At almost every family gathering, our Aunt makes yalanchi. Well, my poor Aunt has been having more and more trouble with her arthritis and the past several family gatherings - no yalanchi!
There were grumblings among the cousins - who is going to start making yalanchi??? That sacred grape leaf, chariot of the hatchkar, filled with the taste that permeated our childhood memories through all major life events - marriages, christenings, holiday dinners, and playing hide'n'seek in the dark upstairs while the parents were chatting downstairs. Food is our culture - our heritage - our destiny!!
All right, maybe I'm getting carried away. But we can't let it slide away, so I stepped up - as if I had the time (I've got three kids and a was working at the time) or the cooking ability (my specialty is frozen pizza).
This is the modern problem with historic Armenian food: It was all developed in a pre-industrial culture where there were about 10 adult women, with their families, living in one home/compound, all cooking, all the time. As a well-oiled machine, these ladies would work with 20 hands to roll out paper-thin philo dough for baklava. They could sit down and produce Dolma (an entree of stuffed vegetables) for 50 people in 10 minutes. They started learning the techniques at the age of eight, perfecting their craft all through their teens. In a time when wifery was a woman's lifelong career, this skill was a top husband-attracting advertisement, up there with beauty, good teeth, and child-bearing hips.
I don't live there.
For better or worse, I live here, in the 21st century, the - one mom per house, double income needed, information loaded, over scheduled, run to the store, and put it on credit - century.
The next family gathering was approaching and I had made my commitment, so I pulled out the handwritten Yalanchi recipe. My Aunt gave it to me about 8 years ago. Apparently, she had to practically steal from her own mother, the undisputed culinary matriarch of the family.
I bought the ingredients on my recipe list. “OK,” I told myself,” I can do this. It’s going to be great.”
I chopped parsley.
I chopped dill.
I chopped onions.
I chopped more onions.
I cried and I chopped more onions!
I sautéed and mixed and seasoned.
“OK,” I reminded myself, "I can do this. It’s going to be great.”
Then, the rolling part came. I put on my favorite Green Day CD, figuring I could get a groove on and get into some kind of Hye Zen state of factory yalanchi output. I sat at my dining table with everything in front of me. I knew what it was supposed to look like, but the rice was hard and I was not sure how much to put in. I inspected each leave, not knowing what I was inspecting for. I rolled the first one and it looked right, so I put it in the pot. So, I rolled and re-rolled the filling into the leaves, lining the them up in the familiar patterns that were etch in mind from a lifetime of family feasts.
“OK,” I mumbled to myself,” I can do this. It’s going to be great.”
My kids came in one at a time, looking over my shoulder, asking me how I was doing. The comments ranged from, “Eww, it’s slimy,” to “Are you sure you doing that right?” One of them is old enough to help. She lasted about 10 minutes.
Two hours later, the skin on my fingers was shriveled and my back hurt, but all of my little bundles of culture were neatly piled up, ready for cooking. So let the boiling begin. There was an intricate method of lining the pot with leaves and using a perfect sized plate to weigh them down. Then, covering it with the pot lid, I let it simmer for the prescribed amount of time. The little buggers were supposed to absorb the water and become plump – but instead, the water just boiled and boiled and boiled, but did not seem to get absorbed.
I panicked. I called my sister. I complained to my husband. After an hour, it was supposed to be done and ready to go. But it wasn’t. So, I let it simmer for another hour.
“OK,” I hissed through gritted teeth,” I can do this. It’s going to be great.”
I turned off the burner and let it cool on the stove. Every few minutes, I'd walk by it, hovering nearby like a skittish mother watching her forgetful child in the school play.
Then, the moment of reckoning was upon me. I opened the pot and smelled. The nose is the first avenue to the taste. I gingerly peeled off the plate and peered through the steam. It looked funny.
It was too dark.
It was too light.
It was mushy.
It was hard.
“Calm down!” I reprimanded myself “Remember, Hye Zen???”
My tentative fingers reached for one of the small, green pods. I moved it to my mouth and bit down. Chewed. Swallowed.
“Hmmmm.” I sighed with relief. It had the right texture! It actually tasted just like yalanchi!
The next day, I proudly produced this culinary feat to my extended family, nervous of how it would go over, especially with my Aunt. Everyone else had an offering of improvement - this is an Armenian family, afterall. One person wanted more salt. Another said it was a little too salty. When my Aunt appeared at the buffet table, we all gathered around her as she eyed the platter. I held my breath when she took the first bite. For a moment, her expression was unreadable. If her stamp of approval was not given to my little endeavor, I was doomed to familial ribbing for the rest of my life. She finally grinned.
"Garine!" she exclaimed, "You did this? It’s great!”