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Asbury Park Press, NJ
Aug 15 2005

Bonding with their culture

Church picnic helps people keep in touch with Armenian roots

LONG BRANCH - Virginia Kondakjian and two of her sisters haven't seen each other since Christmas, so they decided to reunite at an event that would signify their family history.

Middletown resident Kondakjian and sisters Mary Bedrosian of Tinton Falls and Margaret Jeffrey of Lakewood joined an estimated 600 others Sunday afternoon at St. Stepanos Armenian Church's 18th Annual Picnic, a fund-raiser for the house of worship in the Elberon section.

"We came here to keep our roots," said Kondakjian, a church member whose parents were born in Armenia. "Too many cultures are losing their roots. The essence of culture should be deep in family ties."

The event coincides with two important religious occurrences in Armenia: The Feast of the Assumption of St. Mary and the Blessing of the Grapes, said the church's pastor, the Rev. Mamigon Kiledjian. In the latter observance, he said, Armenians wait to eat the first harvest of grapes until they are sanctified by clergy.

Sunday's feast was indeed that, with dozens of homemade Armenian dishes on the picnic menu. Popular choices included shish, luleh and chicken kebabs and pilaf, a rice and egg noodle combination made with chicken broth and butter.

For dessert, there was pakhlava, a flaky dough filled with nuts and topped with syrup, and khadayif, a thin pastry layered with nuts and cheese and also topped with syrup.

Church volunteers began preparing the food weeks ago, organizers said.

"Some philosophers, they think you can teach the culture through the food," Kiledjian said. "We are trying to do that."

For most, the event gave them the chance to eat food they normally can't find. Carol Brown of Lake Como and her sister, Janice Werner of Neptune, grew up eating their mother's Armenian home cooking.

Now, with their mother having passed away, they anxiously anticipate the annual picnic. It also gives them a chance to expose their young adopted children to the culture.

"We got used to the taste of the food," Brown said.

The event, which included native music and children's games, drew Armenian-Americans from all parts of the state.

Silvia Papagian, 46, of Harrington Park, Bergen County, said "it's very rare" to find Armenian fare. The only places that serve it are "just at the picnics and some restaurants."

Her aunt, Rose Koseyan, 77, of Belmar, said the picnic is a chance to bond.

"We get together and we have our food and our music," she said.

The entrees cost $13, and side orders and appetizers mostly cost $2.50 each. Desserts ranged from $1 to $2. Money raised - expected to be between $5,000 and $10,000 - goes toward the church, organizers said.

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