BY MARIA TITIZIAN
If you need to pull together a large dinner party on short notice, I’m the person to come to. Seriously. Just ask my sisters. When they were here two summers ago for my daughter’s wedding, they were in shock at the vast amount of cooking taking place in my kitchen.
We had over 30 family and friends who had made the long journey to celebrate with us, their ages ranging from five to 85. There was our nephew and godchild Arman, the youngest of the brood and then what we affectionately called the geriatric conference consisting of my parents, uncle and mother-in-law, ages ranging from 72 to 85 with various ailments and health issues. There was the young boisterous crowd of cousins and then the aunts, godparents and friends. Due to the fact that we couldn’t all keep them in our apartment, everyone with the exception of my mother-in-law, were in various rentals across the city.
Aside from the crippling heat wave that engulfed the city, what I remember most from that summer is the amount of food that was prepared on a daily basis to accommodate all the guests who would show up at different times throughout the day. It was a good thing that I had a decade of previous training.
When we moved to Armenia many of our family members began making the trek here to visit us and the homeland. My cousin once wrote me a note to say that the government of Armenia should pay me a commission from the state budget for all the tourists coming to the country. Indeed, but I’m still waiting for my check. And in the middle of showing our friends and family the various sites, I would also be cooking so that at the end of a tiring day of sightseeing, we would retire to our lovely little terrace looking out toward Mt. Ararat.
I will be the first to admit that back in Canada, there never seemed to be a lot of time for elaborate dinners with family, especially during the week, no thanks to our rigorous work schedules. And I had the luxury of having my mom or mother-in-law cook the “special” foods we loved like dolma, madzunov kufteh, harisseh, khavrma…So, initially the challenge for me was to learn how to cook these traditional foods all on my own for my children who missed everything about “back home” especially grandmother’s cooking. Rest assured that many long distance calls were made back then.
So that first year with its myriad of challenges was also memorable for me as I had to relearn how to shop for groceries, i.e. how to negotiate prices for tomatoes and eggplants with sly (or slick) village vendors or where to find milk that the kids could drink without gagging. Challenging is an understatement especially when they could spot a Diasporan from a mile away. This meant that even though my Western Armenian was a giveaway, so too was my appearance, apparently. Nonetheless, I learned to navigate the complex process of purchasing food staples and then how to actually cook them so they would come close to Medz Mama’s.
These days one need not worry about haggling over the price of green beans because of the supermarket chains that have mushroomed across the city that have set prices for everything. When we came, we had to go to the Pak Shuka or down to the corner where a villager had set up shop to bargain, argue with arms flailing and voices rising to come to a mutually acceptable price. I miss those days…
As each year passes, the tourist season seems to get longer and longer. If before it was mostly the summer months of July and August, these days tourists start coming in April and the last ones leave around October. And as more and more tourists come, I cook. There are so many people here already that I keep thinking we are nearing September instead of being only June.
There have been times when it has been exhausting and frustrating especially for my kids. I remember a particular summer day several years ago when I promised them that the three of us would sit at home and watch a movie together. My husband was out with his brother and I had managed to keep all the tourists at bay, as it were. Just as we settled in to watch the movie, my husband called to say that he and his brother were coming. And then a phone call came from another friend, and then before I knew it there were four extra people in our house. Just as I was trying to contain the situation, I heard somebody yelling my name from outside. I walked out to the balcony to see that some friends from Canada had arrived unexpectedly and their chauffeur who was an acquaintance, kind of-sort of knew where we lived had brought them over to our building, not even entirely sure if this was where we lived. Can you imagine, a group of Diasporans with a local driver stopping in front of random buildings and yelling out your name? These things happen around here. So up they came and now there were eight men in my living room. At that point my son just shrugged and walked away, my daughter who in general has a very calm demeanor stormed off to her room and slammed the door. I smiled at the guests and calmly walked into the kitchen…naturally, to cook. I developed an intimate relationship with that room because that is where I spent most of my summer that year.
Armenia has been kind to my family on many levels. It has also been the reason why I learned how to cook those gorgeous Armenian dishes so cherished in my family. I’ve become a bit like my mom in that respect…I show my love through food. And now, as the day is progressing, I have to go back to “that room” to cook dinner for friends from Australia. It will be a joyous evening for sure.