Mary Elia

Recipe Corner: Cherished memories and recipes of Fresno’s Mary Elia


FRESNO — These recipes by Mary Elia are included in a remarkable collection that features the recipes of the pioneering Armenian women who first settled in Fresno over 120 years ago: A Hundred Years and Still Cooking, from the First Armenian Presbyterian Church (FAPC) of Fresno, Fidelis Women’s Society Centennial collection, first published in 1993. (

The introduction says, “This cookbook is a combination of our best in Armenian and American cuisine. Meals are a big part of our lives because we enjoy the work, we relish the fellowship, and we savor the finished product. It is our desire to keep our Armenian heritage alive through the foods of our parents, grandparents, and forebears. We believe it is important to include foods that are important to us as Americans.  We hope you enjoy the goodness of these recipes spanning five generations of members at California’s oldest Armenian church.”  Food writer Barbara Hansen, a James Beard Award winner, reviewed A Hundred Years and Still Cooking in the Los Angeles Times in 1998 under the headline, “Leaves from Fresno.” (

Mary’s recipes also appear in Breaking Bread with William Saroyan by Janice Stevens and Pat Hunter, published in 2016 by Heliograph Publishing. The authors capture the essence of William Saroyan’s love for his Armenian culture through excerpts of his written word and selected Armenian recipes, including classic recipes from Armenian-American restaurateur, chef, author, and philanthropist George Mardikian’s Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s. “This book is an intimate portrayal of Armenian foods and culture, celebrating the literary great, William Saroyan.”

“My mother, Mary Mabel Tootikian, was born in Fresno in 1918,” says Dennis Elia, a longtime Fresno business consultant. “The family tree on her maternal side begins with her grandmother, Sarah Kesamaniakian, who married Mary’s grandfather, Garabed Deverian, who gave birth to Mabel Deverian, my mother’s mother.  John Tootikian was introduced to the young and vibrant Mabel Deverian, who had just celebrated her 19th birthday.  They were married in 1917.  The Deverians can lay claim to being one of the early Armenian clans to locate in Pasadena. Unfortunately, just as today, a worldwide Spanish Flu epidemic befell Mary’s young mother at the tender age of 21, and she passed away.”

When Mary’s father remarried, Mary was forced to adjust to a series of three stepmothers who were neither nurturing nor attentive to her.  Upon surviving an unpleasant series of three stepmothers, Mary blossomed into an attractive and intelligent young lady.  She graduated from Fresno High School in 1936, and at the age of 19, was introduced to a fellow Fresnan Joe Elia, who was born in 1907.  A star high school athlete, Joe received a football scholarship to attend UCLA.  Encouraged by his Fresno pals attending San Jose State College, he decided to transfer there, and became a starting football quarterback, says Dennis.

“My father was a local Fresno legend in city league softball in the 1930s, and was hired to pitch in the state championships by an out-of-town team for $200 per game. His blistering wind-mill delivery was well-known,” he adds. “My mother married my father in 1936 on Christmas Day, at the Elia family home on Van Ness Avenue near Mono Street in downtown Fresno (built in 1915, the Elia home is listed on the Fresno Local Register of Historic Resources. (See:

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Mary and Joe established their home in Fresno, and eventually raised two sons, Dennis and Allen.  Joe started off in the painting contractor business with his immigrant father Samuel, and the partnership thrived.  Later, Joe’s extraordinary skills in wood graining, and gold and silver leafing, landed him in Architectural Digest.  “His skills were in high demand throughout California, and he ventured as far as Hawaii to create his work,” says Dennis.

“As a bride, my mother Mary found herself without a mother in her formative years, and received no culinary guidance from a series of uncaring stepmothers.  Nonetheless, she learned to create authentic recipes from many cultures, including Armenian and Italian,” says Dennis.  During their marriage, his father’s insistence on traditional home-cooked meals resulted in his mother specializing in Armenian entrees, vegetables, breads, and desserts.

“Like other Armenian brides at that time, it was a foregone conclusion that traditional meals would be served from the outset,” he says. The subject matter was quite daunting for many brides, he remembers his mother telling him.  “In order to please their picky husbands they would either turn to their mothers for guidance, or in desperation, seek the guidance of their mother-in-law who, more often-than-not, relished the opportunity to remain relevant in the relationship.”

“My father Joe was an active church member his entire life.  His parents were among the ten founding families of FAPC in 1897.  The church has the distinction of being the first Armenian Church organized in the State of California.  My mother joined FAPC on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945.  She became active as a church elder, along with heading the women’s group at the church.”

Mary remained active into her 80s as a lead cook in the church kitchen. She taught the other church ladies the valuable tips and techniques she had acquired over the years to help them master their family’s favorite Armenian dishes. “At home or at church, my mother guided many young wives on the methods of large-scale Armenian food preparation.  At home, my parents graciously entertained relatives and the couples they socialized with over many decades.  My mother’s special entrees and desserts were popular, and she enjoyed sharing her knowledge with the ladies at church and her close friends through her life.”

Joe and Mary Elia on their trip to Hawaii in 1974

A charter member of the FAPC Young Women’s Society of Fidelis, Mary served as President of the women’s ministry in 1948-1949 and in 1950-1951. In 1964, she became a member of the FAPC General Building Council, which envisioned and constructed the modern campus of the church in three phases from 1969 to 1986.  In later years, Mary served as a member of the Board of Deacons and the Church Session. From 1992 through 1997, she was a devoted member of the Centennial Commemorative Committee that celebrated the first 100 years of FAPC ministry.

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 guarded 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 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, as this was an acknowledgement of her mastery of Armenian cooking.  Another tradition Saroyan enjoyed was handing out signed copies of his books 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 was a gifted artist  who took painting lessons on canvas and flatware,” adds Dennis. “Her fine oil and china paintings 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 include son Dennis Elia and 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.  Do not overbake. Remove to cool.  Makes 48 cookies.


Mary Elia’s Lamb Shanks


6 lamb shanks, trimmed of excess fat

2 large onions, sliced

3 cloves garlic

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 catsup

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, catsup 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:

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:

Gallery II

Janice Stevens

1490 W. Shaw Ste G.

Fresno, CA 93711

(559) 222-4443



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