Our Thanksgiving wrap-up? Fabulous with a side of WTF. That’s what happens in life after loss.
The lesson? Just because something looks absolutely beautiful and correct and right and good on the outside doesn’t necessarily mean it’s stellar on the inside.
We know this applies to people. (Self Care = This year’s theme.) It also applies to yalanchi.
OK WAIT HUH JILL WHAT THE HECK IS YALANCHI?!??!?
Sorry. Let’s back up: Yalanchi is an Armenian appetizer that most folks recognize as stuffed grape leaves. My grandma made it (she’s the one that added hot sauce to the family recipe because my grandpa used to like his filling spicy). My mom made yalanchi (hers was the best and a fixture at every family gathering). Now, I make yalanchi — and if I were writing this before last week, I’d tell you that (after several years making it once or twice a year) I’d now mastered this delicacy that my family has enjoyed on almost every holiday. (I mean, it’s not a holiday-type food, but making it takes so many damn steps over the span of 2 days that we tend to just save the effort for special gatherings that involve dressing up and pictures.)
Now that you’re caught up about what yalanchi is, I’ll dive in.
Last week, I decided to make yalanchi for our Thanksgiving mezza (that’s Armenian for appetizers). A no brainer. I had the leaves. I sliced the onions — my eyeballs watered and burned so much they almost fell out of my head from slicing them so thin manually (because it’s the best way, hello). I oiled and lemoned and sauteed my way into Armenian cooking bliss. My mom’s typed instructions were now stained with oil from all the years I’d used them.
It was the first time I was making our specialty and couldn’t call her with status updates, questions or laughs and jokes about how her directions were weird and confusing unless I read them three times. Maybe some of that onion-crying went deeper than slicing…
After stirring and bubbling, the filling was done. It tasted better than it ever had before. I was proud of me. I was proud of her. I was proud of myself for going gung-ho all-out and making a bigger-than-usual batch for the first time since her passing.
If you followed along in my Instastories last week, I detailed the whole thing from my kitchen. The chopping, the simmering, the stirring, the crazy antics my daughters were doing at the kitchen table while I was slaving away at the stove. I always feel close to my mom when I make her recipes, but this time was therapeutic. I then debated (via video) about whether I should roll the leaves in my kitchen (in LA) or if I should haul the filling to Fresno and do it there. Frankly I was pooped and not in the mood to roll that night — I’d do it in Fresno at my parents’ house.
In her kitchen. On her white tile. With her cutting board — the same one I had memories of learning how to roll a yalanchi on in the first place.
My older girl (LadyP) helped me by snipping the stems off the leaves. She tasted the filling again. “It’s so good, Mommy!” It was! Mother and daughter rolling great-grandma’s recipe in grandma’s kitchen… dare I admit I let myself feel more joy than sadness that night. I was home in more ways than one.
They were the most beautiful leaves I’d ever rolled. My mom would’ve flipped — and maybe would’ve said “Make them smaller so you get more…” But to me, they were gorgeous. (Usually, my rolls turn out lopsided and uneven…) There was divine grace on my side that night. Every. One. Looked. Perfect.
The final stretch: They were in the same pot I always use. I poured over the same measurement of lemon + olive oil + water I always do. I put that same old plate upside down, on top of the leaves like the instructions always command (to keep them in place while cooking, so they don’t float up with the liquid in there). I set the timer for one hour. NO. BRAINER. EASY. PEASY.
I pulled out the heavy pot, opened the lid and gasped at how lovely they all looked. I beamed. The legacy of tradition our mothers teach us do live forever. I left the pot to cool overnight on the counter, just as I always do.
The next day, I couldn’t wait to platter my masterpieces. I pulled Mom’s crystal ‘yalanchi tray’ from the cabinet and began. Round and round. I’d never had such a big batch before! I started planning how I’d divide up the leftovers — some to my sister, some to my dad, some to my grandma…
I took a bite. What I tasted literally made me cry.
Dry. Burnt. Crumbly. Crunchy. Tasteless. ?!?!?!!?!??!?! Wait-WTF-just-happened?!?!
I took a bit out of another — surely, that one was an anomaly and must’ve been in a corner of the pot that accidentally absorbed too much heat and dried out.
The next one was a little better, but still inconsistent. NOT. AS. GOOD. AS. MY. USUAL.
I tried another one. Where the bleep was all my flavor from my filling before?!?!?!!?
Dry. Burnt. Crumbly. Crunchy. Tasteless. Inconsistent again.
CONFUSED, I IMMEDIATELY EXPLODED. “What happened to these?!” I cried out loud. My daughter came running in the from the den. She took a bite. “It’s good, Mommy!”
No, it wasn’t. None of them were. The tears came. I kept taking bites of different ones to make see if they were all a loss. “Don’t worry,” my dad said. “We can inject them with oil and lemon juice with a syringe.”
I should’ve laughed at the suggestion but I just got more irate.
I called my sister with my disappointing report and she calmed me by pointing out that no one has cooked in my mom’s oven for a year, and that maybe the heat setting was whacked out or something.
I felt better, but was still deflated at my first-time fail. I’ve done this dozens of times! These were supposed to be great, dammit. This was the symbolic yalanchi comeback to assure myself that everything is okay. The filling was delicious before I rolled and cooked them. The rolls turned out perfect. They. Were. Perfect.
And then, OMG it hit me: This year, I’m the yalanchi.
Just because something seems good on the outside, doesn’t mean it’s well on the inside.
This whole year, I’ve dressed up, showed up, smiled, enjoyed myself and done what’s expected of me for love and security of family, friends and kids… but my inside is still not quite right. I’m different. Dry inside. Burnt. Crumbly at times. Crunchy. Tasteless. Totally inconsistent, depending on the day.
I’m not the same as before and I most likely will never be.
I tried to go gung-ho and all-out with a bigger-than-before batch and it just didn’t work. Sometimes things don’t work. Sometimes we can’t force them to work if the timing and place we’re in clashes with the chemistry of our circumstance — no matter how great our track record or know-how.
But you can bet your a$$ I’m going to make yalanchi again for Christmas. Because the only way to make something right is to get up and figure out how the heck to readjust, reinvent and remedy the missing link, to the find the thing your new self (or, new batch) needs to slowly guide things to function as similarly as possible (given the circumstance) that they used to.
And maybe adding a bit more liquid can’t hurt either.