“What about chicken and pilaf?”

nanaby Karen Topakian

“Nana, I’ve decided to become a vegetarian,” I announced to my maternal grandmother one spring afternoon in 1976, as she bustled around her sunny yellow kitchen making my grandfather’s dinner.

“Why would you want to do that?” she bellowed, looking at me while wielding a kitchen knife.

“I gave it up for Lent and I’m not going to eat meat anymore,” I announced smugly.

“That’s crazy!” she exclaimed while chopping carrots for a stew.

She paused for a moment before continuing, “What about chicken?”

“What about chicken? It’s meat.”

“You’re not going to eat chicken and pilaf!” she exclaimed referring to the signature Armenian dish.

I shook my head.

“Where does she get these crazy ideas?” she muttered to herself while slicing onions.

“What about your mother’s lamb chops?”

I shook my head.

“I thought you liked the way she cooked them?”

“I do like them. But lamb is meat.”

She waved her hand at me dismissively. I fiddled with the buttons on my shirt.

“You can eat the pilaf. There’s no meat in the pilaf,” she responded proudly for finding a loophole.

“But you cook it in chicken broth,” I countered.

“Yes. So.”

A few Sundays later, my family sat down to dinner in my Nana’s dining room. She emerged from the kitchen carrying a platter of roasted chicken, which she placed on the table next to a big bowl of rice pilaf.

“Karen, have some chicken,” offered my Nana seated to my right, reaching across my plate with a forkful of white meat.

I blocked her move with my right hand. “No, thank you, Nana. Remember, I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat anymore.”

“Don’t be silly,” she responded, waving the meat-laden fork in front of me.

“Have a little. Who’s going to know?”

I shook my head defiantly.

“Why do you keep insisting she eat it?” reproached my mother.

“What will you eat?” queried Nana.

I pointed to the green beans, the salad and the looped Armenian string cheese piled next to dan hatz, Armenian cracker bread.

“That’s not enough.”

“I’ve heard enough,” announced my grandfather in Armenian.

“I don’t like the idea of killing animals for food,” I continued.

“If you think meat was once an animal, of course you wouldn’t eat it. But you can’t think that way,” Nana admonished me.

Having failed to appeal to humaneness, I resorted to her religious side.

“You’re a Christian, Nana. Doesn’t God say, thou shall not kill?”

But my grandmother had an answer for that, too. She emphatically plopped the meat back on the platter with a thud. “He didn’t mean animals.”

Can’t Take No for an Answer

by Karen Topakian



My sister and I had just come home from high school one day in the late 60’s, when the wall phone in my parent’s den rang. My mother, sister and I stared at it. Even though, we weren’t sure who was calling, we had a pretty good idea – Nana. Nobody reached for it. We all knew what she wanted – to give us her home made Armenian food.

My sister reluctantly picked up the receiver.

“I thought you weren’t home. The phone rang a few times,” stated Nana, exasperated.

“Hi, Nana.”

My mother and I nodded knowingly.

“Gail, tell your mother I made some bonjadabood for Armen (a soupy mix of spinach and barley),” explained Nana.

Gail put her hand over the mouthpiece. Before she could repeat Nana’s offer, my mother shook her head emphatically no.

“No, Nana. Mom said no.”

“It’s still hot. I just made it.”

“Mom said no.”

My mother continued to shake her head, without knowing what she was offered, because the contents didn’t matter. My mother saw these frequent Armenian food offerings as an interruption in her menu, which she didn’t appreciate.

Gail repeated her negative response.

“Let me talk to your mother.”

Gail stretched out the long curly phone cord and handed the receiver to my mother.

“Hi mom,” said my mother. “How are you?’

“Alice, I don’t know why you don’t want some bonjadabood. You know Armen likes it.”

“It doesn’t go with what I’m making for dinner,” explained my mother making a sour face at the thought of this dish’s gloppy texture.

“Then serve it tomorrow night.”

“You and dad enjoy it.”

“I made plenty.”

“I don’t need it this time.”

“Alice, why are you so stubborn. Send the girls over,” insisted my Nana. “It’s all packaged up.”

“They have homework to do,” declared my mother through clenched teeth.

“What about Armen? He can pick it up on his way home. If you call him now, you can reach him.”

“Mom, thank you anyway,” said my mother hanging up the phone.

An hour later, there was a knock on the kitchen door.

My mother opened it only to see my grandfather holding a big round metal pan covered with aluminum foil. “This is for Armen,” he said handing it to her.

“You didn’t need to bother to bring it,“ responded my mother frustrated.

He muttered in Armenian, shrugged and left.

