It remains the most vital tool for creating all those delicious Armenian baked goods, boeregs, cheeseburgers and hamburgers, and katah, my personal favorite, sprinkled with sesame seeds or sev gundeegs on top. It is, of course, the long, thin stick called a dowel, known to most Armenians as the oukhlavoo.
Many years ago, I referred to the dowel as oukhlavoo for lack of a better word and I was raked over the coals by someone. Please spare me your vitriolic conviction this time around.
Picture an Armenian community in Highland Park, Del Ray, Detroit, or Pontiac, a long time ago. School was out for summer vacation. You just had lunch and were anxious to get back outside to play, roll the bat, hopscotch, or, in the evening, play hide and go seek with your friends.
Your non-Armenian friends too ran outside, munching on store-bought oatmeal cookies. Your prized snack was a freshly baked cheese boereg thanks to your dan degeen, stay-at-home mother.
Mom was generous and allowed you to share some of her baked goods with your odar friends. She knew how to be looked upon favorably. Our neighbors transplanted from the South taught mom how to make flaky crusts for cherry and apple pies. Our backyard contained the bounty of a huge sour cherry and apple tree. The plum and peach trees became canned fruit, but mom turned out multiple pies at one time for her family of six. Dad was partial to apple and cherry pies.
Were you the envy of the neighborhood? It all depends on your frame of reference, because when you traded with your friends that oatmeal cookie tasted good too. Looking back at those glorious days of youth, you grin and are thankful for your old-country-born Armenian mother spending long hours in the family kitchen accomplishing her weekly dedication to the fine art of perfecting the baking of Armenian pastries.
Mom rose early, organizing the necessary ingredients such as flour, yeast, melted butter, eggs, and evaporated milk, mixing then kneading the dough mass vigorously by hand, then allowing it to rise before separating the soft dough into perfectly shaped balls—being sure each was of equal proportion—then covering them and allowing them to rest.
Mom’s usual attire was a flowered cotton housedress covered with an apron, her feet shod in sensible shoes.
When mother baked, she would send bourma or katah to our delighted neighbors. She also taught them how to make her buttery, fluffy rice pilaf.
The neighbors became curious when they saw my father picking wild grape leaves in June—until mom explained how she used the leaves, which she stuffed and rolled with lemony rice and onion filling. Neighbors learned and shared with each other.
As important as the assembled ingredients were, the baking could not go on without the star of the show, the all-important long dowel called the oukhlavoo. It was indispensable. Mom wielded the dowel with self-assuredness. She and it became one. No telling how many pastries that dowel turned out.
When the dough balls had risen sufficiently, she used the dowel to roll out the dough for Armenian food staples.
I’d watch in amazement as the dough developed into an ever-expanding, perfect circle. The warm butter was ladled onto the dough surface, being sure every inch was covered. She then began rolling the dough up from one edge to the other by hand until it was a long rope-like shape. She would hold each end as she carefully bounced it on the table, then placing it on the counter, covered to rest until all of the balls met the same fate. Lastly, they were cut in half, formed into a circle, egg washed, sprinkled with sesame and/or sev gundeegs, placed on baking sheets and in the oven to bake. The wonderful aroma filled the house.
Mom would take a breather long enough to say, “Ouf, hokees yelev, krdeenk guh tapem” (My very soul was challenged, I am perspiring).
The all-day process resulted in individual boeregs, or at least 12 katahs, or a tray of boereg—the product of her devotion to her family and heritage.
Little did we realize as carefree children all the steps involved in making Armenian pantry staples. How easy it was to just grab one from her stash. The sweet memories of childhood can never be erased or forgotten. The connection to the Survivor Generation has more meaning than even words can convey. How fortunate we were.