When hometown native William Saroyan visited Fresno in the 1950s, he would often stop by the Elia home on the edge of Fresno’s Armenian Town to have Armenian coffee, says Dennis. Saroyan was friends with brothers Joe and John Elia. “One day, when Saroyan hit it big in the literary world, he pulled up to our family compound in a brand new luxury convertible, honking his horn, causing my cantankerous grandfather to walk outside and admonish him for the disturbance,” he adds.
“Saroyan was born in Fresno in 1908, to Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan, Armenian immigrants from Bitlis. He felt strong ties to his ancestral home, in fact, he visited Bitlis in 1964, the birthplace of his family in Turkey.* He presented himself as an American-Armenian from Bitlis, ”adds Dennis. “Saroyan appreciated good home-cooked Armenian meals and fine cuisine in the major cities of the world, including New York, Paris, London and Lisbon. But in Fresno, he was saved when it came to accepting dinner invitations. If he suspected he was being invited to enhance the reputation of his host, he would decline such invitations.
“Saroyan would inquire around town to find the names of the best Armenian cooks, and would often call and ask to come to dinner.” Having heard of my mother Mary’s culinary skills from her in making Armenian food, Saroyan called her one day and invited himself to dinner at our home. Of course, my mother was delighted with his call from her, as this was an acknowledgment of her mastery of Armenian cooking. Another tradition Saroyan enjoyed was handing out signed copies of his books from him to old friends or new acquaintances that he liked.
In their retirement years, Mary and Joe stayed active and managed the Marlo Regency Apartments in Northwest Fresno. They were happily married for 55 years until Joe passed away in 1991. On October 21, 2017, Mary attended the 120th Anniversary Banquet of the FAPC, and was honored for her remarkable 72 years of faithful membership and service.
Mary served as a former president of the FAPC Fidelis Women’s Society, and was a tireless organizer and volunteer who cherished supporting her church community. “My mother loved collecting antiques, and she was a gifted artist who took painting lessons on canvas and flatware,” adds Dennis. “Her fine oil and china paintings by her received several awards at the Fresno District Fair between 1975 and 1985.”
A lifelong resident of Fresno, Mary Elia passed away on April 4, 2018, a month shy of her 100th birthday. She was preceded in death by her parents, her husband, Joe Elia, and son Allen Elia. Her survivors of her include are Dennis Elia and her granddaughter Ariele Elia.
Here are two of Mary Elia’s favorite Armenian recipes:
Kurabia or Shakarishee
3 cups sugar
1 pound sweet or clarified butter, softened
4 cups flour
1 egg yolk, beaten
1 blanched almond per cookie
Add sugar to the butter and knead well. Gradually add and keep kneading the flour and beaten egg yolk. Keep kneading until the dough stays together. Roll in small balls and place on a cookie sheet. Press a blanched almond in the center of each cookie and bake at 300 degrees until light pink. Don’t overbake. Remove to cool. Make 48 cookies.
Mary Elia’s Lamb Shanks
6 lamb shanks, trimmed of excess fat
2 large onions, sliced
3 garlic cloves
1 large bell pepper, sliced
1 large can crushed or diced tomatoes
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 cups water
4 teaspoons dry mustard
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup vinegar
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup oil
3 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Brown the lamb shanks buy putting them in a 450-degree oven in some oil. In a large bowl, combine the onions, garlic, pepper, tomatoes, brown sugar, water, dry mustard, salt, vinegar, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce.
Pour this mixture over the brown lamb, cover, and bake for 1 1/2 hours at 350 degrees. Uncover and bake for 1/2 hour longer. Baste often while cooking. Serve with Armenian rice or bulgur pilaf. Serves 6.
A Hundred Years and Still Cooking, first published in 1993 by H. Markus Printing, is a significant 496-page volume cookbook includes instructions for preparing 636 different recipes, a “Cooks in the Heavens” and “Cooking for the Multitudes” sections, a glossary, index and references. This prized cookbook is a unique compendium of Armenian heritage recipes, Scriptural truths, Old World culinary precepts, and Central California ethnic history. To order copies for your friends and family, send a check or money order for $35.00 each to: First Armenian Presbyterian Church 430 S. First St., Fresno, CA 93702, Attention: Marine or write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Breaking Bread with William Saroyan is an authentic Armenian recipe book derived from the heritage of William Saroyan’s Bitlis, Armenia. An artistic and literary gem, it is a one-of-a-kind collector book offering the opportunity to prepare and sample foods common to Saroyan and his fellow Armenians. To order, contact:
1490 W. Shaw Ste G.
Fresno, CA 93711