My mother announced to the pan, “Why can’t she ever take no for an answer.”

I offer this post in memory of my grandfather who was born on Jan 17, 1895.

Keeping Secrets

by Karen Topakian



“I promised Nana I wouldn’t tell anyone,” I replied to my sister. Gail. “You know it’s a state secret.”

“Just tell me. I won’t tell anyone,” begged Gail. “Where did you go grape leaf picking?”

This conversation occurred after every grape leaf-picking trip I went on with my grandparents. Just like every other Armenian who picked their own grape leaves to make their own stuffed grape leaves, Nana kept her location a secret, to guarantee that the leaves were there when she was ready to pick them.

Picking grape leaves took place in late spring before the end of the school year and well before July 4. The process required coordination, logistics and military precision.

“Charlie, why aren’t you wearing a long sleeved shirt?” quizzed my grandmother as my grandfather walked through the kitchen. “You know there’s poison ivy.”

“Eh,” muttered my grandfather waving his hand at her.

Grampa Charlie

Grampa Charlie

“Then wear a jacket,” exclaimed my grandmother as he walked past her into the garage.

“It’s too hot,” he mumbled in response. “I told you I didn’t want to go today.”

“You know we have to pick them while they’re still tender,” explained my grandmother wiping her damp brow.

She returned to packing our lunch – sliced lamb sandwiches tucked into wax paper bags, cut up carrots and a few carefully selected apples. After filling a small jug with tap water, she put the food and a few paper cups into a soft-sided cooler.

A pile of flattened brown paper supermarket bags lay on the kitchen counter by the door. Bags we would use to harvest the picked leaves.

“Charlie, put this food in the car.”

My grandfather walked back into the kitchen picked up the cooler and asked in Armenian, “How many people are you feeding?” She waved him off.

She grabbed her handbag and followed him into the garage to fish out her conical straw hat that tied under her chin with a brightly colored scarf. I took the paper bags and closed the kitchen door.

With hat in hand, she climbed into the front passenger seat of my grandfather’s Buick Special while I occupied the backseat. My grandfather backed the car out of the garage and down the steep driveway. At the foot of the driveway, he turned to her and asked in Armenian, “Where are we going?”

“The same place we always go,” answered my Nana.

He drove in silence while my grandmother speculated out loud about the quality of the grape leaves.

“If they are too small, we won’t stay. We’ll find someplace else,” she mused aloud. “I don’t want them too big either. Nobody likes them when they’re big and tough. No one will eat them, right Charlie?”

My grandfather didn’t respond.

“We may need to find another place. Maybe we can try the spot we saw in April on the way back from my cousin’s house. Remember I saw grape leaves growing on the side of the road and said we could try there if this place isn’t right?”

Again my grandfather said nothing.

“Charlie, are you listening to me?”

“I’m not driving all over the state for grape leaves. It’s too hot.”

“Of course, you will. You like them as much as I do.”

“Where does Sophie pick hers?” asked my grandfather referring to his sister-in-law. “Everybody likes hers.”

“She hasn’t told me. Do you like hers better than mine?”

He sighed in response.

“When I ask them, everyone likes my stuffed grape leaves. Karen, you like my grape leaves, don’t you?”

“Sure Nana, yours are great,” I answered while I knew that Sophie’s were so much better.

My grandfather kept his eyes on the road

“Turn here or you’ll miss it. It’s down this road on the right,” directed my grandmother.

He turned off the main highway down a secondary road and parked the car by a long low stonewall flanked by a wild array of grape vines.

“Pull over so no one will see our plates,” instructed my grandmother. “I don’t want anyone to know this is our spot.”

“I can’t pull over, there’s a ditch.”

“Don’t be silly. Of course you can, there’s plenty of room”

After slightly adjusting the car, we got out each carrying a paper bag, which we carefully unfolded. Nana being shorter, selected lower vines. I stood near her to pick the taller ones.

“These look good, Charlie. We came right on time,” she announced aloud proudly.

He had chosen a spot farther away and out of earshot.

We all hunted for the right sized leaves, pinching them at their base, careful not too damage them and placing them carefully in their paper bags.

“Only pick medium-sized leaves,” once again she instructed me to hold out my hand and pointed to the size on my hand.

“You showed me last year and the year before”

“But your hand grows every year.”

“I hope not. I’m in my 20s.”

After picking a bag full, he walked back toward the car and us. “That’s enough, I’m getting hungry,” he declared.

She peered into his bag. “You could fit in a few more.”

“I’m getting too hot”

“Why don’t you get your hat from the car?”

“I don’t need it.”

She examined a few leaves from his bag.

