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The Good Old Days

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The Good Old Days

by C.K. Garabed

Appearing in ARARAT (2000) and the Armenian Weekly (2000)

When I hear someone say, ‘Poverty breeds crime,’ I’m tempted to ask, ‘How come we Armenians in America, who fled here as destitute refugees, slaved, scrimped and saved, only to see what little we had accumulated vanish in the great depression . . . how come we never turned to crime?’ We used to take great pride in telling ourselves that there were no Armenians in prison. Of course, things are different today. But that’s because we live in a different world, and we’ve lost our bearings.

Poverty never prevented us from living vibrantly, and we children were oblivious of the hardships our parents had to endure. We were too busy being happy children. Poor but happy. We were too young to be critical of our physical surroundings, our living quarters, our clothes, our neighborhoods. We ate good wholesome Armenian food, even if there wasn’t much of it, and felt secure in the bosoms of our families. We had plenty of siblings to keep us busy playing, fighting, interacting.

For the first fourteen years of my life, my family moved around quite a lot between two towns in the same county, altogether seven different locations. Years later, when I asked my older brother why we moved around so much, he replied, “The old man probably couldn’t pay the rent.”

One of my earliest recollections, sometime in the early 1930s was of my father working on a WPA project. He was a silk-weaver, not a laborer, so it was no surprise when a rock fell on his foot and he landed in the hospital. We went on relief, welfare, as it’s called today. My mother was mortified. She cautioned us not to breathe a word of it to anyone. Such shame! But the canned foods we were given were really great-tasting, so we kids took a liking to being on relief. As soon as my father got out of the hospital and began working again (and for what - $15. a week?) my mother rushed to get us off relief.

During the tough times, we kids weren’t too young to help. My mother gave us 20 cents with which to buy 10 afternoon papers from the newspaper sales office, and then we sold the papers on the streets for 3 cents apiece. So we made 10 cents. But the next day we made another 10 cents, and the next day, and the next. We paid back my mother her initial investment of 20 cents, and thereafter split the profits with her. Also, we increased our sales as we became known to regular customers. But we didn’t dare overextend ourselves, because if we bought any papers we couldn’t sell, they were not returnable and we’d be stuck with them. No sir, you can’t conduct a business without good business management. When we moved to another town some years later, we graduated to selling evening papers. We always helped out at home with what little we made but, best of all, we always had pocket money. What a great feeling!

My maternal grandmother, Haji Tuma, who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and had the tattooed cross on her wrist, was a professional housekeeper and midwife. She earned her livelihood by taking care of the needs of families that had sick mothers who couldn’t cook, wash or clean house. She did those things for pay and helped us out from time to time. When she wasn’t employed, Haji Mama, as we called her, would come to stay with us. She’d sleep on a sadur that my father had set up in our bedroom while my two brothers and I slept in a double bed. The poor woman had developed a bad case of asthma, probably from the hardships she endured during the trek through the Syrian desert, and her persistent coughing would wake me at night. Then I’d see her roll a cigarette from scratch, but, in addition to the loose tobacco, she’d sprinkle a green-yellowish powder onto it before moistening and fastening the tissue paper around it. In later years I asked my older brother what the powder was and he answered, “Marijuana.”

When her condition got worse, she had to resort to taking medicine by injection with a hypodermic needle. I’d wake up in the middle of the night from her coughing and see her injecting a needle into her thigh. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she suffered vision loss through a freak accident. She had been working for a certain family and was doing the ironing. The electric iron was plugged into an overhead hanging socket when the plug came out and hit her on the head causing partial blindness.

During the times that Haji Mama stayed with us we looked forward to bedtime because we wouldn’t go to sleep until she narrated for us a hakyat or epic tale. She would comply but we never got to hear the bulk of the stories because we would drop off to sleep long before. After her death, my father told me how in her younger days she had an honored reputation for masterful storytelling which included not only narration, but singing and dancing, as well, as the story may have required."

One time I saw for myself what was involved with blood-letting. My mother and grandmother didn’t know I was peeping through a crack in the kitchen door. My mother was seated in a chair next to the kitchen table. On the table were a tumbler, a bottle of alcohol, cotton swabbing, bandages, a piece of crumpled paper, a friction match and a single-edge razor blade. My mother had bared her back with my grandmother standing behind her. My grandmother rubbed my mother’s back and the razor blade with alcohol, then took the razor blade and made three or four vertical but parallel cuts in the skin of her back between the shoulder blades. Then she placed the crumpled paper in the tumbler, struck the match, lit the paper, and then applied the tumbler to my mother’s back over the cuts. The burning paper would use up the oxygen inside the tumbler until the flame went out, creating a vacuum, and the suction would draw the blood out. After a sufficient amount of blood was removed, the seal was broken, the wound cleaned and bandaged.

To me it looked like a bloody mess, but to my grandmother it probably wasn’t very different from what a surgeon feels when operating on a patient.

As the family’s fortunes improved, my parents resumed activities that prevailed in the old country, such as, laying up food for the winter and distilling liquor. The food that was stored for the winter consisted mainly of meat. One morning in November around Thanksgiving when everyone else was buying turkeys, and the price of lamb was relatively low, my older brother would borrow a car from an affluent friend or relative and drive me and my father to the wholesale meat market on Washington Street in lower Manhattan in New York. There my father would purchase six chucks of lamb. That’s the front half. My folks must have had a touch of the kosher or halal spirit in them. Even in my later years, my mother would always buy shoulder of lamb, never leg. Nowadays they don’t even distinguish. Everything is called leg. Maybe that’s because only leg is sold in supermarkets and the shoulder goes to the restaurant trade. I don’t know.

