Armenian Food

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Day of Oghormi at Nerkin Sasnashen – Honoring the Dead

Armenians honor their dead with symbolic offerings of food and drink. In ARMENIAN FOOD: FACT, FICTION & FOLKLORE, we describe this and other funeral customs in the chapter “Feeding the Dead.” I observed these rituals for the first time on September 2, 2000, during my second visit to Armenia. But this was not a memorial occasion for any Armenian dead. It was in remembrance of 17 of my countrymen, yes, Americans, who lost their lives in the skies above Armenia on September 2, 1958.

With a small group of friends, we departed Yerevan early in the morning and headed toward the southwestern foothills of Mount Aragat, Armenia’s highest mountain. We were going to the small village of Nerkin Sasnashen. It was there that the tragedy had occurred in one of the seldom remembered instances when the Cold War became deadly hot.

On that September day in 1958, a U.S. Air Force C-130A airplane, Flight 60528, was patrolling the Turkish-Armenian border, collecting signal intelligence by receiving and recording radio and other electronics broadcasting out of the Soviet Union. Such missions flew on a daily basis as part of the West’s efforts to monitor the communist armed forces. Today, it’s mostly satellites in orbit that collect such information, not airplanes.

Some say that it was an error in navigation. Other blamed the Soviets for “meaconing,” broadcasting false signals to interfere with the snooping planes racing around their borders. For whatever reason, the American plane crossed into Armenian airspace, and was immediately spotted by air-defense radars. Three Mig-19 fighter jets were scrambled from Erebuni Field in Yerevan, and within a few minutes, the American plane was shot down. There were no survivors.

We found the monument just outside Nerkin Sasnashen village. It’s surrounded by stone-covered hills, a rocky, desolate wasteland. The place and the incident had been kept secret by the communist government. But the local villagers didn’t care about such secrecy, nor that those who had died were, at that time, considered enemies. Not long after the shoot down, the people of Nerkin Sasnashen erected a stone cross monument, a khatchkar, out of Christian sentiment and respect. This was done despite the disapproval of local party leaders. The original khatchkar was replaced in 1993 with a larger obelisk monument that stands there today.

It was a somewhat eerie, almost surreal scene: the empty space of the badlands, the boulders strewn everywhere, and my Armenian friends surrounding me as I read aloud the names of those who had perished. Undoubtedly, those American names sounded foreign and unfamiliar to them. Finally, I said a brief prayer in English for the fallen airmen and for their families.

My friends had remained respectfully patient and silent during my eulogies. When a bottle of spirits appeared, it was their signal that my part of the ceremony was over. Now permit us to show respect in our own way, they were telling me. And, as is the Armenian custom, our host, Rubik, began to pour shots of vodka for everyone, so that we could make memorial toasts to the deceased. Reuben told us he regretted that he had not remembered to bring any lavash bread, cheese, and herbs to accompany the vodka. But that was okay. After visiting the monument, we would visit a restaurant and pronounce the same toasts again. Armenians also share food when they visit cemeteries as a traditional sign of respect.

As we reflected on the tragedy that had occurred 42 years ago, a solitary figure came slowly walking down out of the hills. It was a shepherd who had been tending his flocks farther up the mountainous range. It was easy to see he had been staying in those badlands for quite awhile. He was very thin and had an unkempt salt-and-pepper beard. His clothes were ragged and his skin was deeply tanned.

The shepherd asked if I had had a family member on the American plane that was shot down. I said no, and I explained that it was on this day, 42 years ago, that the incident had occurred, and that we were there to give a prayer and show respect. We were quite surprised when the shepherd said, “Has it really been so long ago? I remember. I saw it.”

He had been a young boy, riding home on a school bus, when the driver suddenly pulled off the side of the road. “They flew over my head,” the shepherd explained. “The Migs were chasing the American plane, and it turned and starting going up. A Mig shot it with avtomats [machine-gun cannons], and it began to burn. They shot again, and the right wing came off. The burning wing was falling directly towards our school. Another Mig went after the wing and shot it to pieces, and the school was saved. The American plane crashed straight down and exploded. Soldiers came from Gyumri and Yerevan, and the roads were closed for days.”

We offered the shepherd a glass of vodka, and he joined us as we raised our glasses. Reuben made the memorial toast: “These men were sons, brothers, and fathers. May they rest in peace. Oghormi.

Oghormi, “Bless your soul,” is the traditional Armenian blessing said at cemeteries and funerals. “Oghormi,” I said, trying to pronounce the foreign word as best I could. We drank, and then Reuben cast a small splash of vodka toward the monument itself in offering.

