The old country is never too far from this transplanted exile Armenian-American Keghetzi deegeen’s (lady’s) heart.
It’s July as I write, and gardens everywhere are flourishing because of warm summer days and abundant rainfall. Those two vital elements have proven to be the answer to a lady gardener’s prayer. The growing season in Michigan is rather short, but if nature is kind the planting season will result in a bumper crop of vegetables and herbs.
The produce has started to come in fast and furious, and harvesting it is exciting. How are we going to put everything to good use? Fresh crisp salads and Armenian style geragours (dishes) come to mind.
“Going green” can have several interpretations, but for me it means planting seeds and starter plants to produce food for the dining table.
My piece of Heaven is conveniently located near the kitchen, in the backyard garden consisting of panjar (swiss chard), gananch fasouliah (green beans), varounk (cucumbers), tomatoes, dill, parsley, oregano, mint…
As first-generation offspring of genocide survivors, I became enamored of growing flowers and vegetables because of my Kghetsi father. He came from a line of copper-pot polishers traveling to nearby villages to ply their trade. They also planted gardens to supplement their food supply. Long, cold winters in Kghi necessitated preparation for winter by storing what they could protect from the cold to make it through the winter months.
One of the food items they depended on for protein was ghavourma, cubes of beef cooked to tenderness with added garlic and salt, then stored in cellars, in containers with fat for preservation. I’m guessing underground storage provided the cold and safety from wild animals for the ghavourma and root vegetables.
Unfortunately, my father passed away at a time I was very busy raising children. He died at age 72, before I could ask all the questions that now fill my mind.
Salt has always been an important commodity in all cultures, and for Armenians too. It was needed to cure meat and among other cooking uses to make vegetable tourshou (pickles) and cabbage lahana tourshou which was preserved in crocks. “Is it tourshou yet?” the children would cry out.
So many survivor exiles had gardens, and it was a source of pride for especially the men of the house to proudly show their perfectly planted, weedless rows of plants and herbs to visiting friends.
We had an Armenian neighbor who never planted a garden—and I don’t blame him. His property consisted of clay, whereas my father enriched his hard soil with many trucks full of fertile black dirt he hand-shoveled into the truck’s bed, and then again into a wheelbarrow, to put it all in his garden.
Whenever the neighbor’s wife needed parsley, she would knock on our door for it. My mother always said “yes” to her request, but complained that rather than pick each stem one by one she would grab hands full. My mother would moan to Dad, “Maghdanosuh guh peddeh” (she’s stripping the parsley bare). Dad would only say, “Hok meener, tratsee eh, eench bidi enes?” (don’t worry about it, she’s a neighbor, what can you do?).
The lady farmer in my genes has certainly connected me to the soil. I would like to think of myself as a semi-farmer, but reality is farmers arise at dawn to toil in their fields while my metabolism is more attuned to the 12-6 p.m. shift.
I always knew where food for human consumption came from. My education came when I was just beyond the toddler stage and held Dad’s hand going to the downtown Pontiac Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings. Dad would go there even though he had a great garden. At the market, he would search for items he did not grow, such as okra, cabbage, and eggplant. There was another benefit of going to market. We always came across other Armenians, and the friendly chatter would ensue, “Eench bes ek?”
The market also had live chickens, rabbits, kittens, and puppies for sale. Before Thanksgiving, ten you would also see Turkeys in cages. Farmers wore overalls, and their wives always wore printed colorful house dresses selling homemade baked goods: cookies, pies, and bread. They drove in from Auburn Heights, Clarkston, Holly, and other rural areas where they lived and farmed, which in those days were strictly the sticks, but now they are very nice subdivisions.
Access to the market came via an uphill wooden footbridge incline over the fast-flowing Clinton River, which flowed east to Lake Huron. I was timid and I held Dad’s hand tightly as we walked up the bridge. I fearfully looked down through the slats at the water and carefully placed my Buster Brown shoes, fearful of falling into the river.
One of the most symmetrically perfect gardens belonged to Melikantsi Zakar Hairabedian, Deegeen Elsig’s husband. They lived on Central Street. Baron Zakar always had a pleasant demeanor about him, a quiet voice, and he wore overalls and brown slippers in the house. He always had a red can of Prince Albert pipe tobacco in his pocket.
It was only much later after his death that I learned this quiet, docile man had been a gamavor zeenvor (a volunteer soldier). The odd things was, neither he nor his wife ever attended functions at our Ferry Ave. agoump (club), leaving me to wonder why. If Baron Zakar had an organized garden, his wife Deegeen Elsig made the best roejig—walnut halves strung on a long, 10-inch string dipped into a thickened fruit juice, sugar, and flour mixture boiled into a tallow, which the walnut strings were dipped a few times then hung up to dry. Then they were cut into pieces and stored in a container in a cool place, saved mostly for the winter holidays.
My mother made roejig, too, and tried to hide them from Dad and me, but we always found her hiding place. That was a game we played with good-natured Mother.
Planting seeds and starter plants, watching them grow as you faithfully water them, puts you closer to God, and for this miracle we bless each meal with thanks to our Lord for the blessings that fill our dining table.
As good neighbors, we always s shared our fruits and vegetables with family and neighbors. It was common for Dad to drive to Detroit with an abundance of homegrown produce for a relative. Likewise, I remember blonde, blue-eyed Keghoui Haroutunian arriving at our house on her bicycle with a basketful of concord grapes for our family. That’s how it was: Give and take… we shared.
When you have a garden, you listen carefully to the local weather report for expected rainfall, and if it does not rain you must water each day. This, coupled with weeding, equaled much toil for the success of the garden. There is nothing like the fragrance of rain penetrating the earth, a very special smell that cannot be found at any perfume counter.
So many of our Armenian fathers had backyard gardens. They worked hard in factories but took pleasure in putting seeds and seedlings into the ground to provide fresh veggies for their family. Dad smiled as he picked the first tomatoes and the cucumbers for jajukh—yogurt mixed with diced cucumbers and mint. Our families were well fed. That contributed to the partial recovery they experienced from the trauma of the Genocide. A well-cared-for, well-fed family meant everything to them. God bless their memory for maintaining their sanity and giving their strong enduring genes to us, their children.
Because we had peach, plum, apple, and cherry trees, Mom baked apple and cherry pies, three at a time for our family of six. She was taught by Agnes—our next-door neighbor who came from the South—to make perfect, flaky pie crust.
As a dandeegeen (lady of the house) with my own garden, I relished walking along the rows of green beans, bush type as well as pole, filling my basket as I checked for beans. That was followed by leisurely sitting in my wicker chair snipping off each end then snapping the pods into pieces. Then the kitchen was filled with the aroma of ganach fasouliah (green bean stew) cooking with garden fresh tomatoes, onions, or sometime with cubes of lamb. Simply delicious.
And it all began in a village in Historic Armeniaistoric Armenia called Tsermag, Kghi, so long ago but never to be forgotten.