Preserving Armenian Culture with Faith and Butter

August 10, 2009

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An estimated 35,000 Armenians live in the Chicago area. They've survived a massacre and a trek to a new land, and kept their culture and religion strong. But now older Armenians worry these things can't compete against the demands of jobs and children. Some women on Chicago's far West Side are employing a secret weapon to bring church and culture to the next generation – butter.

NAT OF BAKING

Seven women stand over long tables in the church basement. They carefully layer a pound and a half of filo on a baking sheet, and brush each piece with clarified butter. They slather on a mixture of cheese, milk and eggs. And then, says Silva Karachorlu, more filo.

KARACHORLU: It becomes very delicious after it's cooked at 350 degrees. People wait for this, and if we are a little bit late, they give us very, very funny looks. (Laughs.)

They're baking for the annual St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church picnic, just like they've done for decades. The pastries are so celebrated, they've earned a spread in "Saveur" magazine.

The ladies will make more than 5,000 baked goods, nearly all of it by hand. They've been doing this together so long, they're like family.

KARACHORLU: There was a time we used to talk about our children when they were in grammar school, high school, college, now we talk about what medications we are taking. (Laughs.)

Most of the women are in their 70s now. There are no young faces here today to learn these ancient techniques. The ladies wonder who will take over when they're gone or too tired to keep doing it.

The sweets table at the picnic is essential. It raises a nice chunk of the church's budget. And it helps spread the faith - and Armenian culture - to the next generation.

Helene Babikian oversees the baking.

BABIKIAN: It might fade away after awhile because who's going to do it? The young ones are working, and they don't want to be bothered. I hope it doesn't go by the wayside.

It's not just that some of these baking methods date back centuries. Food is essential to Armenian culture.

JEBEJIAN: It's said often that kitchens are Armenian living rooms. Lots of Armenians have living rooms. I don't know many that actually use them.

Father Aren Jebejian is the pastor at St. Gregory's. He says food is what holds the culture and religion together by creating fellowship.

JEBEJIAN: You can't sit down at an Armenian meal and gobble it up and walk away. To sit down at an Armenian table means you have to put aside a few hours. That means you have to sit, you have to talk face to face, there's no texting, no Twitter. It's very important for us for the fabric of the Armenian people.

Surviving what the Armenians call the Genocide made keeping traditions even more important. Between 1915 and 1923, more than a million Armenians were killed under Ottoman Turk rule. The modern-day Turkish government disputes the term genocide. It says both Armenians and Turks died in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

BABIKIAN: Most of us don't know grandma, grandpa, either side of our family.

Helene Babikian lost many family members during that time period. Here's what she says happened when the Turks came to her grandfather's house:

BABIKIAN: They lined up all his sons, I think he had five sons, I had five uncles, and they brought my grandfather, stood him there, and they shot his children in front of them.

JEBEJIAN: In the back of all my parishioners' minds is the genocide.

Father Jebejian:

JEBEJIAN:When they get down, when times are tough, they remember that people sacrificed, that people endured a tremendous amount of oppression so that we today could be a Christian nation and carry on our culture.

But despite this history that's both painful and rich, there are things that pull young people away from the church. The pastor says the church was too slow in adapting to the modern world.

JEBEJIAN: This is a sad reality that we had clergy here that were not reaching out necessarily, clergy who only knew Armenian and couldn't really connect with a younger generation. And because of that, we lost two generations of young people.

Now Armenian priests are trained to help with premarital counseling, drug abuse and death and dying. And the gospel is read in both Armenian and English, not just ancient Armenian.

JEBEJIAN: I would hope if they would someday come back to the flock, we are fully equipped to take care of them and shepherd them.

The baking ladies are trying to bring people back to church ….by reaching them through their stomachs.

Every few years, they teach a class through the city's ethnic cooking series, World Kitchen.

NAT OF CLASS

When they did it last, they caught the attention of Michael Kalagian.

KALAGIAN: Related to anyone in Racine, Wisconsin? Maybe, I know there are a lot of Kalagians around.

He's a young man with an Irish mother and Armenian father.

KALGIAN: When you're growing up, you're trying to fit in with your friends and just be popular. You don't want to explore those things that make you different.

As he's gotten older, he's realized that it's his ethnicity that makes him unique.

KALAGIAN: My grandmother tried to teach me some Armenian, but I was just too young. I couldn't fully appreciate the culture back then. I wish she was alive now because I'd be a lot more appreciative of how special it is. I rely on things like this to put me in touch with my cultural heritage.

The ladies show him how to gently drape thin sheets of filo to create a huge pan of baklava.

KALAGIAN: Heart attack waiting to happen, but it tastes to so good when we're done. I'll be an expert at painting by the time I'm done putting all this butter on. Butter, butter, butter, the staple of the Armenian diet.
DOROTHY KORESIAN: Oh my God, everything we have clogs our arteries.

Kalagian jokes he'd better get his cholesterol checked. One of the ladies tells him to have a glass of red wine, and he'll be fine.

By the end of the session, Kalagian's considering a language class. But as excited as he is, he's just one guy.

Church ladies like Dorothy Koresian still worry the young Armenians won't step in when the bakers retire.

Koresian: That is wishful thinking. I'm all for it, but they could care less. The point is, it's dedication, and the young adults today do not have the dedication, as simple as that. If I'm lying, God strike me.

But Silva Karachorlu is more optimistic.

KARACHORLU: There are always some who come forward to learn, and they will continue.

And her optimism is born out, when it comes time to make 200 dozen Armenian pizzas, or Lahmajoun.

NAT: Come on girls, let's go

Twenty people show up to cut up pieces of dough and roll it into balls. There are some younger faces, too.

NAT: Margie, teach Diane.

One of them is 29-year-old Dana Miller. Like many Armenians, Miller learned some specialties at home from her mother and grandmother. After college, she decided to start baking with the church ladies occasionally, too.

MILLER: You come in and sit down, and the more interest you show, the more often you come by, the secrets are let in. You slowly get to learn things and try things.

Her work schedule doesn't let her get here as often as she'd like. She says that's the challenge for people her age. Still, she's sure her generation will respond when the church ladies finally decide to retire.

MILLER: When it becomes a necessity, I do think people will step up and get involved. Armenian people are not the kind to let things fizzle away.

Miller says it's when she got married that she started feeling even closer to the church. Now, she and her husband run the kitchen and silent auction during the picnic. And she figures when they have kids, they'll be even more involved than they are now.

Lynette Kalsnes, WBEZ.

NOTE: The picnic at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church, 6700 W. Diversey, is this weekend. It runs from 5-10 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 8 p.m. on Sunday. The festival features pastries and other Armenian foods, as well as live music, and children's activities.