Richmond Armenian Festival Dishes out Food And Fun to Kick-Start Fall

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By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

RICHMOND, Va. — The Armenian community here held their 53rd annual food festival September 15 to 18 outside of St. James Armenian Church. Considering that there is only a small number of Armenians living in the area, the size of the festival is impressive.

The festival included Armenian folk music, provided by the Hye Keys. Perouz Manougian and Paul Mardigian are the two leaders of the seven-member band. Children from the St. James Armenian Dancers gave folk dance performances. Jewelry, crafts and arts, largely from Armenia, were displayed and sold at a booth, and information on Armenian history was posted on a tent wall. The main focus was food, of course. Cheese and spinach böregs, kebab, the famous “Hye burger” (a mixture of ground sirloin and lamb with spices), rice pilaf, string beans, hummus and stuffed grape leaves (dolma) were accompanied by Armenian coffee, Kotayk Armenian beer and Armenian red, white and pomegranate wines, along with soft drinks. Desserts included paklava, bourma, simit and kourabia cookies.

John Baronian, the senior member of the Planning Committee for the festival, moved to Richmond in the 1930s from Detroit as a young boy. He explained that 53 years ago, when the festival was started, it was held indoors as seated dinners: “Originally it was the Women’s Guild that started it in a small kitchen. I was involved as I was on the Parish Council of the church. The ladies ran it until I became chair. As the festival grew, we decided to have a food festival committee instead of just the Women’s Guild committee, but the ladies are still the backbone of it.”

The first three or four years, the festival only was intended for Armenians, but, Baronian explained, “when I got involved I had a small advertising agency and started advertising. This was in the 1960s. Our main purpose was to get Armenians better known in the Richmond community.”

Virginia native Chuck Ashjian handles the programming and advertising for the festival. He said that the festival expanded further to an outdoor format (in 2006) partly in order to meet the financial needs of the parish: “I was on the Parish Council for a number of years, and looking at our budget deficit, we needed to do something to improve the situation in order to keep a fulltime priest here. A few of us got together and came up with a plan and suggested that we take it outside since the Greek and Lebanese festivals were successful outdoors.”

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When the festival moved outdoors, Ashjian felt “business picked up and our name is out there in the community as far as a quality festival. More people know what an Armenian is. We estimate we have around 7,000 people on average go through during a four day period.” The numbers of visitors have increased annually, with the exception of this year due to poor weather. Six or 700 people can be seated outdoors with tents and an outdoor stage, and many more wander about on foot.

Food preparation begins months before the event. The Women’s Guild starts meeting weekly in late June or early July. The men start working on the chicken and pork kebab from the middle of August for four or five weekends, coordinated by the efforts of Planning Committee member Rob Norris.

Lilly Bouroujian Thomas, involved for many years in the past through the Women’s Guild in food preparation, became the fifth member of the festival committee last year and serves as the link between the festival committee and the Women’s Guild.

Leiza Bouroujian became part of the Planning Committee six years ago when the festival expanded into an outdoor function. She is involved in the f inancial side of operations. Bouroujian feels that the festival has had an important impact on Richmond’s non-Armenian community: “I think Richmond is really hungry for these types of events, cultural as well as food. The media gave us a lot of attention, so that really helped us grow, and I think that people just love the music, food, wine and the environment in general. Richmond is not as diverse as other parts of the country but they are looking for these kinds of cultural act ivit ies and that really helped us. It brings a lot of attention to Armenians.”

Bouroujian pointed out that unlike many other East Coast-Armenian festivals, the Richmond one “attract s non- Armenians, and in fact, most of the people that attend are non-Armenians.”

St. James Armenian Church has only 500 members. Thus, what is impressive is that this small community is able to find 50 to 60 volunteers during the four-day event, as well as during the preceding months, 20 to 25 women to work in the church baking, and eight to 10 men to work on meat.

To find out more about the festival, see www.armenianfoodfestival.org, and follow the Twitter handle @ArmenianFoodRVA for updates next year.

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