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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Armenian Fest

A taste of something different

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All over this city, summertime ushers in a broad spectrum of church festivals. And being the outdoor festival fans that we Wisconsinites are, we visit them, either to support our denomination or because it’s the weekend and we feel like going out. Or maybe a little of both. Equal parts ethnic festival and church picnic, Armenian Fest sets the gold standard for this celebrated tradition of faith and fellowship.

Beginning in the 1930s, Milwaukee’s Armenian community gathered every summer for an annual picnic featuring traditional Mediterranean dishes made from family recipes. Armenia is a curious country. At the cusp of Europe and Asia and wedged between Georgia and Iran on today’s world map, its people lived from the Caucasus Mountains to the Mediterranean shores until recent times. Armenia adopted Christianity while the new religion was illegal in the Roman Empire and maintains a distinct, ancient version of the faith. It’s fitting that Armenian Fest is held on the grounds of St. John the Baptist Armenian Orthodox Church.

Much of the festival’s charm lies in its uniqueness. Cultural influences from countries like Ireland, Italy, Mexico and Germany are so pervasive in this country that many of us adopt them as our own, regardless of our ethnicity. Armenia’s incredibly rich heritage and culture, on the other hand, are far less familiar. Armenian Fest offers a cultural booth where visitors can learn more about the nation; visitors can also take tours of the church and purchase books and artifacts from the region.

But let’s get down to the real reason most of us go to these outdoor festivals: the food. Armenian food shares many attributes with the cuisine of Greece and other Eastern Mediterranean nations, but also includes a num ber of unique dishes that draw from a different array of spices and seasonings than the recipes of its neighbors.

Lahmajune, for instance, is an Armenian pizza on a round, thin tortilla-like dough topped with a spiced mix ture of meat, onions, tomatoes, peppers and parsley. Also popular is a homemade shish kebab dinner made with grilled skewers of seasoned chicken or marinated beef and served with salad, bread and buttery rice pilaf. If you only try one thing at Armenian Fest, spring for the baked boreg, a puff pastry made with layers of delicate phyllo dough filled with sharp cheese and spinach, then cooked at a high temperature until the dough becomes blistered and flaky. If you lack a gene for culinary experimentation, order the hummus, a Middle Eastern spread of blended chickpeas that has become a popular American party dip over the last decade.

What with the heat and all, festivalgoers must be well hydrated to walk the grounds, scouting each and every booth before making the perfect food choice. Along with the usual soft drinks and beer, the festival provides Armenian grape and pomegranate wine to quench your thirst.

The perfect ending comes in the form of paklava, a rich, sweet pastry made with chopped walnuts and layered sheets of butter-kissed phyllo dough that is baked and sweetened with syrup.

Don’t know what kadayif, shakerlama and boormah are? Never heard of a duduk or an oud? Armenian Fest is your chance to find out.

Delicious food, talented folk musicians and enthusiastic parishioners: Together they add up to a pitch-perfect festival that raises cultural awareness and unifies the community.

Armenian Fest will be held rain or shine at St. John the Baptist Armenian Orthodox Church, 7825 W. Layton Ave., Greenfield, on Sunday, July 27, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.