It was one man’s idea that has grown into a highly successful metro-Detroit Thursday dinner tradition. It leads you to wonder if the late Murray “Mourad” Bagdasarian knew how appreciated that idea would remain 11 years later. After all, it continues to bring people together twice a month for kebab dinners at the Armenian Community Center in Dearborn, Mich., home to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF).
This is more than a story about food: it portrays a family that is symbolized by cooperation and character.
Mourad was a good-hearted family man who wanted to encourage cohesiveness in the Armenian community at large. He knew good food was a winning formula to accomplish that. Together with his wife Virginia, they ventured into the arena of providing full-course kebab dinners prepared home style, May through October. Over the year, they acquired a cadre of faithful followers.
Sadly, quite soon, Mourad became seriously ill. But before passing away, he knew his dream was not only a reality but a highly successful one at that. He got involved even from the hospital, asking how many people attended, how they responded to his dinner idea, and what comments were made. He also knew Virginia could count on the assistance of daughter Krista, sons Michael and Ross, and relatives who would kick in to help as needed. Now after many years, Virginia has passed the mantle to Krista.
Krista welcomes the task. She says, “Mom can now enjoy being with the people but she does still supervise. She taught me all her recipes. I do everything the way she did, except I add more onions to the bulgur pilaf than mom did and the people seem to like it. We buy the best quality products for the dinners including the butter.” Ahh, Armenians and their butter.
“My mom is my best friend. I have the greatest memories of growing up. I have cooked with her since I was 13 years old. She was working, so I had to help out with the cleaning too.” Then she laughs, “I had my Dad and two brothers, who were like having three kids, so I am used to responsibility.”
Her face glows when she says, “I love baking and cooking.” I love seeing all the people happy and enjoying the food as a community family.” Krista is a serene and calm young woman who is in love. In love with her motherhood, her husband, and certainly her family. It’s a compliment to say she is a born dan digeen.
So now the tradition continues with Krista and her husband Ara but not without assistance from their children Arev, 17, Araxie, 16, and his grandfather’s namesake, Mourad, 9
I asked what her hobbies were and she told me her kids were her hobby. They are involved in softball, baseball, and the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), and her two daughters are in the Hamazkayin Dance Group. She has little time for anything else.
This is her routine: “I do my shopping on Sunday or Monday. There are two days of intense prep and my mother helps with this. On Tuesday, I buy the meat and marinate it. On Wednesday, I shish the meat, and on Thursday, I leave my home in South Lyon at 3 p.m. to get to the community center. My husband starts the fires at 4 and dinner starts at 6.” And the line is a long one.
Bulgur or rice? In addition to the chicken and lulu kebab, she serves rice and bulgur pilaf, hommous, roasted peppers, salad, and fresh pita bread with coffee. Portions are generous. The price is reasonable. Dessert is optional. Attendance averages 100 people and even more when meetings are being held in the building. Many repeat customers from when the service first started are a testimony to the quality of the food.
Der Hayrs are in attendance as well as a cross section of the Armenian community. Bachelors and widowers longing for a home-cooked meal show up. Senior citizens from the nearby St. Sarkis Tower are there, too. Some of the best-known cooks are in the crowd, taking a day off from their own kitchens. After dinner, some folks take to card games or tavloo. Most are just sitting and chatting. I am thinking, “Murray, you hit the jackpot.”
Where there is smoke there has to be a grillmaster and that title goes to the Bagdasarian’s son-in-law, Krista’s husband, Ara Tossunian. He is the smiling guy manning the grill who greets you as you enter the hall. Thank him for cooking the meat and peppers to perfection no matter what the unpredictable Michigan weather brings. The show goes on.
Ara says of his wife, “She’s the boss in the kitchen. I am in charge of the grill, that’s my business.” The couple has wisely struck an agreement.
People have real life stories to tell. Sometime there is sadness involved. Such was the case while talking with Krista. Her father Mourad passed away when she was still rather young. She related this poignant message to me: “The phone would ring at 7 in the morning and it would be Dad. He wanted me at the hospital every day, all day, and I would tell him, Don’t worry Dad, I will be there.” Krista added that her cousins would watch her children so she could be with her father till the end.
Ara has been grilling for over 35 years and generally does the same at family events. He has more ambition for Krista and himself, if he can convince her. With a twinkle in his eyes he says, “I am thinking about doing private backyard parties for people during the summer months.” Krista smiles back not quite convinced this is a deal she is willing to take on. Again, it sounds like a winning combination. The beat goes on, thanks to Murray’s idea.