If I don’t follow through on a promise, it wears on me. A group of Keghetsis chatting at the St. Sarkis Church Bazaar last fall wanted to have a get-together where we could dine on pagharch, also known as the “feast of the Hittites,” the glorious ancient ancestors of us Keghetsis.
The last time I made it was as a surprise to honor retired Macomb Daily News editor Mitch Kehetian at his book signing, where he and I gave talks about his highly successful book Giants of the Earth. Mitch has spent decades putting the Detroit community on the map with his fine reports about the Armenian Cause in the American and Armenian-language newspapers. He has history and newspaper ink in his blood.
I volunteered to tackle the difficult pagharch-making duties, but no headway was being made for a venue and a date. The holidays came and went without a plan in place, and then it was May. It was time to take action before it got too warm.
Mitch is 100 percent Keghetsi and I was not going to fail him. He has what is known as “the Gardens of Keghi” where at home in Allen Park, Mich., he plants tomatoes and cucumbers started from seeds from Armenia. He calls his sprouted seedlings his “little Armenian soldiers.”
Krista Tossounian, who with husband Ara heads up the twice-a-month kebab dinners at the Dearborn Armenian Community Center, gave permission to have our Keghetsi gang take part in a pagharch. The understanding was that all of us would, per usual, purchase our dinners from her first, and pagharch would come later.
Mitch is the historian who set me straight. He said, “Some have mistakenly said pagharch was shaped like Mt. Ararat. … Not so. It is Mt. Sulbuz. … The link of the Hyes of Kigi (the way the Turks spell it) Province to the old Hittite Empire dates back to 1600 B.C. when the Hittites, an Indo-European people, ruled central and southern Anatolia. Their empire lasted 500 years, blended with the Hurrian and Mitanni tribes (who were offshoots of the Urartu era). The Hittites survived severe winters by stationing themselves in the mountain regions of central Anatolia (east of present-day Ankara) with grain…and pagharch. They made pagharch to look like their holy mountain, Mt. Sulbuz seen from the entire Kighi region. They put the tahn on the top of the pagharch to resemble the snow-capped Mt. Sulbuz.”
“When I was there in 1969, I had pagharch with my half-Turkish cousins,” he said, offspring of Mitch’s Aunt Parancim, about whom the search in Giants is written. “The old Keghetsi historians always told me about the Mt. Sulbuz-Hittite story at pagharch dinners at the old Zavarian Hall in Delray,” he said. Delray was an old section of Detroit where Armenians first settled and where they had a community center.
“As for the Hittites, they were the first to use iron spears. Iron mineral is still abundant in the Kigi region. You could even see the discoloration of the western tributary of the Euphrates River (the Kigi River). The Hittite Empire was battered by the Mameluks of Egypt. The present people of Kigi, mostly Kurds and Turks with Armenian mothers, call it ‘Feast of the Hittites.’ That’s what I had in Kutluja with my half-Armenian cousins.”
Mitch continues, “The Hittite history is much like the history of Urartu, not known by the general public, just historians and persons with an outreach to their roots like good Keghetsis like you and me.”
Into the large container I poured the white and whole wheat flour proportions totaling almost eight pounds and other ingredients, as taught to me by my non-Keghetsi mother. I guess she learned from my dad’s Canadian cousins. I forgot to ask. Preparing the dough is not for the faint of heart. The steps are several: Coordinating ingredients, shaghel-ing, baking, crumbing with a fork while hot, warming the butter till it is nutty brown, warm garlicky tahn. Practice made it perfecto!
It has to be kneaded for at least 20 vigorous minutes. I got assistance in shaghel-ing the stiff dough from my German husband, who in the throes of his duty asked me, “How many young Armenian men ran away to join the army in order to escape pagharch-making duties?” I chuckled and so did Mitch when I sent him that message.
My recipe is authentic. Variations exist but do not look the same and have a hard shell. In the end I presented a large, round, bread-like delicacy soaked with hot melted butter and garlicky tahn. Finger-licking good was never truer. Curiosity from onlookers was plenty. Red, blue, and orange plates and napkins for piling it on were ready.
Taking a turn plunging the sherep—pardon me, the large tkal—into the warm, succulent crumbs were Mitch and Rose Kehetian, Greg Vartanian, Cathy Harabedian, Michael Kajoian, Krista and mom-in-law Vergine Tossounian, Bob and Betty Kessel, and a few from outside our Keghi villages. It was big enough for 12-15 people. Applause for the cook and photos of the inflated but sated group followed. Doggie bags went home with Mitch and Mike, and for cousin Rose Vartanian.
Word even got to Dr. Levon Saryan in Wisconsin, who contributed this: “The full references are Matthew 26:17 and Luke 22:1. The references are the same in the classical Armenian Bible and in the 19th-century Riggs modern translation. Both use the term pagharchagerats for feast of the unleavened bread. This tells us what term was being used circa the 5th century AD.”
Tradition is a wonderful thing. No one has what we Keghetsis have, a special food tribute to the Hittites. Thanks to intellectuals Mitch Kehetian and Dr. Levon Saryan for contributing to this column. I am a lucky girl.