Ordering basturma with bated breath

Recently when my wife, my daughter, and I were visiting my father in South Florida, we took him to an Armenian restaurant. For those of you who have wondered at the origins of my last name and presumed it was French, Lebanese, or Klingon, here is the truth: It is Armenian. My father is one hundred percent Armenian and I am half-Armenian. (My mother, as I shared last month, was one hundred percent Swedish.)

The restaurant is called the Hollywood Grill and it sits under a wide awning on the Boardwalk along the Hollywood Beach. We went there because I wanted my father to enjoy one of his favorite foods from his childhood: Basturma.

Basturma, at least the way my Armenian grandmother prepared it, is essentially dried strips of beef seasoned with enough garlic to kill a vampire. There would be no “Twilight” phenomenon and Robert Pattinson’s big claim to fame would be Cedric Diggory in the movie, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” if Bella Swan had brought basturma to school in her lunchbox. The stuff – again, the way my grandmother prepared it and my father remembered it – gave a person poison gas breath. The World War One Battle of Ypres might have ended very differently if the Germans had filled their artillery shells with basturma instead of chlorine. One time when my parents were first going out, my mother canceled a date with him when he showed up to her apartment with basturma breath. She literally told him nothing was going to happen that night and to come back another day.

In any case, when my family got to the restaurant in South Florida, our waiter – who had recently arrived in the U.S. from Russia and was about seven years shy of fluent in English  – was thrilled that we were ordering basturma. But he was deeply concerned that one order was not going to be enough for the entire table. The following is a portion of our exchange:

ME: We’re vegetarian. Only my dad is eating it. One order is plenty.

WAITER: No, two orders. Is very good.

ME: I believe it is. But it’s beef.

WAITER: Yes, beef. Meat!

ME: We don’t eat meat.

WAITER (looking perplexed): Then why you order basturma?

ME (pointing at my dad): He eats meat. He loves basturma!

WAITER: Is very good!

So, we got one order of basturma. It looked like strips of beef jerky, but I think my neighbors in Lincoln – 1,600 miles distant – could smell it. You could almost see the aroma wafting into the air, as if the plate were the tail of Pepe Le Pew, the Looney Tunes animated skunk. Diners at the next table looked at us in wonder. Clearly they had no idea what basturma was and presumed that one of us was in the midst of some super scary gastrointestinal disaster.

My dad, however, was in absolute heaven. Apparently the stuff was just like mama used to make it. Of course, that also meant I wanted him to ride home in the trunk of the car – or at least chew a whole tin of Altoids breath mints before exhaling ever again.

But I think what made him happiest wasn’t the robust flavor of the basturma: It was the litany of memories that flavor conjured for him. As he ate, he regaled us with stories of my grandparents – both Armenian immigrants – and growing up in the 1930s in a house that was spectacularly exotic by the standards of most on that suburban street not far from New York City. He shared stories even I’d never heard before, and I have been hearing his tales (some taller than others) for a very long time.

As Proust observed, food can do that. That basturma was my dad’s madeleine.

He turned 83 a couple weeks ago. I send him greetings and one piece of advice: As much as you liked that basturma, Dad, stick to leftover cake if you’re seeing your girlfriend tonight. Happy belated birthday.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 13, 2011.)


Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.