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.
In this guest blogpost, Dancer and linguist, Torkom Moysesiyan provides a glimpse into the ancient Egyptian dance of Saidi. Saidi originates in Upper Egypt and is danced by both women and men.
“Saidi dates back to ancient Egypt. It is an Egyptian folkloric dance that derives from the Arabic term, aSSa’yeed, meaning “The Upland,” a geographical area located on both sides of the Nile River in Upper Egypt. The Egyptian Saidi is a martial arts dance that has two variations: altahteeb, performed by men and raqs alaSSaya, performed by women. The tahteeb exemplifies masculinity and a battle scene, whereas in the latter women imitate the combative skills celebrated in the tahteeb.
In tahteeb, performers use a heavyweight stick whereas in raqs aSSaya, women use a light or heavyweight cane, often decorated with beads and sequins. The Saidi movements revolve around striking, spinning, rowing, flipping and twirling. Men performing saidi usually wear a long galabiyya with a turban, and women wear a galabiyaa or long dress with a headscarf. Some of the instruments present in saidi are mizmar (an oboe-like reed instrument), rebaba (a stringed instrument), nay (flute) and tabla (a frame drum with a deep sound). The rhythm of saidi is 4/4, and it can be performed either as a solo or group piece.
The saidi dance from Upper Egypt, known as tahteeb, is important because it helps us learn about the lives of the ancient Egyptians, particularly, how they used it to prepare for a battlefield. What’s more, the saidi dance was inscribed on the walls of Pharaonic temples and performed with a stick by the ancient Egyptians as a tribute to the Pharaoh.
The late Egyptian dance choreographer Mahmoud Reda, created a theatricalized version of the folkloric saidi dance, known in Arabic as Raqs Alassaya, cane dance, specifically for female dancers, imitating the martial arts movement of the tahtib. Saidi is performed during special occasions such as a wedding, birthday, festival or other related celebrations. Raqs Without Borders, a Middle Eastern and North African dance festival often invites native Egyptian artists in NYC to teach and perform Saidi.”
Follow the link before for an example of the work of Torkom Moysesiyan in a theatricalized version of saidi, adapted for stage, and performed in Rochester in 2017 at “Tales of Arabia,” hosted by Katrina Scott. The music is Wala Ya Saidi.
Torkom Movsesiyan wearing a traditional galabeya with a cane, worn by males performing Egyptian saidi dance from a 2018 dance project in NYC, Raqs Revolution. (photo credit: Tevon Miller).
Torkom Moysesiyan is the director of Torkomada, Inc., a multidisciplinary not-for-profit organization, envisions the indigenous and folk dances of the Middle East and North Africa as an important, but neglected diplomatic tool in cultural diplomacy, especially in U.S.-Middle East relations. Headed by Torkom Movsesiyan, a Bulgarian-Armenian trained by dance legends Morocco and Tarik Sultan, Torkomado focuses on Raqs Sharqi, a traditional Egyptian folk dance, popularly known by its misnomer—belly dance. TORKOMADA is a member of UNESCO’s International Dance Council. TORKOMADA currently conducts academic research on dance, builds dance curricula for after-school programs in NYC, and works closely with a foreign language project, where students studying Arabic language can learn it through Middle Eastern music and dance.
No permission is granted to anyone to print, copy, reproduce, distribute, transmit, store, display in public, alter, or modify any materials, including but not limited to articles, documents, videos, icons, or images, published by Torkom Movsesiyan or TORKOMADA, Inc.
The Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a celebration that spans centuries. In its trajectory through the ages, the celebration has received influences from indigenous peoples, Catholicism, regional differences, and the creativity of those who construct the ofrenda, or altar.
Several elements are typically included on an ofrenda. Photographs of the departed are the centerpiece, as the ofrenda is built to honor and to invite those who have passed to the other world. These photos of the deceased are displayed alongside candles, saints’ pictures, skulls, offerings of food and drink, marigolds, incense, paper cut-outs or papel picado, salt, personal items, crosses, nuts and seeds, and water.
A special bread, pan de muertos, is provided to the deceased and to the living who visit an ofrenda. Pan de muertos is an essential element that has been recorded as originating in the 16th century contact between Spanish and Aztec civilizations. José Luis Curiel Monteagudo, in his book Azucarados Afanes, Dulces y Panes, says, “To eat pan de muertos is for the Mexican a true pleasure, considering the cannibalism of bread and sugar. The phenomena is treated with respect and irony. Defying death, they make fun of her by eating it.” As with the pan de Muertos, each of the items on the ofrenda have their own symbolism that relate to the deceased and their journey back to the living realm.
The three-day celebration of Día de los Muertos takes place on October 31, November 1, and November 2. In New York State, several celebrations are planned in many different locations. A few locations are the following:
- New York Folklore, 129 Jay Street, Schenectady presents an ofrenda, designed by community advocate Ana Lorena Diana, with support from the Schenectady Initiative Program and the Upstate Theater Coalition for a Fair Game. New York Folklore’s ofrenda will be available for viewing from October 31 through November 7, 2020.
