. I genuinely didn’t think they would taste the same but they sort of did! In my emotional sensory overwhelm, I emailed a picture to my Grandmama. Her response: Looks great, good for you. Your grandparents may have viewed them askance…” At first I was a little stung. (She doesn’t quite seem to share my passion for reconnecting to the past, as I’ve learned when I’ve pried, asked questions about her parents and their escape from Adana.) But then I laughed. It was the perfect Armenian grandmother response. Because my great grandparents WOULD have viewed them askance! Lahmajoon isn’t meant to be gluten free! When my great grandmother, my namesake, was forced to flee Adana and the Genocide and escape to Syria disguised as a boy to avoid rape, I imagine she and her family would’ve grabbed whatever food they could from their home. They would have had no idea that they would never return. I wonder what they ate when they ran out of food on the journey, as millions of Armenians were being slaughtered around them, picking seeds out of their own stool, getting drops of water off of leaves, if there were any. I don’t actually know. I will never know, because no one ever talked about it. I know what I’ve learned in books and the stories that other survivors shared. I know they weren’t eating gluten free lahmajoon, or any lahmajoon at all. There was no paklava or Sarma or delicious dolmas. There was only an attempt at survival.
I think about all that trauma baked into the foods my great grandmother served her daughter, and her daughters daughters. The trauma passed down through the lines of women on both sides of my family. Maybe that is some of what I feel when I attempt to recreate a version of these foods that I can eat. Do I want to feel what they felt? Or perhaps work through what they never worked through? I wish I could know all the stories of these incredible humans. I learned the other day that my great grandfather was the sole survivor in his family. Everyone else, including his parents, his twin sister, were slaughtered. The stories and the missing puzzle pieces have died with most of these people. All I have are these recipes, and my attempts at gluten-free versions so I can enjoy them too, and, hopefully, allow these foods, and the stories they carry, to live on.