FAITH & FOOD: Family Table Takes Special Significance During Easter

FAITH AND FOOD: The family table takes on special significance during
the Easter season

Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan)
April 12, 2006

BY SYLVIA RECTOR, FREE PRESS FOOD WRITER

Here’s a tip for the teens at St. John’s Armenian Church: At the end of
high school, when the Rev. Father Garabed Kochakian does the big senior
interview to test your knowledge of the faith, one of the questions
he’ll throw at you is about … food.

It’s partly because he’s that kind of pastor: spirited as well as spiritual.

But it’s also because food in the Armenian Eastern Orthodox faith is
both sustenance and symbol, eaten — and often not eaten — as a way to
observe church teachings.

It takes on even greater significance during the 40-plus days of fasting
known in Orthodoxy as Great Lent, which leads up to this week’s Fast of
Great and Holy Week and, finally, to Easter Sunday. Together they
represent the most sacred period of the calendar for the Eastern
Orthodox people.

“It is the highlight of the year,” Father Kochakian said last week over
lunch at his home, where he, along with his wife, Roberta, and Women’s
Guild member Dolly Matoian talked about fasting, Armenian food and the
beloved custom they call the Easter egg game.

The meatless Great Lenten lunch was delicious.

The pastor’s words on food, fasting and the family table were thought
provoking.

And the egg game — the shell-cracking high point of Armenian Easter
dinner — turns out to be quite a feisty event.

As Roberta Kochakian said, “Everyone plays, and there’s no pandering to
the children. If you win, you win.”

But before the fun on Easter Sunday comes the most rigorous period of
fasting in Armenian Orthodoxy, a faith that recognizes more than 200
annual fast days — or more precisely, days of abstinence from certain
foods, Father Kochakian said.

As St. John’s pastor, he leads one of the largest Armenian Orthodox
congregations in the United States. More than 3,000 people attend St.
John’s, the landmark building with the distinctive gold-domed roof
beside the Lodge Freeway in Southfield.

Armenia is north of Syria, Iraq and Iran and next to Turkey, so its food
is Middle Eastern with Turkish influences.

In the Armenian church’s most restrictive Lenten fast, the monastic
fast, followers abstain from meat and meat products, including eggs and
dairy foods, for the entire 40-plus days of Great Lent.

In modern practice, the observance is usually modified.

In his own home, says Father Kochakian, “We don’t eat any meat during
the Lenten period, but dairy and those types of things I do consume. We
live in a society where you need your energy. … I’m on the go 24-7.”

People try to observe as best they can, he said. Depending on health and
family situations, some people fast only on Wednesdays and Fridays;
others might do so only in Holy Week. No one is to be judged on how they
fast, he said.

“The idea of just giving up one food item is not really the object of
Lent. It’s to change your life completely,” he said. “And where do you
change your life? It starts at the table … because you sit at the
table every day. And whatever is ordinary that is changed, influences you.”

The everyday table holds special significance in Orthodox teaching
because it is where food is served, and “food brings people together and
maintains unity. … The table in your home, in the Christian teaching,
is an extension of the altar table in the sanctuary. We are fed from both.

“The food for our mortality is in the home, and the food for our
immortality is at the altar — the body and blood of Christ,” he
explained, referring to the bread and wine in Christianity’s
2,000-year-old communion ritual.

He says people have told him, ” ‘Father Garabed, you’re always talking
about food. You even quiz the kids on food. What does that have to do
with Sunday School?’ But it does.”

At home, Roberta Kochakian adjusts her cooking in observance of the
season’s dietary rules.

Since Feb. 27, the Monday before Ash Wednesday, she has cooked without
meat and will do so until Saturday night, Easter Eve. The faithful in
other branches of the Orthodox Church follow very similar customs, she
noted, although most of them will celebrate Easter a week later on April 23.

A meatless diet requires cooking with water instead of broth, for
example, but it helps that Armenian cuisine already emphasizes
vegetables, legumes and grains.

“Even on a daily basis we cook a lot of vegetables and just a little bit
of meat — things like an eggplant stew or a green bean stew, where the
vegetable is the main ingredient.”

Parishioner Dolly Matoian, who taught many types of cooking at the old
Kitchen Glamor stores, recently began teaching Armenian cooking at St.
John’s. The cuisine is “the classic Mediterranean diet. It’s very
healthy,” she says.

All kinds of vegetables are important, along with lentils, chickpeas and
bulgur; olive oil is the main fat; olives and pickled vegetables are
enjoyed, and yogurt is a mainstay.

There are both hot and cold yogurt soups, and though they might sound
bland, the hot version Matoian prepared for lunch was flavorful and
tangy with onions and fresh mint.

With it, Roberta Kochakian served Greek olives, Armenian flatbread,
bulgur pilaf, and one of Father Kochakian’s favorites: a sweet but
savory okra-and-apricot stew like the one his mother made.

For dessert she had baked a batch of crisp, tasty vegan cookies called
simit, and Matoian brought choereg bread, an Armenian Easter tradition.
The braided oblong loaf, light but rich with eggs and butter, is
flavored with mahlab, an aromatic spice made from the kernels of certain
cherry pits.

Choereg is one of many classics Matoian and other churchwomen
demonstrate on a cooking DVD they made last year, after younger women
began asking how to cook traditional foods. (Details, this page.)

The table also held a bowl of hard-boiled eggs, dyed red like the ones
prepared for Easter Sunday.

Roberta Kochakian had colored them by simmering them with yellow-onion
skins. (Use a packed cupful of skins for up to a dozen eggs and let them
sit in the water a while after cooking for a deeper color.)

Just before Easter dinner, everyone will grab an egg and go around the
table, laughing as they all try to crack someone else’s egg with their
own. And everyone plays to win, from grandparents to little kids.

They hold the egg in their fist with only the end showing and tap the
end of an opponent’s egg. The cracking of the shell, Father Kochakian
said, recalls the opening of Jesus’ tomb and the Resurrection.

“The person who is hitting gives the Easter greeting, ‘Christ is risen,’
and the person being hit responds, ‘Indeed he is risen’ or ‘Blessed is
the resurrection of Christ,’ ” he said.

The survivor of each tap gets the loser’s egg and goes on to another
match, and so on. The Greek and some Syrian Orthodox churches also
observe the tradition.

“Years ago, we assumed all the people of the world did this,” Roberta
Kochakian said, laughing. “Every Christian household has eggs on Easter,
so we assumed they all cracked eggs like we did.” They were shocked to
learn it wasn’t universal.

But it could be. “It’s a wonderful custom. Anybody can do it,” she said.

Contact SYLVIA RECTOR at 313-222-5026 or [email protected]

Further information about Armenian cuisine: DVD teaches Armenian cooking
Many of Armenia’s traditional recipes are demonstrated on a DVD called
“Hye Dining,” featuring members of the Women’s Guild of St. John’s
Armenian Church. Segments range from the method for rolling multiple
layers of dough, to making the stuffed lamb meatballs called kufteh. The
project was launched last year after guild member Dolly Matoian’s
Armenian cooking classes were swamped by eager young students. More than
1,000 copies have been sold. All inquiries can be sent to the following
address: Women’s Guild of St. John’s Armenian Church, 22001 Northwestern
Highway, Southfield MI 48075.

PHOTO CAPTION: Father Garabed Kochakian licks his finger as he dishes up
a lunch plate of Greek olives, bulgur pilaf, dziranov bameeya (okra with
apricots), simit cookies, and Armenian flat bread at home in Farmington
Hills. (PATRICIA BECK/Detroit Free Press)

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