“Some of those are too big. That one’s too small. I won’t be able to roll them.”

“They seem to fine to me. What’s wrong with them?” he asked.

He picked a few more and filled the bag.

“I’m not waiting any longer. I want to eat my lunch now,” he declared while he slapped flies on his exposed arms.

“I can fit more in my bag.”

He walked away.

“We’ll pick some more after lunch,” ordered my grandmother.

He took the cooler from the back seat, sat behind the wheel and started eating.

“I don’t think anybody else has been here. Because the best leaves are still here,” she said to me smugly. “Karen, don’t forget, don’t tell anyone.”

Anything But The Meatballs

20150107-italian-american-meatballs-sandwich-vicky-wasik-8by Karen Topakian

“Hey Al, it’s almost lunchtime. Want anything across the street?” yelled my father to his co-worker Al Giblin, one of two non-family members who worked at General Plating Company, GPC. “I’m sending Karen.”

I cringed waiting for Al to answer. I knew the one food item I didn’t want to hear any one order. A meatball sandwich.

“No thanks Armen.” yelled Al in return.

Yelling ruled at GPC. My father, my uncle Ted and Al all yelled, even when the heavy machinery and spinning tanks weren’t piercing the air with a deafening drone.

I exhaled audibly.

On the days my mother didn’t make my dad’s lunch, Mike’s Lunch across the street filled in.

My father hadn’t asked me if I wanted to go to Mike’s before he bellowed to Al but I knew that as a 15 year-old working at GPC, you did what any adult asked. Whether you wanted to or not.

“Karen, here’s two dollars go across the street and get me a… let me see do I want a turkey sandwich or a…?”

“Please don’t say meatball sandwich,” I said to myself.

“Meatball sandwich. Yeah, get me a meatball sandwich.”

I shuddered. Then stuffed the two dollars into the back of my jeans walked up the stairs out of the shop, crossed the one way street, pulled open the screen door at Mike’s. Entered quietly, desperately trying to fade into the woodwork.

Mike’s Lunch may have been owned an operated by a Mike at one time. But at this point, husband and wife John and Edie Vartanian owned and operated the small mostly take out restaurant. A few ripped vinyl covered stools hugged the short counter where Edie stood taking phone orders and ringing up sales. A grease pencil in one hand and the phone in the other she wrote the orders on the back of a brown paper bag.

Edie, a once attractive woman, applied her full-face makeup with a trowel. Despite the dirt and grime sailing through this costume jewelry-manufacturing district, Edie was always made up down to the bright red nail polish. She wore a fabric headband to keep her jet black dyed hair away from her face.

Slews of big beefy men dressed in their blue-collar work clothes piled in before 12, anxious to place their order and start chewing.

Buster, the short order cook, occasionally emerged from the back wearing a knitted ski cap and a stained white T-shirt while he wiped his greasy hands on the apron tied around his waist.

Edie kept track of her customers, she knew who arrived when and called on them in order. All while filling coffee cups, answering the phone and kidding with the regulars sitting at the counter.

She didn’t know me by name but by association. When I arrived, I doubled the number of females in the place.

She leaned across the counter and said, “Liz’s granddaughter, right?”

“Yes, Armen’s daughter.”

“What’ll you have?” she asked while checking her nails for chips and cracks.

“My dad wants a meatball sandwich,” I answered softly.

She smiled. “Tell your grandmother I said hello.”

I nodded.

And then she placed my order in a voice that could summon the troops.

“Hey Buster, two balls on a roll. Traveling.”

On cue, every customer laughed and hooted, loudly. They looked at me and kept laughing. They pounded their feet and applauded.

I desperately looked for a corner to hide but none existed. My face flushed, I waited in silence for her to hand me the paper bag holding my father’s dreaded lunch and run back across the street.



A Battle of Wills

by Karen Topakian



In my maternal family, not eating falls under the sin category. Very few experiences warrant food refusal. When someone says they can’t eat, they better have a good reason. A reason on which everyone can agree. Another trait common in my maternal family – stubbornness. Here’s what happens when the two collide.

One Sunday afternoon in the late 1960’s, my great grandmother and her older daughter, my aunt Sophie, arrived at my maternal grandparents house in Cranston, RI for Sunday dinner.

My great grandmother, Dickranhouie a.k.a Agnes, emigrated from Armenia to the US at 19 to find work. Back then it was an uncommon experience for a woman her age to travel alone to the US. She found work and eventually met and married her husband, my great grandfather, who died in the 1940’s.

My sister and I called her Gramma. Tall for her generation, topped with thick white hair, Gramma always wore a skirt and jacket or a dress, a strand of pearls and earrings.

