I once heard an old adage: “With three Armenians in a room, you get four opinions.” Nowhere does that seem more fitting than when it comes to food. Whether it be an omission of salt, the use of olive oil versus butter, or how many minutes you knead the dough, food is open to criticism on both online forums and dinner tables alike. For any neutral observer, it is clear that food plays an outsized role in Armenian identity, compounded by its connection to family, immigration, etc.
History does not develop in a vacuum and the same goes for food.The figurative food fights between nations and their perceived ownership of said food is just as nonsensical as the modern borders they currently inhabit. These boundaries are relatively new and do not mean much in the shadow of hundreds of years of cultural exchange, co-existence and conflict that contributed to a shared culinary heritage.
This defensiveness is not without merit though. For Armenians, especially those in the wider Diaspora, food has served as an important vehicle for cultural identity and memory.
In the United States, many of the original Armenian communities settled with members of their families as well as villages and towns, establishing compatriotic unions and churches that would serve as focal points of Armenian community life. Some traditions had to be revitalized or introduced for the first time altogether, like yogurt. Yogurt, now available in every supermarket in countless flavors and even non-dairy options, was once alien and unpalatable to the average American consumer. Families like the Colombosian family in Massachusetts started to make their own yogurt, selling it to other Armenians as well as Greek, Syrian and Lebanese families who couldn’t find this familiar product elsewhere. In order to make it, they had to begin with a starter from scratch or somehow bring a live or dried form of starter with them from abroad. Of course, for anyone who has worked with a starter, the makeup can change day by day. During fermentation, it feeds on yeast and bacteria from its local environment: adjusting, adapting, and most poignantly, surviving.
Survival has been integral to the Armenian experience. As Charles Darwin would have it, natural selection begets winners who adapt best to their environment and anyone who has studied Armenian communities in the Diaspora can attest, this is what they do best, food included. New environments mean alien products and ingredients: immigrant ingenuity and the discerning collective palette of Armenians act as natural selection would, weeding out inferior dishes and substitutes. It should be pointed out that our current conception of “Armenian food” is already altered by genocide, displacement and migration, where whole histories of village and town customs vanished as well as access to certain cooking processes/ingredients. Most of what exists in the United States is passed on through families as well as church-sponsored cookbooks and until recently, heavily skewed towards those from the former Ottoman Empire.
To put another arrow in the purist’s argument, many foods that are popular in Armenian cuisine: various beans, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, all come from the Americas. The iconic ghapama, which singer Harout Pamboukjian dedicates an entire song to, is a stuffed squash, a plant native to North America. Greeks, Turks and Armenians can call it quits because it turns out coffee originated in Ethiopia. The introduction of new ingredients and loss of old ones isn’t new, it’s normal and there is very little to be gained fighting about it.
So this might still leave you wondering: what the heck is Armenian food? The answer is deceptively simple: food that people who self-identify as Armenian call Armenian food. For example, Muenster cheese is not an indigenous product of the Armenian Highlands (or Germany!) but it appears in my family’s borek recipes. Uncle Ben’s or Carolina Rice are not heritage grains like emmer or einkorn wheat but they show up in my church cookbooks! Even with these egregious disqualifiers, I considered these foods Armenian because it’s what I grew up with and what I associate with being Armenian. It’s not much of a stretch to consider that this might be the case for others in what they perceive to be Armenian food. There are Armenians who don’t eat meat or animal products altogether but consider what they’re eating to be Armenian! Others may recognize kuku sabzi and vinegret as Armenian food rather than choreg and lamajoon.
Edward Said’s idea of imagined geographies strikes at the issue of perception and the reproduction of ideas over time through the media, texts, pictures, video: essentially tropes and memes. The same concept extends to food. As travel becomes cheaper, the Internet breaks down communication and informational barriers and the makeup of our communities change, so do our preconceived notions of Armenian food. While the late Anthony Bourdain highlighted the food of Armenia on a trip there in 2018 for No Reservations, this year chef Marcus Samuelsson put the spotlight on Armenian food in Los Angeles, itself a collection of different Armenian communities and culinary traditions, in No Passport Required. Last year Kate Leahy, Ara Zada and John Lee brought us Lavash, a beautiful compendium of recipes and stories from the contemporary Republic of Armenia. This past January The Vegan Armenian Kitchen Cookbook by Lena Tashjian and Siroon Parseghian has revived traditionally vegan recipes and introduced newly veganized ones. You want a breakdown of the unexplored histories, connections and role of food in the Armenian-American diaspora? Look no further than Dining in Diaspora, a multimedia project by Liana Aghajanian.
Letting more people define what Armenian food means to them, their families and their communities is more real and authentic than not. Food doesn’t just tell one story for one person or group of people, it tells it in multitudes and to get the full experience we should be willing to bring a few more chairs to the table and broaden the conversation.