Parev! After two weekends in the Americas, Derek and I returned to the Old World for the next country on our list, Armenia. We’ve been looking forward to Armenia for a while, since we’d found out that Watertown, Cambridge’s direct neighbor to the West, has a large Armenian community (third-largest in the United States, in fact), and has several markets and a museum we could visit.
To start Saturday, I made my best guess on a traditional Armenian breakfast dish called kalagyosh. My research indicated that the modern Armenian breakfast is coffee or tea, and bread with cheeses, jams, and eggs, which didn’t seem so exciting to me. But Wikipedia claims that kalagyosh was a traditional hearty Armenian breakfast dish, and that a vegetarian version of it was “a stew made with lentils, fried onions, and yogurt… eaten by crumbling stale lavash bread over it and eating it with a spoon.” I couldn’t find any kalagyosh recipes on the Internet, so I’m not sure how accurate Wikipedia is on this claim, but I did find a recipe for Armenian lentils that seemed like a stew, with caramelized onions and yogurt, so that’s what we ate as our morning meal, along with broken pieces of lavash bread.
Our first stop in Watertown on Saturday afternoon was to the Armenian Library and Museum of America. I quickly learned how ignorant I’d been of the happenings in this part of the world. Much of historic Armenia is actually part of Turkey today, and modern Armenia is just slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts in terms of land mass. Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as the official religion (back in 301 AD), and its people remained largely Christian, even when conquered by the Ottoman Empire (which was Islamic).
Perhaps the most poignant part of the museum were the exhibits dedicated to the Armenian Genocide, which was carried out by the Ottoman Turks and took place roughly at the same time as World War I. While I know a fair amount about World War II and the Holocaust, I’d known very little about the Armenian Genocide (which Turkey refuses to acknowledge, to this day). There are a lot of similarities between the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust (deportations, camps, the targeting of a largely educated and skilled class of people). The exhibit even posed the question of whether the Holocaust could have been avoided, if nations like the United States had punished Turkey at the end of World War I for the mass persecution and killing of Armenians. (Hitler was allegedly well aware of the Armenian Genocide; was he inspired by it, especially when he saw that Turkey got little more than a slap on the wrist?)
The museum also brought to my attention several notable Armenian Americans. Prior to visiting, I’d known about a few celebrities of Armenian heritage, such as Cher and the Kardashians (I know, the celebrity status of the latter is questionable). But I didn’t know about Yousuf Karsh, a 20th century photographer, who shot a lot of black and white portraits of prominent politicians, scientists, musicians, authors and artists. Nor had I known about Moses Hadji Gulesian, an Armenian who immigrated to Boston and became a successful businessperson, who saved the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy (back from the War of 1812), from being completely scrapped.
Derek and I left the museum feeling much more educated about Armenian history and culture, and set out to further educate our stomachs by visiting the numerous Armenian markets. On the way we passed the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church, which also has a monument dedicated to victims of the Armenian genocide.
We visited three markets along Watertown’s Mount Auburn Street: Massis Bakery, Arax Market, and Sevan Bakery. At Massis, our first stop, we’d been too awed to actually buy anything (knowing that there were other stores to visit just further down the street). At Arax, we picked out a few sweet treats: Armenian salted and sugar cookies.
Sevan Bakery had actually been our first exposure to Watertown’s Armenian community, as we’d watched an episode of Neighborhood Kitchens, a show produced by the local public television station WGBH, that had featured the establishment. Here we purchased some Armenian string cheese, and some flatbreads: two topped with spinach and feta, and two topped with za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend. (Nuran, the co-owner featured in the Neighborhood Kitchens episode, even rang Derek up!)
Before going home, we made a quick additional stop to Belmont, to visit Eastern Lamejun Bakers, where we, of course, bought some lamejun, Armenian pizza.
But rather than just talk about the food, let’s show you some pictures of the food, right? Here are the lamejun, which I, like a true New Yorker with pizza, ate folded in half:
I’m trying to break apart the skein of string cheese here:
And here we have half of a spinach and cheese flatbread, and half of a za’atar flatbread (plus a little bit of Derek’s string cheese in the foreground):
After our very filling dinner, we watched the 1968 film The Color of Pomegranates, about the 18th century Armenian ashough (a poet-trobadour) Sayat-Nova. The movie isn’t a straightforward biographical narrative, but a very poetic interpretation of Sayat-Nova’s life. We had learned a little about Sayat-Nova earlier in the day at the museum, and were able to appreciate elements of the movie, like building architecture, musical instruments, rugs, and lacemaking because we had also seen them in museum exhibits, but much of the film was probably still lost on us.
We did nevertheless enjoy the treats we bought from Arax Market after the movie. The long sticks in the picture below are salted Armenian cookies. The two round doughnut-shaped cookies to the right are Armenian sugar cookies, and the sandwich cookie to their left has apricot jam filling (apricots are a revered fruit among Armenians):
On Sunday morning, we breakfasted on more lentils, which hopefully gave Derek enough fortitude for his next task: making cheese boregs (flaky turnovers) with phyllo dough. I don’t have enough patience to work with phyllo: it’s super-thin, and because of that, it’s difficult to separate the different layers of dough without tearing the dough apart. Is this sheet one layer, or two, or three? I would start questioning my sanity. But Derek was a trooper, and the boregs came out great.
We re-watched the Sevan Bakery episode of Neighborhood Kitchens, and browsed YouTube for more information on Armenia, though most of what we found were historical pieces that told us things we’d already known from our museum visit. Lunch consisted of a few boregs, and some eech and bean salad from the previous day.
Although we personally didn’t visit it as part of the weekend (though we have in the past), I should mention the Armenian Heritage Park in Boston, along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. It’s a nice park worth a visit if you’re in the area, near Faneuil Hall Marketplace, though we chose to laze around Cambridge on Sunday afternoon instead (but we did buy and eat fresh apricots!).
For dinner we had more lamejun and the remaining spinach-cheese and za’atar breads. Our fridge is still filled with delicious leftovers from the weekend, so it looks like we’ll be starting the week with Armenian food as well.
Knowing about Armenia’s long but troubled history has made us appreciate all the cultural resources available to us this weekend even more–these traditions and relics have persisted, even though various groups in history have tried to eradicate them. Remembering this as we move onto other countries, many of them also with complicated pasts (and presents), will only deepen our appreciation of our experiences.