In May and June 2021, I had the opportunity to share in food, fellowship, and history with members of the Armenian community at St. Peter’s. The relatively secluded church is a thriving cultural center for many Armenians in the Upper Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. As I drove up Assepian Avenue on the way to the Church, I felt that I was leaving my world behind, as the busy highways and traffic were replaced with a welcoming committee of trees and greenery, which opened to reveal the magnificent church building. In front of the church is a small memorial garden and monument erected in the memory of those who died in the Armenian Genocide, a tragic holocaust that remains an indelible and defining aspect of Armenian identity and heritage.
As soon as I got out of my car, I could hear the sounds of community. The men, who are members of the Knights of Vartan fraternal organization, began to prepare the large pit grills for cooking chicken and Hye burgers. In the distance, the tinkle of dishes and excited voices sounded from the kitchen in the lower floor of the Church building. The sounds mingled with the perfumes of cooking spices, baking sweets, and charcoal smoke, as the grills were warmed to start the festivities for the Friday Flavors of Armenia.
According to Paulette Doudoukjian, wife of St. Peter’s Church pastor, Fr. Stepanos Doudoukjian, this is the church’s second year of running the Friday Flavors of Armenia series. Since 1910, St. Peter’s has put on an Armenian festival every June, as a celebration of summer, Armenian food, faith, and culture. In normal years the festival would run for two days, and would feature vendors, musicians, dancers, and an incredible variety of foods both savory and sweet. Like many other church and cultural celebrations, the festival was shut down for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, just shy of the festival’s 110th anniversary. As a testament to Armenian perseverance, Paulette and the other members of the Women’s Guild came up with a novel idea: a drive-thru festival that would allow them to continue serving the Armenian and non-Armenian communities, while maintaining social distancing and mitigating the spread of the virus as much as possible. The new variation, Friday Flavors of Armenia, was a success, and the drive-thru option may remain as a fixture after the pandemic is over.
Although the menu was somewhat reduced, the flavors and the quality of the food were still top notch. Each week featured two entrees: an Armenian Chicken Dinner and a Hye Burger Platter.
The Hye Burger is made from a mixture of beef, lamb, spices and aromatics. According to Sonya Moroukian, a master baker and one of the cooks for the festival, this dish is a great way to introduce people to Armenian flavor profiles, especially for those who may not like an all-lamb main course. The Hye Burger is a fusion version of the Losh Kebab, which in normal years would be grilled right alongside the burgers. What makes this burger extra special is that it is served with an Armenian coleslaw of purple cabbage, carrots, and a proprietary dressing that adds a kick to the burger itself. The Armenian Chicken is marinated in a yogurt sauce, similar to tzatziki.
To accompany these dishes, the Women’s Guild makes an incredible rice pilaf. The secret, according to Paulette and her colleagues, is in its simplicity. The pilaf is made with butter, pepper, rice, chicken stock, and egg noodles. As Paulette was explaining the process of how to make the pilaf, she and her son Jonah were mixing the dish in large industrial-size pans—large enough to feed an entire village.
Aside from the entrees, the women also put together incredible desserts and a la carte items. For this year’s festivals, the women, under the direction of Sonya Moroukian, have made trays upon trays of Paklava (also spelled Baklava) and Kadayif. These classic desserts are staples of Armenian food culture.
For the Paklava, the bakers roll out and layer phyllo dough, nuts, and spices in large sheet pans. Depending on who is baking them, there can be multiple layers of nuts. After baking to a golden brown color, the Paklava is then doused with a simple syrup made of water, sugar, and lemon juice that brightens and highlights the rich flavors of the pastry.
According to Serena Moroukian and her mother Sonya, making Paklava together as a family is a rite of passage for a young woman, given the difficulty of folding and preparing the pastry dough, and layering everything together. Depending on the occasion, the dough is sometimes store bought, or it may be made from scratch, an arduous process. Leftovers from the baklava trays are sometimes crushed up and mixed with ice cream to make Baklava Sundaes, which are another major treat.
Kadayif is a creamy dessert made with a sweetened, cream cheese-like filling, shredded phyllo dough and simple syrup. This dessert takes patience to bake and also freezes well.
The last dish on the menu is Eech (pronounced similarly to the English word each). It is a hearty food that is made of cracked bulgur wheat, onions, tomato sauce, (occasionally) stock, spices, and a topping usually made from sweet and/or spicy peppers and parsley. This dish demonstrates a part of the wide variety of food that is found in Armenia, based on the terroir and availability of ingredients in different regions. Each is a vegan dish and can be enjoyed hot, cold, or room temperature. It can be eaten alone, as a salad accompanying a meal, or as Raffi Moroukian lovingly described, as a breakfast dish mixed with scrambled eggs.
I am incredibly grateful to the members of St. Peter’s Armenian Church community for allowing me to talk to them, to learn about their culinary culture, and to share in the enjoyment of food with them. A special thank you to Lori Payette at the parish office, Fr. Stepanos and Presbytera Paulette Doudoukjian, Sonya, Serena and Raffi Moroukian, and the members of the St. Peter’s Women’s Guild for their generosity, friendliness, and willingness to talk about their culture.
Photo: Aziz Peerzada and his 11-year old son Saboor perform
a beautiful set of Punjabi folk songs at the 2016 Brooklyn Arts Council Festival.
