This is a story within a story, something like Russian nesting dolls where you uncover another wooden treasure each time you twist the torso apart.
Sometime in the early 90s, I saw an ad for a teaching position at a local law school in San Francisco that read, “Don’t expect an ivory tower.” Intrigued by the brazen nature of this recruiting “enticement,” I applied and, several weeks later, got an interview.
Upon arrival at this not-ivory-tower building on Fell Street, someone pointed me to the Dean’s office on the second floor. Walking up the creaky staircase, I was still expecting a dean-like character, despite all indications to the contrary. When I was greeted by a tall, dark-haired man with a beard, ponytail, and genuine smile, I knew this was no ordinary bastion of legal education. He was dressed casually. My wildly patterned black and white dress was the kind of outfit that would have stood out anywhere, so while I was technically overdressed, I fit in by virtue of having made a countercultural fashion choice.
I was immediately drawn to his candor, humor, and progressive values. I got a job teaching Legal Ethics, and over time joined the school as full-time faculty. The dean, Chris, and I became good friends. About five years into our friendship, I became part of an inner circle of people who would be gifted a piece of his mother’s baklava.
Sia’s baklava was mouthwatering and each year around Greek Easter I’d begin hinting about how much I was looking forward to my coveted piece. This tradition lasted years, and after I got married in 2001, my husband joined the ranks of those who treasured Sia’s baklava, and then my two sons began looking forward to this delicacy.
One afternoon as I was getting a ride home after dropping my car off for service, I tried making a match between the elderly Greek van driver and Sia. He seemed uninterested until I mentioned that she makes amazing baklava. He went silent and I feared I had insulted him. Then he sprung the serious question: “Does she use honey or sugar?” Feeling the weight of a incorrect response, I took a breath and blurted, “honey.” He smiled and everything was right in the world for a moment. They never did meet, as Sia had recently begun a new relationship, but I still think back on that moment as filled with possibility.
Sia passed away at ninety-one years old on August 2, 2015, leaving three sons behind, one of whom, my friend Chris, assumed the role of baklava preservationist.
In early 2021, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I got an invitation from Chris and his family to join them in a Zoom baklava-making party. Chris’s teenage daughter, also named Sia, co-led us on the zoom teach-in, while his wife handled all the technology. My son and I participated and had a wonderful time walking through the steps of this Greek tradition. Our baklava turned out fabulous and more than half of it was gone within an hour. We beamed with pride and I felt grandma Sia smiling down on us.
And this is where the story would end were it not for a recent encounter with Chris where he sang the praises of Sheer Ambrosia, a bakery in Salt Lake City founded in 2008 by Rita Magalde, an African American woman who makes incredible baklava. The Greek Reporter did a story about her: I loved learning about Rita’s life and struggles, the intercultural connections she valued, and her tenacity and creativity. I chose to write about Rita in this post as a way to support a Black-owned women business (she’s an author too).
I hope you’ll buy (and enjoy!) a special treat from Sheer Ambrosia Bakery! and join the ranks of Sia and other baklava-mavens from around the globe.
PHOTO (& inspiration) by CHRIS GUS KANIOS