During my childhood, that meant a house buzzing with relatives. The living room to the backyard would contain an intricate assembly line of marinated meat handlers, ready to hand off skewers to uncles manning the hand-made grill that they’d fan with a piece of cardboard—sometimes even a hair dryer. More recently, it meant cooking with an Armenian Women’s Guild, an integral part of many Armenian communities in the diaspora, as they prepare for their annual food bazaar. The gathering is in October, and for the guild members at the St. John Armenian Church in Southfield, Michigan, the cooking begins around March. They roll dough, catch up on news, dip their brushes in butter, drink coffee, shape meat into perfectly symmetrical spheres, and I watch in awe, hoping that my proximity means some of their skills will eventually rub off on me.
But this togetherness has a practical purpose too. Organized labor is at the heart of the dishes—repetitive tasks of layering, brushing and scooping, cutting mountains of herbs, pinching tiny pieces of meat, braiding bread, and stirring large pots of pilaf—it takes multiple people to achieve good results. It is not an especially difficult cuisine, but it is all-consuming, the kind of work that makes your back ache and your eyes go blurry. In a world where life continues to demand so much of our time, it’s also a dying art, an enormous time suck disappearing a little bit more with every generation.
I’m accepting the loneliness in my kitchen. It gives me time to think, but the deafening silence makes me think too much. Now, I have a shelf full of spices, filo in the freezer, a 5-lb. bag of sesame seeds, and dozens of Armenian cookbooks with bookmarks scattered across the living room floor, where the recipes often yield food for dozens of people at minimum.