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Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Taste of Armenia

Armenian Fest's homemade cuisine

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Though it's not as large as its counterparts on the lakefront, few of Milwaukee's ethnic festivals are more tightly knit or distinctive than Armenian Fest, the annual celebration that has been held since the 1930s. The event began as a small picnic, with families sharing homemade dishes, and nearly eight decades later it remains much the same, an all-volunteer event that draws regulars from St. John the Baptist Armenian Orthodox Church in Greenfield, where the event is now held, as well as outsiders curious to sample Armenian cuisine.

Milwaukee's Armenian population is small. When Armenians first began immigrating to the United States in the 1890s, fleeing massacres at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, a few landed in Milwaukee and Racine, where there were abundant manufacturing jobs for non-English speakers. After World War 1 broke out, those massacres gave way to a full-scale genocide, and some survivors fled to Southeastern Wisconsin to join their relatives that had moved 10 or 20 years earlier, bringing with them traditional family recipes. Since Milwaukee still does not have an Armenian restaurant, Armenian Fest remains the best opportunity for locals to sample the cuisine.

The foods are similar to those of other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines, with familiar fare like shish kebob, humus, stuffed grape leaves and pilaf, but there are slight variations. Armenian dishes often feature more mint than their Greek counterparts, often in place of oregano. One of the most distinct Armenian dishes available at the festival is lahmajoon, a tortilla pizza topped with meat, onions, tomatoes, peppers, parsley and an unmistakable spice spread. More delicate is baked boreg, a puff pastry of phyllo dough filled with either cheese or cheese and spinach, then baked until golden and flaky.

Over half a dozen deserts will also be on sale, including paklava (the Armenian counterpart to baklava, and every bit as sweet), kadayif (pastry dough stuffed with ricotta cheese and sweetened with syrup), and a delicate butter cookie called shakerlama. Choereg, a slightly sweetened braided bread available in loafs or twists, is an option for those with less aggressive sweet tooths.

There will also be live Armenian music, church tours and a culture booth selling books, CDs and Armenian pomegranate wine. The event runs Sunday, July 31 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the church grounds at 7825 W. Layton Ave.