If you are Armenian or Italian or Sri Lankan or even Vietnamese, food is your lifeline. I don't mean that just in a literal sense. It is more than nourishment. It is what forms bonds, what tells stories, what keeps families alive.
As immigrants, the weight of our various cuisines, its significance to the history we try so hard to balance between football season and apple pie, magnifies and also multiplies. While the Great American Feast begins with copious amounts of candy on Halloween and ends with a week of gorging on meals that knock you out faster than any sleeping aid could, we eat in this manner year round, with rarely a moment to come up for air and for better or worse, with more than enough relatives to share the meal with.
Everything is a celebration, even a regular Sunday. Spread from one end to the other with enough food to feed a small village, the table is always full, but the people, always coming back for more, never seem to be, which makes it near impossible to lose a smidgen of weight if you're from an ethnic family. For every slice of cake you hold off eating during your lunch hour, there's a chef in the house force-feeding you home-baked goods as soon as you get home.
Food is how we measure hospitality and love. When we leave the house, along the “Be safe” and “Take your jacket” warnings are followed by an echoing “make sure you eat something.” When we enter the house, there is no “How are you?” but rather “Are you hungry?” Your answer, I should point out, does not bear any significance, because if food hasn't been prepared already, your mere entrance will trigger a set of events that will lead to a full, lavish meal within the span of an hour.
And here's a handy warning for a potentially disastrous scenario: Refusing food from an Armenian woman's kitchen is tantamount to sin. Refuse her food, and you are essentially refusing her heart and soul. If you don't eat her food, the guilt will eat away at you for breaking her heart.
But food isn't only shaped by eons past. It is continually evolving in the present, too. Immigrant families, my own included, delight in the American culinary traditions of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sweet-potato marshmallow casserole and stuffing is as much a ritual of their identities as the day they stood with hundreds of other newly minted citizens and recited their allegiance to the American flag. It is an expression and a reminder of not just who they are, but where they've come from and where they are now, when they place perfected cranberry sauce made following an online recipe rather than from oral tradition passed onto them by their mothers, next to a plate of jeweled rice or kimchi.
And the exchange goes both ways. You can't find an Angeleno who won't be able to tell you about their mouth-watering experiences at Zankou Chicken or that heavenly feeling when they sipped their first bowl of Pho. Immigrants have miraculously and diligently shaped American food culture over decades. Even a quick drive down Glendale's Brand Boulevard is peppered with enough international influence — from Japanese to Peruvian eateries and everything in between — to let you experience the world without ever leaving home.
As the beginning of the holiday season draws near, I feel lucky enough to not only be able to fill my plate up with pumpkin pie, but some grandmother-made and approved dolma, too.
LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New American Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org