On November 23, 2020, I attended a virtual Zoom hearing on the decision by the Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC) to cancel its folk arts program, and to lay off our colleague, folklorist Chris Mule. The artists, folklorists, scholars and community leaders attending spoke with great support and appreciation for Chris’ role at BAC and his work with many artists and communities of Brooklyn. Charlotte A. Cohen, the executive director of BAC demonstrated extensive knowledge and appreciation of the field, and of the relationships that Chris had built over six years in the position. Nevertheless, she said that the decision to cancel the program was was made for purely budgetary reasons.
The County and Regional Folk Arts programs, among which BAC’s was a prominent leader until this year, were inspired by Robert Baron in his long tenure at the New York State Council on the Arts, as a vehicle to encourage research and programming in folk and traditional arts across New York State. These programs, in which many of New York Folklore’s board (myself included), staff and members have worked, is of considerable interest to us, both practically and theoretically, as they have offered a window into local culture across many counties and regions, and have been a means to bring to wider attention folk artists and traditions across the state, many of which would not be as widely known otherwise. During my tenure on the board of NY Folklore, support for these programs has been a central focus. So it is with great sadness that we see the loss of Brooklyn’s program, which served one the most culturally diverse and vibrant regions of New York State. In Chris’ time at BAC, he has also led the statewide NY Living Traditions digital initiative, which has elevated the entire field to wider attention. Our main argument in support the program and ones like it is in order bring equity to arts and culture programming and funding within organizations dedicated to all that is implied in the term “Arts”, they need to be directed by knowledgeable and competent people, who are trained in working across diverse cultures in an ethical and accountable manner. This is an important part of what a public sector folklorist is, and it is what we encourage in each other.
At the BAC hearing, the representatives talked about replacing the folk arts program with one that one focused on “cultural heritage.” In so doing, they are perhaps aligning themselves with a term used internationally, most prominently by UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage program. This term concerns the same thing that we mean by “folk culture” but in the US, the latter term has a far longer and deeper history of research and engagement, as well as a solid footing in the academic and theoretical filed of Folklore.
Late in the two-hour BAC hearing, its program director Desirée Gordon, who is to serve as an interim director of this new cultural heritage effort until funding allows for a new hire, revealed an interesting point about the terms we use. She cited both community scholars and academics who are adverse to the term “folk,” going so far as to imply a racist bias in the term itself, perhaps one rooted in the Anglo European origins of the field of folklore. While it is true that the early field did focus on local cultures in Europe, and that some early American folklorists explored the cultural roots of Euro-Americans, tracing English origins to Appalachian culture, for example, nonetheless, over the past sixty years the field has gone to great lengths to widen its purview to the full range of cultures in the US, and the elevation of diverse voices of both master artists and their community supporters. While it is true that academically trained folklorists are not as diverse a group as the cultures they study and work with, we have sought to diversity our ranks and the perspectives that are at the center of our work.
In this time of reckoning with the racial dynamics of American society and history, perhaps it is inevitable that our field would be seen as yet another manifestation of institutional racism, relegating black and brown cultures to an apparently pejorative lower status that some might interpret the term “folk” to describe. I know, and my colleagues know, that what we call folk is something we hold in the highest esteem. Unfortunately, we may be confronting a wider social perception. Despite our efforts to serve as translators, publicists and advocates for under represented arts and cultures, we may have attracted the wrong kinds of attention to what we do.
Just three months before COVID struck in New York, we at New York Folklore celebrated the 75th anniversary, since our founding as a membership organization to promote an intersection of academic and public sector focus on the diverse traditional cultures of New York State. We will do everything possible to ensure another 75 years of this work, but our first task is going to involve reckoning with both the challenges of surviving this pandemic and coming to terms with the ugly history that lies behind America’s diversity. Without equity, perhaps diversity itself is of little meaning. I am sorry that the leadership of the Brooklyn Arts Council came to their decision before hearing the many voices of the artists and communities who have participated in its programs as well as those of folklorists across the state who have worked long and hard to do justice to the challenges of trying to bring a small measure of cultural equity to a society that otherwise disregards the particular qualities that give our lives some meaning beyond the commercialized and mass mediated versions of ourselves. We will continue this work, despite the obstacles we face. We must seek common ground in the spirit of affirmation for all cultures and welcome allies wherever they may be found.
As we are confronting the coronavirus crisis, City Lore, in New York City, is putting out a call to collect creative responses to the crisis in song, poetry, video and other forms. New Yorkers are famous for coming together in community after September 11th. There were many creative responses to this sorrowful and challenging time including singing together and communal memorials on the street. Today we can’t get together and hold hands to sing — but we can be creative in other ways.
City Lore’s dedicated staff has the skills to document the myriad ways that people and communities express their identities, humanity and connection with each other. After September 11th , City Lore documented the memorials that appeared on New York City’s streets. This culminated in an exhibit at the New York Historical Society, Missing: Streetscape of a City in Mourning. More recently, City Lore collected and documented signs from the Climate and Women’s marches nationwide. (An exhibit that features signs from the Women’s marches is just now being postponed!)
So to help us collectively and safely to find comfort, humor, and joy during this crisis, City Lore is putting out a call for poems, stories, songs, and videos that convey the experiences , encouragements, meditations, and innovations of this challenging time. Please send your materials to [email protected]
with the subject line “Touching Hearts, Not Hands”
. We all respond in our own way, we all do what we can, and this is the way a folklore center can respond. The human spirit is irrepressible.