Siren’s Feast: An Edible Odyssey
by Nancy Mehagian
Cielo Press, 2008
Reviewed by Alice Folkart
In the Siren’s Feast, an Edible Odyssey, Nancy Mehagian serves up a plethora of delicious and exotic dishes from the fabulous spiritual, social, sensual, artistic and intellectual banquet of her young adulthood. She has landed on her feet now, more than twenty years later, and can lead us along the trail she followed through the 60’s, hungry for visions, and convinced that there was more to life than appears on the surface.
Mehagian describes her child self as ‘different.’ A first-generation Armenian-American girl with attitude, a wild mop of curly, dark hair and a body plumped up with her mother’s wonderful cooking, she is not the ideal, skinny blond of Phoenix, Arizona in the 50’s and 60’s. She gravitates to others who are different, misfits, ‘baby beatniks.’ She makes quick work of college, doing well, but dropping out, convincing her parents to send her to study in Italy, but taking off instead for Tangier with a boy friend. There, she experiences the first of several spiritual awakenings with her first Acid trip.
Her life had changed. As she puts it, “I never made the Dean’s List again.”
But, in eschewing ivy halls, she gains admittance to the University of Universal Curiosity, where learning seems to be in direct proportion to how many new experiences, people, places, feelings, ideas, dreams, tastes, and sounds she could cram into every day. Her fearlessness, and the tides of the great hippie invasion of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, India and Nepal took her on an incredible, often edible, journey.
To a sound track of Crosby, Stills and Nash; Dr. John, Taj Mahal (an important man in her life then), and whatever music was ‘happening,’ Nancy moved from romance to romance, friend to friend and country to country breathlessly, joyously. Free Love and Turning On were the name of the game, and she seemed to travel a magical path. At many potentially dangerous junctures, she instinctively, some might say impulsively, ‘leaped,’ and survived. Change is the constant in her story. In India, she accomplishes an arduous pilgrimage despite no preparation, inadequate clothing and scant funds. On the Spanish island of Ibiza, without a dime in her pocket, but eager to show the world how to stop eating meat, she opens a successful vegetarian restaurant. On the eve of being ejected from Syria, she conceives, in one encounter with a gypsy violinist to whom she has never spoken, the child for whom she has begun to yearn. And finally, she is duped into running drugs into England, is caught and arrested and spends more than a year in prison. When she and her daughter emerge (yes, she is allowed to keep her baby with her), they return to the United States where she is finally sure that she knows what she has to do–finish college and find a spiritual teacher who can help her make herself useful to the world and to her child. She does it all.
Nancy Mehagian has one of the greatest gifts a person (or a cook) can have, the ability to make lemonade when all she has is lemons. She puts the most positive spin on even the direst situations. She sees her prison experience as an enforced retreat where her vision was bound to expand as her options narrowed. She continually asks herself whether what happens to her is misfortune or opportunity.
Siren’s Feast comes with a bonus, a collection of delicious-sounding recipes scattered throughout the account–some of her mother’s and grandmother’s best traditional Armenian dishes like Vosp Kufta (Armenian Red Lentil Patties), Kataif (Honeyed Shredded-dough Pastry), and her father’s recipe for home-made yogurt; and many recipes picked up throughout her travels such as Fattoush (Syrian Bread Salad), Nigerian Pepper Stew (taught her by a fellow inmate at Holloway), and the baby food she devised for the children in the prison nursery, Baby Feast.
A sad subtheme of Mehagian’s memoir is historical, the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Turks, an event so brutal and senseless, that it is incomprehensible to the author. She can only say that in her quest for meaning, in facing, “. . . a legacy so filled with violence, loss, pain and death–the survival of my race and our unique culinary heritage has the sweet liberation of revenge.”
It’s unfortunate that the author chose to do without an editor. Writers need that second set of eyes unclouded by love or friendship. A good editor would have cut the book by at least 50 pages and shown the author how to infer results without describing every event leading to them. A knowledgeable editor would have urged the author to leave some space–after all, the ‘art’ in writing is almost more about what’s left out than what’s included–we don’t need every detail. A professional would have thinned out the many digressions and non-sequiturs that stop the reader in his tracks, flagged the poor word choices and awkward phrasing that slow the narrative, and polished the book into the gem it deserves to be.
Editorial issues aside, Nancy Mehagian’s Siren’s Feast, An Edible Odyssey will surely entertain and nourish the reader looking for a light read, a little social history, and some good recipes. Such a reader’s biggest question will undoubtedly be, ‘Do I shelve it under Cookbooks, Travel, Erotica, or Memoir?’