- Glow Traditions, in Western New York, invites the public to their ofrenda which will be on view from October 27th through November 1 at the Mariachi de Oro Mexican Grill in Medina, NY, in collaboration with Leonel Rosario. In addition, visitors are invited to the virtual celebration and resource page at https://www.goart.org/glow-traditions/
- Arts Mid-Hudson, Poughkeepsie, is partnering with the Poughkeepsie Public Library and the City of Poughkeepsie for Día de los Muertos programming. Information and a calendar of events can be found at the Poughkeepsie Public Library https://poklib.org/day-of-the-dead-celebration-celebracion-del-dia-de-los-muertos/
- ArtsWestchester, in collaboration with with Edgar and Juana E. Pinyol and the White Plains Public Library, presented Dia De Los Muertos, a program featuring artists from the Mexican, Paraguayan, Bolivian, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan, and Peruvian communities of Peekskill and White Plains. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUvO9A8uH-c&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2vjlvfGiqWUmINMLzIHYDvnNWrxYrkMfyHTTeD0jeCoc6pkdZZxgxe20A
- Bronx Documentary Center and Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders, 614 Cortland Avenue Bronx, NY have created a special “COVID-19” ofrenda, dedicated to those who have lost their lives to COVID-19.
Finally, visit the web-pages of NYSCA Living Traditions to view videos and other programmatic materials related to Día de los Muertos in New York, including building an ofrenda and making a traditional Oaxacan sand painting.
For more information or to view images and/or videos relating to Día de los Muertos, visit this beautiful visual documentary site of Dane Strom:
Image courtesy of Aurelia Fernandez
On May 1, 2020, New York Folklore and folklore programs across New York State will launch a collaboration to present traditional arts and culture from throughout New York State. Each weekday in May, from 4:00 -4:30 p.m., traditional arts activities will be presented through a livestream from New York Folklore’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/New-York-Folklore-76410462500/
“May 2020: 20 Folk Artists/20 Days” amplifies the artistic excellence found within New York’s communities. To view this daily initiative, simply tune in to New York Folklore’s Facebook page each weekday in May from 4:00 – 4:30 p.m. to experience a free, live-streamed event by one of New York State’s folk artists or tradition bearers.
The initiative showcases the artistic excellence and diversity of traditional arts and culture in New York State. Folk arts and cultural expressions are nurtured and perpetuated within communities. They are shared by those who have common regional affiliations, ethnic heritage, occupations, avocational interests, gender, and many other identifiers of interconnection. Artistic excellence is determined by a shared community aesthetic with innovation occurring within the bounds of the interests and concerns of the shared community.
Partners: Coordinating and partnering organizations from throughout New York State include the following: New York State Fiddlers Hall of Fame, Glow Traditions, Long Island Traditions, Los Pleneros de la 21, Arts Mid-Hudson, Brooklyn Arts Council, Arts Westchester, Center for Traditional Music and Dance, Rochester Institute of Technology, and The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE). Presenting folklorists and cultural scholars include Karen Canning, Andrew Cowell, Hannah Davis, Julia Gutíerrez-Rivera, Elinor Levy, Jorge Arévalo Mateus, Ellen McHale, Chris Mulé, Aaron Paige, Naomi Sturm-Wijesinghe, Emily Socolov, Valerie Walawender, and Christine Zinni.
Annually, Grupo Folklórico de Poughkeepsie (GFP) brings the culture of Oaxaca, Mexico to the Hudson Valley at its La Guelaguetza festival. La Guelaguetza festival celebrates the unique folklore of Oaxaca, Mexico, which is a region of Mexico noted for its various indigenous communities.
The festival provides a window into authentic Oaxacan dance, music, and food, that is held in “Oaxakeepsie” (the nickname given to Poughkeepsie because of its large number of Oaxacan immigrants). GFP began presenting La Guelaguetza in 2008, as a grassroots effort to bring the festival to the local community.
The festival begins with a parade of all the dancers, dressed in colorful traditional costumes and led by the Corn Goddess. Each group represents a different region of Oaxaca. Because La Guelaguetza is a celebration of harvest and sharing, offerings of fruit and flowers are shared with the audience throughout the festival.
After the introductory parade, the dancing and music begins. The colorful costumes and traditional props are breathtaking. Bilingual masters of ceremony provide the festival’s context by introducing and explaining the meaning of the dances. The lively dance performances and live music allow the audience to see, hear, and participate in the traditional customs of Oaxaca, Mexico.
La Guelaguetza Poughkeepsie is truly a community effort. GFP (under the direction of Felipe Santos) works with Arts Mid-Hudson and Dutchess County Tourism to provide this festival free to the thousands of people who enjoy it. La Guelaguetza immerses enthusiasts of traditional music and dance in the rich traditions of Mexico’s Oaxaca state. In 2020, the festival will take place on Sunday August 2, at Waryas Park on the Hudson River waterfront. Please follow them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pokguelaguetza