During my lifetime, she lived with her older daughter, Sophie, a small practical woman with a quick smile and endless energy, and Sophie’s husband Eddie, until he passed away. Then mother and daughter lived together for decades in the neighboring town in a ranch house with a big front and back yard.

Gramma could out bake, out cook and out knit anyone. She didn’t boast about her efforts or urge you to eat her food. You sought it out.

Aside from her domestic talents, Gramma missed out on a career on stage.

For example, if any young woman in our family wore a short skirt, as was the norm in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Gramma would exclaim out loud, “Ah-mort,” the Armenian word for shame and shake her head.

On this particular Sunday, my aunt Sophie and Gramma warmly greeted my grandmother, Nana, in her sunny yellow kitchen. Sophie prominently placed her homemade apple pie on the kitchen counter. Gramma made her way to the couch in the living room where my parents, sister, grandfather and I sat. A moment later, Sophie and Nana joined us.

As soon as Gramma sat down, my mother motioned for my sister or me to offer her the assorted appetizers of Muenster cheese, crackers and dry cured black olives laid out on the coffee table in front of the fireplace.

“No,” said Gramma dramatically extending her arm, palm facing out, turning her head away. “I can’t eat a thing. I’m so upset, my half-cousin’s daughter in Massachusetts died.”

“Who’s that?” asked my father.

“I can’t believe you’re still upset,” said Aunt Sophie dismissively. “She died several days ago.”

She never once came to visit you!” exclaimed Nana firmly. “You’re barely related.”

“I took care of her when she was a baby,” protested Gramma.

“That was a long time ago,” retorted Nana. ““Have some cheese and crackers, you’ll feel better,”

“No, I can’t,” repeated Gramma half in English, half in Armenian turning her head to the heavens. “I can’t eat a thing.”

“Would you like something to drink?” cajoled my mother. “A glass of water?”

Gramma held put up her two hands, tilted her head and answered in Armenian, “just a drop.”

My mother beckoned my sister or me to fetched her a glass of water.

Gramma half-heartedly sipped from the glass, occasionally.

Nana left the living room to put the final touches on dinner. A few minutes later, she summoned us into the dining room. The dark mahogany table brimmed with a roast, rice pilaf, broccoli and a salad. My father carved the roast. Nana watched what we put on our plates.

“Sophie, that’s not enough pilaf!” scolded my Nana when she looked at her older sister’s plate. “Here have some more.” Piling it on to her plate. Sophie fended her off with her fork.

Everyone’s plate held Nana’s cooking except one. Her mother’s.

“Ma, you have to eat something,” said Nana pointing to the broccoli.

“No,” said Gramma dabbing her dry eyes with a handkerchief. “I’m too upset.”

”You could still eat a little something,” chided Nana. “It’s Sunday. The Lord’s day, you have to eat.”

“I can’t swallow,” Gramma touching her throat.

“You could try. Maybe you’d like a little yogurt?” asked Nana exasperatedly as she started to get up.

Gramma furiously waved her away with both hands creating a small draft.

“If she doesn’t want to eat. Stop trying to make her!” argued Sophie emphatically.

“How do you know she wouldn’t like a little yogurt?” snapped Nana.

“That’s enough,” exclaimed my grandfather to my grandmother raising his hand in the air. “Sophie how’s Dolly?” asking about Sophie’s daughter.

Gramma sat with her hands folded in her lap, sighing audibly.

We continued eating while Nana unnervedly eyed her mother’s empty plate.

After we had finished eating dinner, my mother, sister and I cleared the table and re-set it for dessert. Nana proudly brought out a plate of her homemade cookies and Sophie’s pie. My mom poured the coffee as my grandmother sliced the pie.

“Ma, how about a cookie?” asked Nana. “It’s perfectly good. It’s homemade.”

Gramma shook her head vigorously.

“Maybe I could drink a little coffee. Just a little,” whispered Gramma using her thumb and first finger to emphasize the size.

My mother poured her a cup, placed it on a saucer and slid it across the table to my great-grandmother. At the last instant, Nana slipped a cookie onto the saucer and said, “Ma, just try the cookie.”

Eskimo Pies and My Dad

by Karen Topakian

It’s quite ironic that today January 26, the anniversary of my father’s death (number 10), should occur during the same week that we recognize the Patent Day for the Eskimo Pie (January 24, 1922). Here’s why.

