From ONE Magazine

A Taste of Little Armenia

At first glance, Watertown is not unlike many of the middle-class suburbs and small towns that have sprung up around Boston. Its most imposing building is the brick post office on Main Street, which is surrounded by an array of inconspicuous office buildings and stores. Take the New England accents away, and you could be anywhere in Small Town, U.S.A.

But look closer, especially along Mount Auburn Street, another of Watertown’s major thoroughfares. There you will find the offices of lawyer Ara H. Margosian II and optometrist J.C. Baboian, the Bedrojian Funeral Home and the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenian flags – tricolors of red, blue and orange – fly above filling stations. There is a cluster of specialty groceries, all more or less like the Sevan Bakery, which advertises “Fresh lahmejune daily” and displays a list of available dips: hommus, babagounesh, muhammara, yalangy, tabouleh and tarama. You would think Watertown, population 33,000, was founded by a group of Armenian gourmands, not 17th-century English settlers.

Like other immigrant communities, the 50,000 Armenian-Americans in the Boston area are bound together by several cultural factors. There is of course religion. In Watertown alone there are four Armenian churches – two Armenian Apostolic, a Catholic and an Evangelical – and several more within a short drive. There is also language, though this cultural glue is weakening as Armenians followed the historic assimilation patterns of other immigrant groups. And there is politics, particularly the galvanizing efforts to raise awareness about the Armenian genocide, which many believe has been an overlooked tragedy of the 20th century and one that Turkey has never fully acknowledged. Food might seem a less lofty social glue, but nonetheless it may be the most enduring. After all, very few drive to Watertown from New Hampshire or Vermont to attend a political rally or a Sunday liturgy. But they do come, and in droves, to stock their pantries and freezers.

Margaret Chauushian and her husband, Gabriel, bought the Sevan Bakery 22 years ago, five years after they moved to Watertown from Istanbul. The store is dominated by a long salad bar – actually, a salad bar that has been converted into a depository of dozens of different nuts: almonds, cashews, peanuts, toasted or fresh, unsalted or salted. In the back, several men and women were making fresh lahmejunes – a thin, spicy pizza – for which the bakery is best known. The store caters to Watertown’s 7,000 Armenian-Americans, Armenian-Americans who drive in from near and far and non-Armenians who have developed a taste for the food.

“Most of our customers are Armenian, of course, but we also have a lot of Jewish customers,” Mrs. Chauushian said. “Saturday is our busiest day. We have people who drive in from all over New England.”

Though she cooked Armenian food as a young woman, Mrs. Chauushian, who is 50, said purchasing Sevan Bakery was purely a family business decision, not a personal dream to share her cooking with a wider audience. “We thought it was a good opportunity for us, but I had no idea how popular Armenian food is here.”

Still, with two similar stores on the very same street, and a few more within a mile, it seemed as if the market for lahmejunes might be saturated. Not at all, said Mrs. Chauushian, explaining the subtle differences among the stores’ offerings. “You see, we’re from Istanbul, so we’re not going to have the same taste as something you’d get at Massis Bakery or Arax Market, which is owned by a Lebanese.”

Armenian fare has taken on some of the characteristics of the diaspora’s host countries. And here in Watertown, sometimes called Little Armenia, the popularity of Armenian cuisine has impacted cooking from other traditions.

For instance, at Jasmine Persian Cuisine, a small, casual restaurant across the street from Sevan Bakery, there were several Armenian items on the menu. “Even though we’re a Persian restaurant, I have to have Armenian food on the menu, because that’s what’s popular here,” said Jasmine’s owner, Alex Zarifian, who, though himself Armenian, would prefer to showcase more Persian food. “But Armenian food is what sells.”

English settlers founded Watertown in 1630, 10 years after the landing at Plymouth Rock, making it the oldest inland settlement in the 13 original colonies. But the first record of an Armenian coming to the country predated Plymouth by two years. Records survive from 1618 indicating that “Martin ye [the] Armenian” was a member of the Jamestown colony founded in 1607.

Martin aside, Armenians first came to the United States in large numbers in the late 19th century, with a significant wave following the 1894 and 1896 massacres in Armenia. By 1914, there were about 16,000 Armenians in New York, mostly in New York City, and 14,000 in Massachusetts, mostly in the Boston area. Today, more than half of the United States’ one million Armenian-Americans live in California, but the oldest communities remain on the East Coast.

Those who came to the Boston area originally settled in the city’s South End, a working-class neighborhood that had accommodated earlier waves of Irish and Italian immigrants. Armenians began moving to Watertown in 1898 to work at the new Hood Rubber Plant. More jobs were to be had at a new armory. For its size, Watertown boasted an impressive industrial economy, producing sails, chocolate and lace. Factories in Watertown produced the first paper bags and rubber bicycle tires.

At first “it was mostly Armenian men who came to America to earn money, leaving their wives and families behind,” said Gary Lind-Sinanian, curator of Watertown’s Armenian Library and Museum of America. “But after the Armenian genocide of 1915, those who survived came with their families.”

In later years, as the factories closed, many Armenian-Americans, especially the wealthy, moved out of Watertown. But new immigrants replenished their numbers.

“You had a big wave of immigration with the genocide, but there were later waves, too,” said Joan Goodheart, a retired Wellesley College anthropologist who has studied Armenians since she moved to Watertown 30 years ago. “During the Lebanese civil war [1975-1990], many Armenians left and we saw an influx here. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we got another wave of Armenians who had lived there.”

As curator of the Armenian museum in Watertown, the largest of its kind in the diaspora, Mr. Lind-Sinanian is especially concerned about the preservation of Armenian culture in the United States.

