Long before Armenia was sliced up and its inhabitants scattered throughout the world centuries ago, it was a tradition for devout women to gather in a communal kitchen to prepare foods for whatever festivities centered around the church.
That was the tradition then and that is the tradition now wherever Armenians live.
Nothing much has changed in the way women divide their communal culinary duties, or even in the foods they have managed to keep alive.
The women at the St. James Armenian Church on Slauson Avenue in Los Angeles prepare lulu kebab and shish kebab as did their ancestors in the Old World. They still make an incredible sou beoreg that is so much like lasagna you wonder which came first.
There is kufta, the boiled stuffed meatballs that Armenians love to eat for snacks as well as meals. There are the fabulous desserts--baklava and kadaif-- laced with thick honey-like syrup than tantalizes the sweet tooth.
Many of these dishes are common to countries throughout the Middle East, the recipes having been exchanged during the economic and political upheavals that have occured over thousands of years; but there are culinary variations within the Armenian regional cuisines unheard of elsewhere.
These unique dishes have existed for centuries, and the women of St. James Ladies Society have been preparing them as part of church festivities since the church was founded in Los Angeles in 1942.
It isn't easy putting a group of good, Armenian cooks together. And there is no reason to dispute that they are all good cooks. Most have been cooking for families, friends and the church since their early teens.
And there are rivalries, true. After all, a good cook's pride is sacred. And tampering with one's culinary honor is fraught with danger. However, most of the society's cooks concede to the communal melding for the sake of the cause. Raising money for the church activities is hard work requiring team effort.
Nor do they mess about with the egos of the eldest cooks in the group. Out of respect the younger cooks defer to age and experience, even though some may, in their heart of hearts, think that their cooking is as good or better.
"I don't make that the way she does it," says a younger cook of an elder, a hint of hauteur escaping in her tone.
So when we visited St. James Armenian Church recently, there were activities in the church kitchen that would bring you, too, back to the Old World of sights, sounds and smells; activities that have long provided a backbone of social and spiritual life for women like these.
"It's a way of keeping our people together," said Harmena Serabian, who was removing the kufta from the vats of boiling water with a huge slotted spoon. Both Serabian and her friend, Mannig Vahanian, have resigned themselves to being the kufta vat cooks for both the bazaar activities and the $5-per-person kufta dinners (with vegetable, salad, bread and coffee) that are held the third Tuesday of each month. "We keep saying this will be the last year, but we always come back," said Vahanian.
There were Marta Essegian, Maritza Apkarian, Alice Hekimian, Lucy Medina, Virginia Demirjian and Virginia Ekmanian, along with Aghavan Kasabian and Rose Hovsepian, the senior ladies of the St. James Ladies Society, tending to some of the 1,400 kufta (meatballs) being produced. It was a production line of kneaders, rollers and fillers for the several steps required to mix ground lamb, shape the meat into balls, thumb out cavities, stuff the cavities with an onion-meat mixture and reshape them into patties before plunging them into simmering water to cook.
And there was Mary Jendian, saying how she pitied the "poor women," who, years before the advent of electric mixers, had to mix the meaty dough by hand.
There was Astrid Merjanian, loosening the angel hair-like kadaif (shredded dough) in preparation for layering the dough with nuts before baking. "In the old days they'd make and shred their own dough, but it's so much easier buying the dough already prepared today. All you have to do is add the filling of nuts and cinnamon," she said.
Arpi Barsan, the church's choir director and member of the Junior Ladies Society, learned from her mother how to prepare all the dishes mastered by the elders. "A girl brought up in an Armenian household learns how to be a good cook," she said.
Lucy Medina rolled the sou beoreg dough (sou, meaning water , and beoreg meaning pastry). The egg pasta is boiled before layering, hence the name. There were 16 trays to prepare, and Medina was working on her third tray. "Rolling the dough is truly an art. You have to make sure it's rolled thin enough without tearing it," Medina said. "It's something you learn as a child and continue to practice throughout your life."