When he landed on Ellis Island as a young man of eighteen in 1922, George Mardikian had already lost his father during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and had survived several years in a Turkish prison where he almost died due to starvation. American friends of Mardikian managed to convince prison officials that he too was an American which resulted in his release and subsequent arrival in the United States.
George Mardikian Heads West
Speaking almost no English and with only a few dollars on him, Mardikian made his way west by train to Fresno, California. During the trip he ordered the only thing on the menu he thought he recognized, potato salad, having it every day of the eight day trip. Unimpressed with the quality of the food he vowed to one day “teach Americans how to eat well.”
When he arrived in California Mardikian got a job washing dishes, began saving his money, after a while opened a lunch counter, and eventually opened a restaurant in San Francisco named after the famous poet Omar Khayyam. There he served authentic Armenian food and quickly gained a solid reputation with food critics and locals alike at a time when ethnic restaurants like his were still a novelty in American cities.
Mardikian would close his restaurant every Christmas so he and his wife could serve dinner to his staff. It was a custom he brought from Armenia which he commented on in an essay for the “This I Believe” radio series.
George Mardikian’s Medal of Freedom
Mardikian’s enthusiasm and love for his adopted country motivated him to offer his services to the US military in 1942. Concerned for the welfare of American soldiers, he became a food consultant and set about remaking the military’s diet. His efforts improving food served to US soldiers in combat during the Korean War won him several presidential citations and ultimately the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1951, the nation’s highest civilian award.
Mardikian is also known for having served as volunteer caterer to the United Nations Conference on International Organization that was held in San Francisco in 1945. The event lead to the formation of today’s United Nations.
George Mardikian’s Books
George Mardikian went on to write two books, “Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s”, a cookbook published in 1944, and his autobiography, “Song of America”, published in 1956. He died on October 23, 1977, having lived a life of service and philanthropy. His love for America was captured in inspirational words he wrote in his autobiography that grace a wall at Walt Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida:
“You who have been born in America, I wish I could make you understand what it is like not to be an American–not to have been an American all your life–then suddenly, with the words of a man in flowing robes, to be one, for that moment and forever after. One moment you belong with your fathers to a million dead yesterdays, the next you belong to a million unborn tomorrows.”