Curiously, he is not of Armenian descent himself, but took to the culture in college under the wings of an Armenian professor. And not being born Armenian, he did the next best thing by marrying one – hence the hyphenated last name. His passion for Armenian history and culture is undeniable.

Mr. Lind-Sinanian oversees a four-story museum, founded in 1971 by local Armenian professionals, that has 22,000 books, scores of Oriental rugs and authentic Armenian costumes and about 100 paintings, surprisingly including the works of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, currently in a Michigan prison for assisting suicide.

“It is no accident that the museum is in Watertown and not in say, California, where you have a lot more Armenians,” Mr. Lind-Sinanian said. “First of all, New England Armenians are New Englanders, and they have an appreciation of the history of the region, which is where the U.S. started.

“Also, in California, the community is fragmented. It’s big enough to have its own isolated pockets. They often do not get along, there are tensions among the various religious groups and over Yerevan politics” back in Armenia.

The Watertown community is small enough to accommodate the various strands of the Armenian diaspora, he said. “Of course, there are still differences, and in that way the museum comes in handy.” Several years ago, when Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, came to speak at Harvard, his wife wanted to host a banquet for local community leaders. It was thought that choosing a church would seem too political, Mr. Lind-Sinanian said. So, she chose the museum.

Each day, Mr. Lind-Sinanian receives proof that Armenian-Americans are losing their ties to their heritage. “I get over 1,000 books each month from people who can’t read Armenian – grandpa’s stuff that they’re looking to get rid of,” he said. Before the museum opened, people used to dump old books onto the sidewalks.

“In 50 to 100 years, the language will be gone from the U.S.,” Mr. Lind-Sinanian said. “This isn’t unique to Armenians. It’s happened to Polish and Italian communities, every group. American culture is seductive.”

The curator said he expects religion and politics to endure longer as a social glue.

“Armenians will always have their churches, even if attendance fluctuates. And the genocide unites all Armenians, just as the Holocaust does for the Jews,” he said. Indeed, each Armenian church in the area has on its grounds a memorial to the genocide’s estimated 1.5 million victims.

“It’s a rallying point for the community,” said Father Vasken Kouzouian, pastor of Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church in a posh residential Cambridge neighborhood, just a couple of miles from downtown Watertown.

And, on a lighter note, Armenians will always have their food, Mr. Lind-Sinanian said. “People spend hours talking about which place makes the best lahmejunes.

It’s difficult to overestimate how important Armenian food is to Armenians.” To illustrate his point, he offered his museum’s annual number of visitors: 7,000. “When St. Stephen’s or St. James’s [two Armenian Apostolic churches in Watertown] host their annual food bazaars, they get more than 10,000 visitors on a single day.”

Alice Sefarian, 78, has been one of the most active members of Watertown’s Armenian-American community ever since she moved here 53 years ago. She emigrated from Greece and still has terrifying memories of the German occupation during World War II.

Along with her Armenian-American husband, who was disabled in that war fighting for the United States, she has reared three sons while teaching at the Armenian Sisters Academy in nearby Lexington, leading children on camping trips to Armenia and volunteering at area churches. She attends both St. James Apostolic Church and the Armenian Memorial (Evangelical) Church.

Her sons are successful professionals who live within an hour’s drive of Watertown, Mrs. Sefarian said. “I feel proud that we were able to educate them. That’s the most important thing.”

She also feels proud she had passed down the language and other Armenian traditions, she said, including her passion for Armenian food. “Mostly, I do all the cooking from scratch here at home and store it in the freezer. Last night, I made a traditional meat dish with rice pilaf.

“Two of my sons married Armenian girls, and they continue to eat Armenian food at home,” Mrs. Sefarian continued. “My other son, Daniel, was the only one to marry a non-Armenian, the sweetest Irish girl, but she learned to cook Armenian food.”

When she is in a hurry, Mrs. Sefarian said, she will go to the Armenian shops. But she rarely goes out for dinner, and especially not for Armenian food. “There aren’t a lot of Armenian restaurants because Armenians like making their own food,” says Mrs. Sefarian. “The restaurants are for non-Armenians.”

There are in fact very few Armenian restaurants in the area, but at least one, Karoun, is the exception to Mrs. Sefarian’s declaration.

On a recent Saturday night, Karoun was packed and most of the patrons were Armenian-Americans. Three groups were celebrating birthdays, and the upscale restaurant is well suited for festivities. The main dining room is dominated by a small stage, where owner John Eurdolian fronts an Armenian folk band, while his sisters scamper from the kitchen to the tables with heaping plates of mezze and roasted meats.

Some nights his parents preside over the stoves. In front of the stage, surrounded by tables, is the dance floor where belly-dance performances are interspersed with enthusiastic dancing by the customers. When I left at midnight, the restaurant was still full.

It has been more than a century since Armenians settled in Watertown. Not surprisingly, many of their descendants have lost the language, married non-Armenians and assimilated in other ways. But food remains one of the most enduring elements of Armenian heritage in Watertown and other Armenian-American communities. Perhaps there is no better explanation for this than the one offered by Arlene Voski Avakian, a women’s studies professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who wrote about her bond to the food of her ancestors in “Through the Kitchen Window.”

“Like other children of immigrants, I wanted to become an American, but … I didn’t want to eat like an American,” she wrote. For those unfortunate enough never to have tasted the cuisine or, worse yet, to have found it not to their liking, her family used an Armenian expression that means “they just don’t know the taste of their own mouths.”

Paul Wachter is assistant editor of ONE magazine. Photographer Ilene Perlman’s work has appeared in The New York Times and Time magazine.