My father, a slim man, slightly less than 6 feet tall, always kept in good shape. But he liked his sweets. He could afford to eat dessert every day. Though he held the lofty title of President and co-owner of General Plating Company, he performed physical labor. 8 hours a day

During the evening, he would look to my mother and say, “Hey Al, got one of these?” to which he would make the gesture in the photo. This was the universal sign for an Eskimo Pie. The chocolate covered ice cream novelty. His dessert of choice.

If my mother said yes, his eyes would light up.

That was the cue for one of us, my sister, my mother or I, to get up and get him one from the freezer. (This was the 60s. It was what women and girls did.)

If she said no. He would follow with, “Pie-my? Cake-make? Cookie-mookie?”

My mother always had one of those. Thanks to the parade of home made baked goods produced by my grandmother who lived a few blocks away.

My father rarely went without dessert. But we all knew what he preferred. The simple Eskimo Pie wrapped in tin foil.

If the Tea Party folks are looking for something to chew on…

by Karen Topakian

I’ve got an issue for them. Cheese subsidies.

Sunday’s New York Times reported that, Dairy Management, a mostly government (US Department of Agriculture) funded and supported non-profit with a $140 million dollar budget, spends its time supporting the marketing of dairy products. In this case, cheese.

Why, you ask? To increase dairy consumption. Because (drum roll) the dairy industry increased productivity through artificial insemination, hormones and lighting that keeps cows more active while we were actually consuming more low-fat and nonfat milk products, creating a problem of leftover whole milk. So says the NYT.

Dairy Management, the very people behind the catchy and much copied Got Milk campaign, can take the blame or receive the credit for infusing the mega-pizza business with more cheese. Pizza Hut. Burger King. Taco Bell. Domino’s Pizza. All benefited from Dairy Management’s efforts to increase the amount of cheese in their products.

Cheese in the crust. Extra cheese on top. Cheesy bites. Cheesy Angus Bacon Cheeseburgers. Cheese in the cardboard box!

This promotional campaign contributed to extra pounds and increased cholesterol for everyone that consumed these products. Pounds that we, as a nation, can’t afford to gain. According to the their reports to Congress, cheese sales growth of nearly 30 million pounds!

Cheese surely plays a role in the diet and nutrition plan of all but vegans and the lactose intolerant. But we are now eating more than ever before. According to the NYT story, “Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate. Cheese has become the largest source of saturated fat…”

I know I don’t need to point out the obvious, that First Lady Michelle Obama works hand in hand with the USDA to promote low-fat food, healthier eating and more exercise while the same USDA pushes high fat dairy onto our plates.

{I know I don’t have to point out the simple solution: Reduce milk production so we won’t need Dairy Management’s efforts to push the extra cheese down our throats.}

Back to the Tea Party.

Doesn’t this sound like an excellent rallying cry for the Tea Party/small government/lower taxes/get the government off my back people? Subsidies. Government giveaways. Pork.

Speaking of pork.  The Agriculture Department runs other programs that promote commodities such as beef, pork and potatoes…

If the Tea Party mission of cutting government spending truly resides in the belief that government does too much and our taxes are too high. Then how about putting their money where their mouth is and calling for the dissolution of these government sponsored food councils?

Seriously, the next time you talk with or meet a Tea Party advocate, which might just happen around the holiday table, ask them about these government programs. And whether these might be the ones they are willing to cut.

Michael Bittman and Ruth Reichl’s food fantasies

by Karen Topakian

Last night while many people were watching the Giants win the first game of the World Series, I was sitting in a comfy aisle seat at the Herbst Theater listening to Ruth Reichl and Michael Bittman. Two notable and quotable authors talked with Steven Winn about cooking, restaurants, food and food policy.

Here are a few of their thoughts.

Bittman: Many claim they’re too busy to cook while watching others cook on TV.

Reichl: At Gourmet, we struggled with it all the time (recording the actual recipe cooking time). How honest should we be?

Reichl: The first place you can show off your wealth (as an immigrant) is with food.

Bittman: Americans kills 10 billion animals a year.

Reichl: I am not a huge eater. I taste things. I eat slowly. (In response to the question about how she stayed so thin as a restaurant critic.)

Reichl: As a restaurant critic you become a mindful eater.

Reichl: If I could do two things in America (to stop obesity), I’d get rid of sodas and have everyone cook from scratch.

Bittman: My newest fantasy: develop a civilian cooking corps (CCC) of people who would cook for those who couldn’t or didn’t have time.

Reichl: We will start community kitchens recreating extended families. (In response to the question about her fantasy.)

Reichl: The history of American cuisine is the history of immigration.

Any thoughts? Responses? Ideas? Conclusions? Feel free to speak up.

And the photo is mine. From our recent trip to Greece.