Getting back to my story, when we got home, my brother would proceed to chop up the chucks with a cleaver he had borrowed from the local butcher. My mother would cut off and set aside the leaner pieces of meat, which I would grind by hand in the meat grinder. This would later be kneaded with spices and placed in muslin bags, then hung out on a pole on the fire escape to dry. The other chunks of meat on the bone would be salted and placed in a large galvanized tub filled with water and placed on top of the oven range with all four burners going. The tub was covered with a large round wooden cover to help steam the meat. A large wooden paddle was used to turn the meat every so often. The meat was cooked until the bones could be removed. Then 20 pounds of flank fat that I had brought from the butcher the day before was melted and added to the meat in the tub for more cooking. At this time also, some apples and quince were thrown in, to be eaten later with the freshly cooked meat and slices of crusty Armenian bread that was soaked in the molten fat. Anyway, when the meat was all cooked, it was placed in large ceramic jars and the fat was poured in over it sealing it completely. The jars would be placed in a cool spot so the fat would solidify over and around the meat and preserve it.

This meat, called kavourma, was used in the preparation of stews and other dishes all winter long. It was especially good when eaten with bulghur pilaf and madzoon or tahn. Getting back to the meat that I had ground, which took a few weeks to dry out, and which was called chormis, well, it was great to slice and fry in a pan and eat with crusty bread. There were two recipes that used both kavourma and chormis. One was fancied by my father and the other by my mother, using the same basic ingredients, which were: the two meats, plus eggs, lemon juice or vinegar. My father’s preparation he called jenjig. It called for cooking pieces of kavourma and chopped pieces of chormis in a stockpot half-full of water. Then adding eggs and freshly-squeezed lemon juice. This stew was great when eaten with crusty bread. My mother’s preparation she called choulama. It called for beating the eggs, then adding kavourma and pieces of chopped up chormis, mixing it up and putting a ladleful into a frying pan to become a small omelet. Then pouring vinegar over it. Again, it was great when eaten with Armenian bread.

The liquor that was distilled by the Armenians was called oghi, but my father used the Arabic term arak. It was made from distilled raisin mash. I remember my father’s ritual because in later years I would help him. First, he would go to the wholesale farmers’ market and buy three or four large boxes of raisins. Then he would borrow a wine barrel from one of his cronies. Living in a rented apartment didn’t afford us much room, so my father would keep the barrel behind his bedroom door. He would start by putting the barrel in the bathtub and pour water in until the staves of the barrel swelled to the point where the barrel no longer leaked. Then he’d empty it and bring it to his bedroom. He’d load it up with the raisins, then fill it with water. The barrel came with a wooden cover which was duly put in place atop the barrel. I don’t remember my father adding any yeast or anything like that. I guess the bacteria in the air was sufficient to get the raisins to ferment once they were soaked through. Every night my father would remove the cover and, using a wooden paddle, stir the raisins in the water, until such time that they began to float.

With the fermenting process continuing and regular stirring of the raisins, they would eventually sink back to the bottom of the barrel. After a few weeks, you could tell from the smell that the raisin mash was ready. It was time to put to use the community still, which was passed around for everyone to use. It was made out of copper by a master Armenian coppersmith. It wasn’t the kind with a spiral coil at the top, but one that had a cone coming down from the top with a water jacket around it for cooling, through which, by means of hoses, fresh cold water circulated. You had to know how much mash to fill the vat-like lower part of the still with, because if you filled it too close to the cone, it could explode from the high pressure. Like the tub of kavourma, the still was placed on the oven range with all four burners going. When the steam began appearing, it was time to circulate the cold water through the water jacket surrounding the channel through which the distillation dripped. A gallon bottle with a funnel in its mouth was placed below the dripping end of the cone. The first draft was close to 200 proof, pure alcohol. Later drafts contained less alcohol, until what came out began to become cloudy, denoting the presence of water. Anything that came out after that was called edi choor, or after water, which my mother saved for adding to water for cleaning windows. The good stuff, though, was mixed together to get approximately 100 proof liquor.

Most distillers would add anise seed for flavoring and sometimes juniper berries, as well. But my father would set aside one full gallon for his piece de resistance: elixir of life or iskiri hayat as he referred to it. It called for steeping 20 different herbs and spices, medicines my father called them, in the arak. Some of these are well-known to Armenians, and go by the names of darchin, karanfil, zanzhafil, or cinnamon, cloves and ginger. But some of them had exotic names that not many people had ever heard, such as, sumbool hindi, noonoofar chichaghi, hooslooban, and ishi jos. The result of this concoction was a golden colored liquor that possessed a flavor that was out of this world. This he set aside for his own personal enjoyment. He drank it neat in a 1/2 ounce glass, or finjan, as he called it. Just enough to tease his palate with this exquisite drink.

When I look about me today, I wonder if children who are being reared under conditions of economic hardship will be able later to look back with a fond remembrance of things that really matter to the human heart.