Nancy Mehagian makes me feel staid and uninteresting. She filled her life with an abundance of delicious food, travel, sex and drugs. I’m mourning that I missed a lot.  (Well, I didn’t miss the food and travel.)  Nancy indulged in all with avid passion. She says one of her achievements was inaugurating a program of healthy eating by growing vegetables in an infamous London prison—not as a do-gooder, mind you, but as an inmate with a baby so that she could have vegetables in her diet while incarcerated.

We met in Los Angeles a year or so ago and Nancy outlined her life story for me. I was fasciated then, and even more so when I read Nancy’s culinary memoir, Siren’s Feast, An Edible Odyssey. The book provides not only details of her well-lived life, but also over 40 recipes that she encountered or created along the way.

 Nancy grew up in Phoenix the daughter of food-loving Armenian immigrants. Her parents were strict. Nancy was not and emerged from high school as a mini-beatnik and then bloomed into a full-blown flower child. She enrolled in college but didn’t stay tethered. Instead she traveled–London, Paris, Spain, India, Afghanistan, Nepal–making friends wherever she wandered, experimenting with hallucinogens, chasing spiritual enrichment, exploring on pennies and always cooking for the people surrounding her.

Nancy Mehagian by Artist Salvador Maron, 1991

 Somewhere along the way she turned vegetarian and planted her roots on the Spanish island of Ibiza where, in 1969, she opened a vegetarian restaurant named the Double Duck.  Taking a break from the restaurant, Nancy landed in Syria where she became pregnant by a Bedouin gypsy musician and, through a series of mishaps, ended up incarcerated in a London prison for 16 months, along with her newborn daughter, Vedra (read Siren’s Feast for the full scoop). 

Upon her release, Nancy returned to the United States, earned a degree in English and began her studies of the ancient healing art of Jin Shin Jyutsu, later incorporating massage therapy to become therapist to, as Nancy says, “Some of the most well-known people on the planet.”  

Throughout her life Nancy retained a passion for food. When I asked Nancy about her favorite recipe, she chose her version of the treasured Armenian treat Yalanchi Sarma.

Here’s what she wrote about the dish: 


(Nancy Mehagian’s Chilled Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Yield: About 50 sarma.

1/2 cup olive oil

3 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 teaspoon dried dill weed

1 teaspoon dried mint

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 cup long grain white rice

1/2 cup tomato sauce


1/2 cup pine nuts


1 jar (16 ounces) grape leaves packed in brine (Nancy suggests Orlando brand.)

2 lemons

Heat oil in a large heavy pot. Add onions and saute, stirring occasionally, until soft. Stir in the garlic, dill, mint, salt, pepper and paprika and saute 1 minute. Stir in rice, tomato sauce, 1/2 cup chopped parsley, pine nuts and 1 cup water. Lower heat, cover pan and cook for 10 to 12 minutes or until the rice is partially cooked (check on occasion to make sure rice doesn’t stick to bottom of pan). Remove from heat and set aside until cool. 

Remove grape leaves from jar (see NOTE).  Rinse leaves in cold water and set in a colander to drain. 

Lay one leaf on a plate, veins up and stem side towards you. (If the stems are thick or tough, cut them off near the leaf.)

Place about 2 teaspoons of rice mixture in the center of the leaf.

Fold sides of leaf over filling and roll leaf up into a small tight bundle. Put filled leaf in a large heavy saucepan or Dutch oven, seam side down. Repeat with remaining leaves and filling, stacking filled leaves in a circular pattern around the perimeter of the pan, covering the bottom with the bundles and then stacking bundles on top of each other. 

Pour 1 cup water and juice from one lemon on top of bundles. Cover pan and cook over low heat until all liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool, then transfer bundles to a platter and refrigerate until cold. 

To serve, squeeze the juice from 1/2 lemon over bundles and top with the thinly sliced remaining half lemon. Garnish with sprigs of parsley.

NOTE: Retain liquid from jar so that you can can put any leftover leaves back in jar for another use.

Books by Nancy Mehagian