Armenians, like other Orthodox Christians, believe that prayers for the dead give the deceased comfort and blessing, an unfamiliar concept for someone like me who was raised in the Protestant faith, where heavenly rewards are considered to be the ultimate comfort. Also new to me were the rituals of bringing food and drink to share with the deceased, gifts of life symbolic in the faith of an eternal life. But as I stood on that stony place, thinking about the 17 young men who had died and how much the world has changed since then, it all somehow seemed the right thing to do.


You can read about Armenia’s customs of “feeding the dead” in ARMENIAN FOOD: FACT, FICTION & FOLKLORE, by Irina Petrosian and David Underwood, ISBN 1411698659.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Apricots, Unhappy Marriages, and the Mafia

Actually, I didn’t intend to write an apricot blog today. But I spoke with my folks in Armenia in a phone call, and they said, among other news, it is unbearably hot and that apricots are selling for 300 drams (about 70 cents) per kilo. This is an accurate indicator of Armenia's inflation. Just four years ago, a kilo of apricots could be bought for about 10 cents. Yes, 10 cents! But worse yet, tsiran, apricots, are just not as good as they were last year. Everyone is disappointed at the small size of this year's tsiran.

Yes, it is apricot season in Armenia which means that apricot-related themes dominate Armenian news. Journalists are trying to find new metaphors to enliven their annual reports about the apricot harvest and the price of apricots at Armenian markets.

The term “apricot republic” has become an Armenian journalistic cliché. Perhaps it’s appropriate, since bananas are expensive imports for Armenia. If there is any news pointing to lawlessness, backwardness, or dependence on foreign money, chances are that the story will include the expression “apricot republic.”

Recently, apricot coverage has intensified thanks to the annual Golden Apricot International Film Festival. Apricots are blessed as part of the festival’s opening ceremony. Photojournalists try to find some bridges between apricots and the cinematic participants. This year’s highlights included pictures of Armenia’s newly-appointed Minister of Culture, Hasmik Poghosyan, wearing an apricot-color dress. Another photo showed the president of the festival, Atom Egoyan, eating an apricot at the opening ceremony of the festival.

A new turn in the apricot theme was introduced by the Russians. Out of the blue, on July 10, Russian authorities decided the crossing gate at its Kazbegi-Verkhny Lars border with Georgia needed “reconstruction” and painting. The gate was closed and all cross-border travel halted. This unannounced remont (Russian for repairs) resulted in backed-up traffic and business losses of thousands, if not millions, of dollars, drams, and rubles. Tons of apricots from Armenia intended for export to Russia spoiled in their shipping trucks. And, as a result, the apricot was integrated into the theme of disappointment over Russia’s treatment of Armenia.

The idea of a bad Armenian-Russian marriage was played over and over again by Armenian media commentators. The plot is always the same: a disappointed wife complains that her husband takes her for granted, and in desperation, to improve the marriage, she is open to different strategies to make him more attentive to her needs. But it’s somewhat amazing that Armenians who have lived so long with Russians and who are so well-versed in Russian literature can still believe in happy marriages. After all, it was Anton Chekhov, a famous son of Russia, who declared: “If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.”

Thus, disappointment with the Russians added an international touch to apricot coverage. An article in the Armenian newspaper 168 Hours was headlined “Between Authoritarianism and an Apricot.”

But the apricot is not limited only to Armenia’s mass media. There is also the established genre of apricot gossip. Its main theme is that there is always someone who cheats customers and affects apricot prices for the worse. In fact, one definition of democracy in Armenia is “a system where everyone has an equal right to feel cheated by their fellow Armenians.”

The latest apricot-related gossip is that Armenia’s mafia created an artificial monopoly this year when it forced fruit farmers to accept “offers they could not refuse.” Apricot and cherry exports are very profitable and, supposedly, have attracted attention from organized crime. Rumors say that even armed guards were dispatched to the larger orchards to enforce the terms of such contracts, so that no apricots will be sold on the side, to local markets. This crooked ploy is aimed at Armenia’s main competitors, the fruit merchants of Georgia who pay their growers higher wages and then sell the majority of the crop in Georgia itself. Armenian apricots are popular in Georgia and enjoy high demand. As a result, so rumors say, Armenia’s crime bosses demand only the best grade of apricots for their export businesses, and only the worst apricots, the smallest, are left for local sale.

In order to make the best apricot preserves, called korizov tsirani mooraba, you have to have large, mature apricots. The recipe is unique in that it includes the sweet kernels of the apricot pits, a delicious touch virtually unknown in the West. Pits from small, runty apricots don’t yield an adequate nut when cracked, so it is next to impossible to make the prized preserves this year. That is bad apricot news, indeed.


