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When "ian" spells fun: To taste Armenia and long for more...
by Victoria Scott for the Evanston Roundtable, August 14, 2002
 Wielding wide brushes laden with melted butter, the women of St. James Armenian Church, 816 Clark St., layer sheet upon sheet of phyllo dough. Working in pairs over tables in the church social hall, they are preserving between the paper-thin leaves their tradition as a church and people.

At Evanston's Taste of Armenia on Sunday, Aug. 25, an expected 1,200 revelers will devour in six hours the delicacies that have taken these women weeks to prepare. The feast, now in its twelfth year, is the small congregation's largest fundraiser and helps to sustain programs and the building they purchased in 1945 from a Methodist group.

The Taste is also a window on a world where hospitality is a fundamental value. Armenian culture is such, says Mary Anne Koshgarian, that "if they have one slice of bread, they offer it to you." By like token, she says, "to refuse something is an insult."

The older generations of women in the room still cook Armenian food at home, though Ms. Koshgarian admits that daughters like her own Wendy Farsakian tend to rely on their mothers, "if they're in the area."

Today a dozen church members, Ms. Koshgarian and Ms. Farsakian among them, gather to make 18 vast trays of the cheese-filled pastry called boereg. Each tray has at least 24 layers of buttered phyllo, half lining the pans and half on top of the rich filling. "We used to make the dough," says Evanston's Mariam Tatosian, mixing filling in the kitchen, "but now we buy it."

Most everything else is homemade. Later this afternoon the four pairs of mothers and daughters, a few young sons and some stalwart singles will finish batches of spinach boereg. The egg, feta and brick cheese mixture, with and without greens, will bake flaky and fragrant the day of the street festival.

Already in the freezer is enough pakhlava to feed a thousand and one sweet tooths. The cinnamon and nut-filled confection resembles Greek baklava but is sweetened with sugar instead of honey. "We make our own sugar syrup," says Ms. Tatosian.

As always, the church women gathered grape leaves in the backyard of her Wilmette rental home at the end of June. Picked before July 4 to ensure tenderness, then blanched in salt water and frozen, the leaves are ready to use.

But it will require another work day to wrap them around a stuffing of rice, parsley and onions. Brushed with oil, then simmered in lemon juice and spices, the sarma waft the scent of the Middle East to the far-flung corners of the Armenian Diaspora.

Though most of the women in the room are American-born, Christine Norehad remembers the old country, which once occupied the eastern half of what is now Turkey. Born in Smyrna, Turkey, she and her mother and living siblings fled to Greece and then, in 1922, to the U.S. In the wake of the takeover of historical Armenia by Turkey and Russia in 1920 and the three-decade Turkish campaign that killed nearly two million Armenians, they came to make a new life.

But in their religion and around their tables, many of the 10,000 Armenians in the Chicago area seek to preserve the old. Ms. Norehad and her daughter Anna Marie converse in Armenian over their boereg, though both speak fluent English; snatches of the language reverberate around the room.

In 301 A.D. Armenia became the first nation to accept Christianity. The religion preceded even the establishment of their 38-letter alphabet and written language in 400 A.D. At St. James, says organist Anna Marie Norehad, the liturgy is still sung in classical Armenian from a book that also transliterates and translates it.

Ethnic pride will be the order of the day Aug. 25 as Clark Street between Sherman and Benson swells with diners and dancers to the music of the 12- stringed oud and dumbeg drum.

But some frenetic days of preparation remain. The men of St. James are in charge of the 700 beef and chicken kebabs, and "every Armenian man has his own idea of how to cut and marinate them," say the wives. And the crowd-pleasing Armenian hamburgers, half beef and half lamb and seasoned with onion, parsley, paprika and tomato purÈe, must still be made.

"The day before the fair is so hectic we don't know our own names," says Ms. Tatosian.

Tickets for full meals or individual items will be available at Taste of Armenia, noon to 7p.m., Aug. 29.