My earliest memories of happiness take place at my grandmother’s dining table. Her table was always covered in a blue and white tablecloth in the style of the French village she grew up in, and there was never quite enough space for everyone in the family to sit down comfortably. She and my grandfather live in a modest home on the outskirts of Fresno, California, in the heart of California’s agricultural treasure: the central valley.
As a young girl, I would sit at this table in the summertime and the room was filled with the comforting smell of whatever my grandmother was cooking, whether it was Italian minestrone, French roasted chicken, or an Armenian dish that I could never pronounce. Her specialty was sou boerag. Sou boereg is a traditional Armenian dish that is very time consuming to make from scratch. First, you have to make the pasta layers, similar to those used in lasagna. After brushing each side of each layer with butter, a cheesy filling is spread over it. Layers are added on and then the whole thing is baked. The result is a flakey, cheesy casserole, unlike any American dish. My grandmother was an expert at cooking all things Armenian, and the smell of that food still makes me feel at home, as though I could turn around and see her in the kitchen, doing what she loved to do: feeding her family.
But my grandmother wasn’t always skilled at cooking traditional Armenian food. In fact, she isn’t Armenian at all. Ethnically Italian, she was born in 1925 in Uckange, Alsace Lorraine, France. Her father was a shoemaker. She lived through the German occupation of France, and it was when American soldiers came to liberate her country that she met Seth Kludjian. The two met at a dance put on for the soldiers that she reluctantly attended. After much protest, she gave him her address. He found her the next day. They managed to communicate only because Seth’s friend spoke some German and she had learned some during the war. They kissed only once. He had to return to the States. She learned English. They wrote letters.
“Come to America. Marry me.”
In 1947, two years after the war had ended, she got on a boat to the United States. She had never been outside of France, but for some reason she trusted this American soldier she had met so briefly. They were married in a courthouse in California, and she became Mrs. Antoinette Kludjian.
Food soon took on a new role in Antoinette’s life. She had married a first generation Armenian, whose parents were still very traditional in many aspects. She had no friends, no connections, and somehow she had to find a way to fit into this new family, thousands of miles away from Uckange.
So she learned to cook.
My grandfather’s mother took a liking to her son’s French bride. Antoinette began spending most of her days with her new mother-in-law learning how to roll out fillo dough just right, how to correctly prepare rice pilaf, and how to make sou boereg the way Armenians have for generations. With every dish that she perfected, every dolma that was wrapped tightly enough so that it didn’t fall apart, she was carving out a place for herself in this new family.
I still remember the feeling of being fed by my grandma. It was the way she best expressed herself, expressed how she cared about me; by cooking a meal, often with produce my grandpa had harvested from his small farm in the back. We were closest when we were in the kitchen together. Literally, because it was the smallest room in the house. But also because that is where she felt comfortable—language was no longer a barrier, there were just ingredients and a kitchen and us. She smelled strongly of lavender. We would make muffins together, using a recipe she remembered from France, and we would spread apricot jam on them, made from the apricots we picked from the field two doors down. Food was ever-present, and smells and tastes dominate my memories of the summers I spent there.
But time took away her ability to share food, to tell stories, to recognize her family. Alzheimer’s disease has left her a shell of the woman she was. She no longer knows who I am, who her children are, let alone how to cook for her family.
But Antoinette’s story does not end there.
My mother and my uncle watched her in the kitchen closely. They still keep her recipes, compiling them along with other family recipes into a cookbook that was given out at our last family reunion. Dishes like sou boereg and dolma still connect my extended family, even those generations that have never heard a word of Armenian or French or Italian. My uncle has nearly perfected many of grandma’s recipes in his own kitchen where he spent many years as a bachelor, honing his skills as an Armenian, Italian, and French cook. He and I have spent time together in the kitchen, carefully folding over the fillo dough to make each individual cheese boereg from scratch so we could proudly share our creation with the family. And every Thanksgiving, Easter, or family reunion, he cooks something my grandmother would have made.
And so the memory of Antoinette lives on through food. There is a part of our family missing when we sit at the table now, still uncomfortably close, in the same house on Avenue 13 ¾. Outside the window, the grape vines across the street are beginning to bear fruit. There is no garden out back anymore. But we have our own garden at home, and we bring our produce to share with my grandpa like he did years ago. We still share a meal, and it makes us feel like a family. Antoinette is present more in the food that we share than in her physical presence.
Her story is in every bite.
In loving memory of Antoinette Catherine Claire Kludjian (née Masci) February 6, 1925-January 11, 2013. May you rest in peace, Grandma.
Antoinette's Sou-boereg Recipe:
2 cups flour
about 3 T water
2 T oil
Put flour and eggs in food processor and add liquid as needed, a little at a time, being careful not to get dough too soft and not humid to the touch. Roll out dough in sheets or strips in a pasta cutting machine. Have a pot of boiling salted water and a sink full of cold water ready.
Drop sheet of dough or strips of dough, a few at a time 3-4 in the boiling water, removing almost immediately with tongs. Put in colander which you put in cold water in sink. Remove after 30 seconds.
When thoroughly cool, shake off water and lay out strips or sheets of dough on clean towels. Immediately spread on buttered Pyrex baking dish, then butter each generously with melted butter. When you have 3 or 4 layers, spread about 1 inch of grated Monterey Jack cheese mixed with chopped parsley, then repeat layers of buttered cooked strips of dough (about four layers in all.)
End with brushing the top with melted butter. Cut in squares with sharp knife and bake at about 375-400 degrees. When pasta is gold on top, remove. Let rest 10 minutes and serve.