The biggest turkey? The broccoli mold

When I was a boy, I dreaded Thanksgiving.
The day would begin when my family would venture from our house in Westchester, N.Y., to my aunt and uncle’s home in Queens. That meant traversing the Whitestone Bridge, one of the massive suspension bridges that link Queens and the Bronx. There would be miles of creeping traffic at the tollbooths, and my mother — who was smart and funny, but had the patience of a 6-year-old — would grow angry. And because my older brother and I were always the type to try putting out fires with gasoline, we would sing a Christmas carol from the backseat, though we would sing only one line of the song, repeating it over and over … and over. One time, our mother became so furious with us that she stormed from the car, walked ahead of us to the tollbooth, and waited for us there.
When we would finally arrive at my aunt and uncle’s, we would be greeted by our cousins — those who lived there and those who, somehow, had always beaten us there despite having traversed greater distances. To this day, my cousins are cooler than I am. And when we were children? Even worse: If they were female, they were beautiful and had dyed their hair strange colors. If they were male, they were handsome and athletic. All of them were artistic: They painted, made recordings, and played games like charades and sardines with creativity and drive.
And then there was the food. My aunt was — and is — a spectacular cook. There were all the foods we expect at Thanksgiving, but then there were the ones that would be there because my aunt is Armenian, such as berags (phyllo dough slathered in butter and filled with parsley and feta cheese) and baklava (phyllo dough filled with walnuts and sugar and honey). Meanwhile, my family would have appeared with my mother’s broccoli mold: Imagine vomit in Bundt cake-shaped Jell-O. It was horrifically bad, and to this day, I believe people encouraged my mother to bring it as part of a “devil-you-know” sort of strategy: They thought my mother might come up with something far worse if given the chance.
But invariably something magic then occurred. No, people didn’t actually eat the broccoli mold — except for my aunt who is the sweetest human being on the planet, and my grandmother who had lived through a lot as a little Armenian girl in Turkey and believed that no food should ever be wasted, even if it was inedible by the standards of 20th-century America.
What happened was this: I would start to have fun. I would have fun with my female cousins who were far more hip than I ever was going to be, and with my male cousins who were far more athletic. We would play football because football is how people who see each other three times a year bond in November, and because it gives men something to talk about in the awkward silences that mark most male conversations. (Sports were, in fact, invented so that men could have something to talk about.)
And then there would be my grandmother’s prayer at the table: “Eench bess es, Park Asdvadz, tanks God, king meal. I hope I am with you next year.”
The translation? “Eench bess es” means “How are you?” It’s the all-purpose Armenian greeting. “Park Asdvadz” translates to “Glory to God.” “Tanks God” is simply “thank you, God.” It is not a reference to some Transformer-like mixture of military vehicle and divinity. And “king meal,” if you are Armenian, is anything with lamb. Grape Nuts and lamb would be a king meal. So would lamb and paste.
When she was done, we would smile, convinced that our grandmother was going to outlive us all, and we would laugh. My fears, I would realize, had been completely unfounded.
We talk often about food on Thanksgiving (Exhibit A, this column). But the reality is that what we should all be most thankful for is family.
Happy Thanksgiving.
(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on November 18, 2007.)

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.

4 thoughts on “The biggest turkey? The broccoli mold

  1. Neil says:

    I suppose the writer would have preferred to stay home. But no, pile in the car, drive to Queens, play with the cool, fashionable, athletic, handsome and creative cousins, and endure the regret of the inevitable self-critical comparison. To top it off, mom brings out the broccoli mold and the ever-observant young Bojhalian is embarrassed AGAIN… the broccoli mold is like the pudding as in “the proof is in the pudding.”
    Is this the story of youth? We see admirable characteristics in others (well, others outside our immediate family) and due to our own insecurities; we endure regret and self-doubt as we compare ourselves unfavorably to them? Maybe it’s the story of life.
    Anyway, please pass the broccoli mold. I am grateful for my friends and my family in spite of all the self-doubt they cause. Happy Thanksgiving to family and friends, new and old. I love your column.

  2. Ah, Those Memories! says:

    Well, I am also thankful for family…despite considerable odds *against* the likelihood of my feeling this way. After all, it’s not fun when, on Thanksgiving Day that-has-just-passed, you finally have to, in sheer desperation, sternly command your family members to “either get some counseling or get a divorce!” (Didn’t do much good, but it helped for a bit, as a diversionary tactic).
    As for memories of Thanksgivings Past: my childhood ones dished up heaping, night-marish servings of bitter, acidic arguing that was scarier than any broccoli mold that looks like vomit (although you’ve grossed me out again; now I’m hooked on this column, wondering what your next, despicable description will entail). 🙂

  3. Irina says:

    Hello, Chris!
    After reading this post I wanted to know if you have any books based on life of the little Armenian girl “who had lived through a lot”?
    Thank you,

  4. Marianne Kozlik says:

    Hi Chris, I got your email about your new book and already sent out the info to my bookclub. We all loved the DOuble Bind” except for Peggy wo said “I don’t like to be tricked”.
    I thought your name might be Armenian…is it? I read the Thanksgiving Day story, very funny. A dear friend of mine, who passed just a few years ago, was Armenian. I am Slovenian. SHe called me the hodgee nina, I’m sure I butchered that, which she said meant something like the one that knows all the gossip in the towm. That and the very discrptive kaka geruve which apparently means your finished DONE for.
    She was the best cook and prepared the best lamb
    My german neigbor just came over she was 17 and was captured by the Russians and walked through europe too, I can’t wait to tell her about your new book. mk

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