A Taste of Little Armenia
Armenians have a home away from home in Watertown, near Boston
text by Paul Wachter
photographs by Ilene Perlman
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 Watertowns 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 Watertowns 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.
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Tags: Cultural Identity Armenian Catholic Church Multiculturalism Assimilation