At D.C. church, traditional Armenian festival gets some modern updates

Two dozen middle-age women and a handful of 20- and 30-somethings crowded the basement kitchen of an Armenian church in Northwest Washington this week.

Wearing white aprons while squeezed around folding tables, they carefully rolled rice, onions and spices into delicate grape leaves for yalanchi, a traditional Armenian dish.

For 62 years, the women at St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church have worked 12-hour shifts in the days leading up to their annual fundraiser, a festival at which they sell homemade bulgur pilaf, shish kebabs, yalanchi and lahmacun (Armenian pizza).

They’ve drawn about 2,000 people to their fall event in the past. But this year, their priest asked a crew of younger, career-minded women — and a few men — to help modernize the festival’s planning. And for the first time, the church is holding the festival in the spring.

The younger generation of Armenians has culled through decades of history: black leather-bound books filled with handwritten recipes and shopping lists, and notes jotted on cardboard from pantyhose packages that helped determine how much to charge per plate.

The new crew dumped the data into an Excel spreadsheet and used other software to track ingredients — 2,611 grape leaves, 400 pounds of chicken, 500 pounds of lamb and 150 pounds of rice — and the potential profit.

“We got a bit more modern,” said Sintia Petrosian, 32, of Gaithersburg, who along with her husband helped organize this year’s spring event.

“They used to keep their records handwritten and track how many items they made and how many people came in and then base how much food to make off that,” she said. “It was trial and error. Now, with new technology, we can pinpoint which items get sold and the quantities.”

The church women who have long run the event remained skeptical.

“They’re scared and afraid we might miss something,” said Arlet Koseian, 29, who owns a Rockville yoga studio and lives in Gaithersburg. Koseian is among the dozen young volunteers who helped organize the event. Her mother, grandmother, uncle and aunt are longtime church members and volunteers.

“They’ll never give up the books,” she said. “It’s sacred to them. But we want to streamline the event and make it as effective and efficient as possible so that when they start saying they’re too old to do it, we can do it on our own and keep it going.”

Using software to help with the planning was just the beginning.

The younger women convinced the older women that the festival would be more welcoming if they made menus and printed an Armenian recipe on the back, although some of the cooks were reluctant to share their secrets. The younger volunteers also explained how an $800 credit-card machine was a must-buy because few of their customers carried cash.

“We told them it’s what you have to do,” Koseian said. “You have to change with the times.”

They added some entertainment with a traditional Armenian dancing group. And they sent e-mail blasts and used Twitter and Facebook to publicize the festival.

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the Washington area is home to more than 4,600 Armenians, a small number when compared to those in cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, New York and Detroit.

The church has roughly 1,000 members, and about about a quarter belong to the generation that came to the United States in the 1920s after the Ottoman Empire launched a campaign of massacres and deportations against its Armenian population.

Many of the rest emigrated from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq from the 1960s to the 1980s and after a major earthquake in Armenia in 1988, according to older members of the church.

They’ve raised their children in their church, and a few have grandchildren who now attend a Sunday school class that teaches language and culture. Many of the older women didn’t work outside the home, so when it came time to prepare for their annual festival, they could spend long days in the church’s basement kitchen. But the younger crew shows up after 6 p.m., donning aprons after leaving full-time jobs in television, real estate and government.

Al Kamajian, an illustrator and drummer in his 30s who lives near Annapolis, remembered the role the church has played in his life, as he rolled rice and spices for grape leaves.

“This place has a cultural and social component to it of Armenian culture,” he said. “I feel like if I don’t get involved, it will be lost.”

Seeing the young crew working in the kitchen and enjoying it made Gulbahar Ozkanian, 70, of Rockville smile.

“We’re so happy, because when we die, they’re going to work here,” she said in Armenian. “One day we’re going to go, and who’s going to take care of the church?”

One recent evening, the older women showed the younger church members how to carefully stack yalanchi in big metal pans so they would cook evenly. The conversation — in Armenian and English — flitted from recipes to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love child.

Nearby, a group of women in their 50s and 60s debated exactly how much 12 pinches of salt is. Answer: Depends on how big the cook’s hand is and who’s counting. And at another table, ladies debated who invented stuffed grape leaves. Answer: Armenians, of course — to much laughter.

Whether they’ll have as much success this year, the young and old are waiting to see. The proceeds go to helping the community and funding the church’s operations. Some secrets both older and younger Armenians hold close to the heart, including how much they’ve raised in the past and their expectations for this year’s fundraiser.

“We’re hoping they’ll see the figures, and this year it will all match up and tie together, and they’ll feel more confident” about the new methods, Petrosian said.

Koseian added: “This is the year of hope.”

St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church’s spring food festival continues Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 4125 Fessenden St. NW.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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