If you want to read more about Armenia’s delicious apricots and other Armenian fruits, please check out our book, ARMENIAN FOOD: FACT, FICTION & FOLKLORE, by Irina Petrosian and David Underwood, ISBN 1411698659.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Half Full or Half Empty? Armenia’s Silver Cups

Being welcomed as a guest in Armenian homes was the most pleasant aspect of our book project. And it’s in those private spaces that the best of Armenia can be found. But the privacy of those beautiful, warm homes is also a troubling sign. It’s become a way of “inner emigration,” a method of shielding away the troublesome interactions of a too-often harsh outside world. Disillusioned with corruption, politics, and the depressing public spaces in Armenia, perhaps it’s only natural that so many people want to “cocoon” inside the comfort of their homes.

When the subject of politics and the state of Armenia would arise, my friends would wave their hands in frustration and say something along the lines of, “Don’t bother even talking about it. It’s useless. I live my life, I work at my job, and I take care of my family as best I can and just try to provide a good home.”

It sometimes seems Armenia can be everything you want it to be, good or bad, depending on what you want to see. Affluent people will tell you how happy they are to be in Armenia, how everyone should pitch in to improve the country, and what a spiritual, cool, and fun experience they are having. Many others will lament Armenia’s widespread corruption, the hardships of daily life, and their desperation to escape by any means possible. Bitter frustration and hateful apathy lie at the other end of Armenia’s spectrum. Whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, optimist or pessimist, examples of both can easily be found by anyone visiting Armenia.

We encountered two optimistic and creative individuals in Yerevan when we visited the home of Mamikon and Paitsar Mkhitarian. One of Mamikon’s specialties is creating silver drinking vessels designed in ancient, oriental styles, embellished with animals and mythical figures. They are cast in beautiful silver and intricately decorated; they are pieces of extraordinary art.

“This is technically wrong,” he said, pointing to the legs of a large goblet, also called a rhyton. “They’re not supposed to have legs. A cup bearer would bring the drinking cups, hold them for the drinker, and take them away. They were never intended to be set on a table.”

The Mkhitarians started building their home in Yerevan’s Kond district about 11 years ago. Yes, they started in 1995, one of the worst years in the history of post-Soviet Armenia. But it seems they discovered a solution for the miseries of the “dark years,” by keeping busy at their craft.

“Now they rush to build new houses in this area,” says Mamikon. “At that time, when I was building, many Armenians were leaving without any hope for this country. But look at it now.” He gestures toward the newly-built houses that now surround his home, some of them so close that they block the once scenic view of Old Kond.

The upper floors of his home are not completed. “Building materials’ prices went way out of control. Wood prices skyrocketed.” But though the upper levels are still under construction, the first floors were beautiful.

The Mkhitarians call their home “Mkhitarian Arvestanots,” which would translate in English as “Mkhitarian Studio.” Mamikon’s wife, Paitsar, weaves elaborate carpets and paints. Their sons, Haik and Vardan, are young artists, displaying their family’s talents with their own projects.

I had to wonder how they live and do daily chores together when both Mamikon and Paitsar are so creative and are so much into their arts. When do they find time for the mundane tasks of keeping a home? Almost everything in their home is handmade, created by Mamikon and Paitsar.

Pomegranates on a table are a typical home decoration. But this was an unusual house. Thus, as you can see in the picture, dried fruits and nuts filled an ornamental basket on the floor. The house was filled with creative touches and artistic decorations. And so much of Mamikon's work reflects Armenia's history. If you look at the top of the carved wooden columns, you can see the traditional ram's head design used in Armenian homes thousands of years ago. He explained it was a good luck symbol, and then he smiled, perhaps being hopeful that the old adage will come true.

Mamikon also explained that he was planning to make connections with the reviving wine industry in Armenia, and hoped to find ways to include his art of making decorative wine-drinking cups in ancient style into marketing campaigns for wine in Armenia. The wine industry in Armenia is still developing, though with a careful eye on neighboring Georgia which has a well-established wine culture.

Mamikon’s amazing silver cups and goblets, along with his knowledge of the history of wine and drinking customs, inspired us to do research about ancient drinking rituals, and we include a chapter about Armenian beverages and drinking customs in our book.


Read about wine, cognac, toasting customs, and ancient Armenian drinking rituals in the new book ARMENIAN FOOD: FACT, FICTION & FOLKLORE
by Irina Petrosian and David Underwood, ISBN 1411698659.

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