An Armenian Thanksgiving for the Ages

Like a good football rivalry, Thanksgiving around my house was always predicated around teamwork.

Enjoy a bountiful Armenian Thanksgiving. (Tom Vartabedian photo)

As children, our job was to stay out of the way, keep the living room orderly, bring our appetites to the dinner table, and show some manners.

Growing older, our roles included the “Hayr Mer,” and giving thanks to the less fortunate. As conscientious Armenians, we had much to be grateful for in this world, more specifically, surviving the genocide.

Both my parents escaped the pogroms. So did my grandmother. Somewhere in our prayer, we would thank the Good Lord for his bounty as well as our survival and success as a family.

My folks operated a luncheonette in Somerville back in the 40s, 50s and 60s and it was usually a seven-day-a-week ordeal. So, it was not uncommon to work the morning of Thanksgiving and depart just after the noonday rush.

To close for the day would have been irreverent to dad’s faithful clientele. What didn’t get eaten that morning was quickly transported to a nearby church for the less fortunate. And if it meant some bodily assistance on the serving line, that’s where you found my parents. Our appetites could wait.

Back then, our family resembled a small army. Three generations would gather under one roof and enjoy the spirit of companionship. Cousins. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. The table sagged with food, much of it my grandmother’s doing. She left no stone unturned, from lentil soup to baklava at the end.

Never a recipe for anything. It was all mind over matter. Her pilaf always came out the best, especially after all the butter she used.

Well, one day, the unexpected occurred around our cozy Thanksgiving table. Guests arrived unannounced from out-of-town and there were more people than food to feed them this particular holiday. To leave anyone hungry on such a day would be the cardinal sin.

Old Armenian ingenuity kicked in. You could have shortened the portions but try telling that to a 200-pound tapeworm. You would think that common sense would dictate the amount filling your plate.

Not my family. Whoever went first, got the most. What was left turned into second helpings. Willpower is when you go on a diet Thanksgiving Day. My family was more like a familiar famine.

My mother took us aside with some words of desperation for my brother and me.

“Look,” she said. “We don’t have enough turkey for everyone. Most people will go straight for the white meat and leave the dark. Wait until the very end before helping yourselves. Let our guests serve themselves first.”

Good old-fashioned Armenian mentality if I ever should say.

Dig right in and take what you want. We watched as one diner after another pored over food like a starving nation. A 20-pound bird was quickly reduced to a torso. When it came our turn, we had been duly warned not to indulge.

“We don’t like the dark meat,” I said, speaking for my younger sibling as well. “We’ll just take a little extra pilaf and corn. That should do it.”

All eyes at the dinner table turned to us in angst. Two youngsters with no turkey? Quicker than you could say “cornucopia,” people were offering us turkey they had already taken. Never mind the sanitation issues, but who would want food off another’s plate?

Maybe our guests didn’t exercise proper protocol by serving themselves more than they could possibly consume, then try to pass it off on others who didn’t get enough.

“No, that’s quite all right,” I said. “Don’t care much for turkey, especially the dark meat.”

I glanced over to my mother and could see a rather coy smile cross her face. For someone who was emotionally scarred by the genocide, the woman was always so full of life. Little did I realize at the time that she would wind up as the last remaining survivor in my city after nearly reaching the ripe age of 99.

To tell you the truth, I was left a little hungry and deprived on this Thanksgiving Day. Who invited these extra people? I certainly didn’t. They invited themselves.

After the table had been cleared, on came the desserts. We Armenians always save the best for last. There they were: pies, cakes, fancy rolls. And my favorites, baklava and khorabia drizzled with corn syrup. Just stand aside and let me feast.

But no, mom’s word was law and she laid it down, right then and there.

“All those who didn’t eat the turkey get no dessert,” she said, giving my brother and me an unfair reprimand. By depriving us, they nourished the others and saved face.

It was a Thanksgiving that never lost its meaning, much less an appetite.



Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.

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