Honoring a family heritage with a very special wedding gift—shish kebab for years to come!

Robyn’s parents, Mary and Andy Dabbakian, flew down for a
visit soon after we moved to Florida in 1978. We spotted them at the airport
and ran to them with open arms.

Robyn got two big hugs, and I got two big suitcases.

Andy and his machine in 1977
at Robyn’s bridal shower
“They’re lighter than they look,” her father said.

I should have recognized this as classic Armenian humor
before I grasped the handles and yanked. Not only did the cases refuse to budge,
I could swear they yanked back.

After a couple more tugs, I was convinced these suitcases
weighed only slightly less than a Buick Riviera. It wasn’t until I managed somehow
to get them home that I discovered why: They were filled with almost as much
metal, including a myriad of gears, shafts and a motor.

My very inventive and determined father-in-law had built us one
of his remarkable shish-kebab machines that had become fixtures at Armenian
church picnics back home in New Jersey. After he got it up and running, he took
it apart again and somehow managed to fit all the pieces in his checked
luggage. 

When we unpacked it all in our carport, he put it back together in
minutes using only a screwdriver and
pliers. He had the skewers humming merrily along when I got back from the
grocery store with the lamb.

Looking back, I wish I’d stayed and watched him work.

This all came rushing back into my
mind the other day as I slowly pried at the brackets that had held our faithful
kebab machine together for nearly 40 years. The time has finally come to pass Andy’s
handiwork along to the next generation.

Robyn
and I were excited when our daughter Mandy and her hubby-to-be Ron asked for
the kebab machine during their last visit. They’re getting married this summer,
and learning to make shish kebab will be part of Ron’s initiation rites as an
Armenian husband. (He has already figured out that not being born Armenian is
never an excuse, so he has a lot to learn.)

I was a little worried because we
haven’t used the grill much in the past 10 years or so, since Mandy moved to
New York. Like many people, we’ve downsized our parties as well as our menus. There’s just no reason to load Andy’s firebox with charcoal to make two skewers
of meat.

Still solid but a bit tired
after so many years
As
a result, the machine has been sitting in a corner of the garage under a pile
of extension cords. I cleaned it up, tightened the set screws that hold the
gears on the skewers and squirted some oil in what I guessed were the right
places. Then I noticed that the power cord was frayed, luckily before I plugged
it in. 

I cut out the rotted part, spliced the rest together and taped it up for
a test run. The ancient motor, rusty as well as dusty, sounded as tired as I
was at that point.

I
decided it would probably be best to call in an expert but I couldn’t think of
one, and I felt pressure to move along. The wedding takes place in two months,
and the grill is destined for a central role in the festivities when the
wedding party and families gather on the first night for dinner at their house in the Catskill Mountains of
New York.

It’s important for Andy’s machine to be present because it’s a way of making him part of the occasion. He died just months before Mandy was born, so this machine has always been a touchstone that allowed her to experience his special gifts. 

Now it will be his gift to her.

I had to make sure I could get it to New York, without waiting to get it in tip-top shape. The knee-high grill won’t fit in my car’s trunk—and checked or
not, the days of boarding a plane with a dozen sharply pointed skewers in your
bag are long over. That’s why I spent a good part of a day carefully breaking
the whole thing down into pieces. Meanwhile, I ordered a new motor with
fingers crossed that I guessed correctly about the power and speed.

The project would have been a lot less intimidating if I had
Andy’s ability. 

He had a natural sense of design and a high level of mechanical
skill developed by working as a machinist for many years before becoming a high
school metal-shop teacher. He could picture one set of gears meshing with
another at just the right speed to sear a skewer of lamb over an open fire—and
then he could make the gears and the skewers. 

Best of all, he could make the
kebab. (See Andy’s shish kebab recipe below.)

What are the odds I could
make sense of all this?
I’d barely mastered
the art of changing a typewriter ribbon before typewriters became obsolete. So the
whole time I worked to take our precious kebab machine apart, I worried about
the odds of ever getting it back together in working order. There’s really not
much chance I can line up the gear teeth so the drive shaft turns in the right
direction. I can barely manage to brush my own teeth in the right direction.

Luckily, Mandy picked the right guy for the job. It’s clear
from Ron’s very impressive home projects that he paid attention to his own
father, who is—of all things—a retired machinist. Better yet, he’ll be joining
us in the Catskills.



Ron’s also confident that his local electrical expert
can put a new cord on our new motor and get it running safely. Then Ron and
his father should have no problem getting Andy’s machinery humming again, while
I do what I do best when the tool box opens: Get out of the way.



Andy Dabbakian’s Shish Kebab recipe:
Serves 4-5


Ingredients:
½ leg of lamb, boned and cubed into 1 ½ inch pieces
1 medium onion, sliced
2 to 3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. freshly ground coriander
2 to 3 Tbsp. wine vinegar
½ of a 6-oz. can tomato paste
Salt and black pepper to taste


Directions:
One day in advance:
Place cubed meat into a large mixing bowl. Add the onions, oil, coriander, vinegar, tomato paste, salt and pepper. Mix well. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Be sure to toss the meat mixture periodically to redistribute the ingredients.


Day of grilling:
1. Mix meat once more before placing meat on the skewers.
2. Broil over charcoal fire; skewers should be turned frequently at the start to sear the outside of the meat, retaining natural juices.
3. When the tips of the meat cubes take on a well-roasted appearance, remove from fire.


Andy’s Notes:
1. Your own taste and practice will tell you how long to keep the meat over the charcoal. If the skewers are held 5 to 6 inches over the hot coals, the following rule of thumb will prove satisfactory:
Rare: 10 minutes
Medium rare: 15 minutes
Well-done: 20 minutes
2. For interesting variations, you may alternate pieces of green pepper, large mushroom caps, and firm, small tomatoes between the meat cubes.
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4 Comments

  1. Anonymous June 13, 2016 at 1:19 am

    What a sweet tribute to your father in law.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous June 21, 2016 at 11:39 pm

    Thank you for the recipe. I've tried several different shish kebab marinades, but this one seems very similar to what my mom did when we were kids. She was Armenian and grew up in Mass., so maybe it's a New England variation. I look forward to trying it soon!

    Reply
  3. Anonymous July 3, 2016 at 3:08 am

    I remember Andy at the Van Hotel. He always said his shish kebab was better.
    I'll try his recipe on the fourth. Say hi to Dawn and Drew.

    Charlie Vartanian

    Reply
    1. Robyn Kalajian July 9, 2016 at 1:36 pm

      Hi Charlie, how nice to hear from you! Did you try my dad's kebab recipe? You can email me at: robyn@thearmeniankitchen.com

      Reply

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