Armenian food, Mexican bakers, American setting — I love SoCal

First off, read the story in full (and check out all the photos). To quote the introduction:

So how did a pair of childhood buddies from Zacatecas, Mexico, turn into two of Los Angeles’ most popular Armenian bakers?

On West Adams Boulevard, Francisco Rosales and Jose Gonzales did it by adopting Leon Partamian’s family recipes — and then getting “adopted” by Partamian themselves.

The crusty owner of the 60-year-old A. Partamian Bakery in the Mid-City area liked the way they cooked his sarma and lahmajune. And he liked the two of them.

So when Partamian died 17 months ago, he gave his bakery business — and the building that houses its vintage ovens and bread display cases — to both of them.

Now on the face of it, a classic ‘human interest’ story, which it is. It’s meant to make you smile, get you interested in the subject matter, the usual sort of stuff. Given that the focus is also to do with food, it should also get you hungry (rightfully so — I’ve not been to this place in question but I’ve had a couple of excellent lahmajunes over the moons, given my shamefully limited experience with Armenian cuisine, and if these guys cook some of the best, that’s a sign enough for me).

There’s a larger significance, though, and rightfully the author of the piece doesn’t spell it out entirely, nor do I need to — but it’s good to note the contextual web of assumptions and axioms. It’s very much a classic ‘American’ success story, one that undercuts, indirectly, a variety of overriding narratives, nearly all of which are laden with stereotypes if not bigotry. Grab a Malkin or a Dobbs or the like and say something like, “Yeah, there was this Armenian American businessman who worked out getting green cards for his two assistants from Mexico years after they arrived here…” and see how quickly they will prevent you from completing the sentence before something charming is said that shouldn’t be repeated.

The point is not to balance stereotype with stereotype, however — we live in a land of imperfections and sadness of all kinds, of exploitative bosses and desperate people under the radar, and this article doesn’t wipe that slate clean. The story of Partamian, Rosales and Gonzales is one story, not all stories, yet it’s a story of the land of opportunity made manifest. It undoes the question of authenticity in favor of the one of skills, learning, passion — Rosales and Gonzales didn’t grow up with the food? No, but they learned it from someone who did, and who in turn made sure they knew.

There’s a long-standing association and preference in America — likely many other countries — for the food at a restaurant identified with a particular national cuisine to be made strictly by people of that nationality, and yet that’s a well-meaning myth at best. Ditch it. What matters is what’s done and how well, and what a chef can bring to it, and what people pass on to their assistants, and so forth.

This story covers everything from hard work (consider the hours mentioned that Rosales and Gonzales put in) to the transformation of an ‘immigrant’ cuisine into a home one (the one patron who isn’t Armenian but grew up with the food as a youngster because of where she lived) to the value of community and family knowledge (Partamian never wrote a will but it was recognized by all who he wanted to deed the business and building to, and after time it was all resolved in the duo’s favor). And it’s a very LA story — it couldn’t have just happened here, no, but there’s a combination of everything (from Anglo-Saxon/English probate law to Armenian immigration after the horrors of a century ago to the search for work in Mexico and the United States and more besides) that can result in something like this happening here, recognizably in this area.

And above all else, there’s no sense that anyone involved is a plaster saint — just folks doing what they can, and hopefully to the best of their ability. Now that’s all right.

Here’s where the bakery is, off the 10 via La Brea or Fairfax — they’re probably going to get a big spike in business. Well deserved, I’d say.


Kale soup with soy and lime (plus some general cooking thoughts)

Made two days back, chilled, and then served up with a fresh cilantro garnish (the lime is just off camera, on the plate with the jalapeño to the right). Add in a good salad, a couple of warmed rolls and a beer and that’s a fine Friday night dinner to relax with…

Now, at this point I would normally post the recipe, but I got this from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything (page 54) and it behooves you to get the book, as I’ve said a few times. However, friend and very good cook Remy, in talking about that the other day, happened to mention another book he recommends should be read in conjunction with it, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking — so to quote him:

I love Mark Bittman for the same reason Ned and others do: he is no-nonsense, he offers simplified preparations of global cuisine from available ingredients (‘simplified’ without condescension) and generally for a low cost. The food his recipes make is good, honest, plain, and lends itself to adaptation. And experimentation. It is definitely a biblical text for most good-to-great home cooks I know, and it fills a real niche, splitting the difference between Betty Crocker and Julia Child.

There is, however, one hesitation I have regarding it as ‘the only cookbook you’ll ever need’ (this seems to be a popular line amongst amazon reviewers): it is pretty light on the science/history/theory behind the recipes.

I think a lot of home cooks assume they do not care about these omissions, that they are irrelevant to the process of making macaroni and cheese or almond macaroons. But Bittman tends to say, for instance, ‘mix three cups of milk, four tablespoons of butter blended with four tablespoons of flour … and spread it on bottom of the pan’ instead of ‘make a simple Bechamel’

This is useful and unintimidating, but at the same time it can be — just a little bit — of a cramp to the style of a learning cook, who might not ever learn (because HTCE doesn’t say) that a béchamel is a roux in scalding milk, or that they have just learned how to make the base of a soubise or a veloute or, hell, cheddar fondue.

In other words: a new chef working only from Bittman might learn a step-by-step recipe, and well, and how to repeat it flawlessly, but there is a sense in which they will lose the adaptability and generalizability of the steps or components that comprise the procedure of the recipe.

I am in no way criticizing Bittman. He is actually sort of a hero of mine. But I recommend reading On Food and Cooking (or similar) alongside him.

Wise words — and it does tie in with something I’ve always believed, namely that the Bittman book is good as a launching pad but not as an end result. Having tried this recipe, I plan on doing something different with it next time — I actually used fish sauce over soy in the broth, suggested in the recipe as an option, but there are other possibilities as well, and possibly other additions to the ingredients.

Experiment, read up, learn and apply. And try it again!