Monthly Archives: August 2011

Warm receptions

When I last wrote, I started by saying that I missed the food in Armenia while I was away, which kind of makes me sound shallow (if you haven’t tried it, that is).  I can’t let another entry pass without mentioning my friends, though.  Armenia, like its neighbors, has a tradition of hospitality.  The very first time I came to Armenia, in 2006, I was immediately treated like family (the fact that I kept hurting my ankle probably helped: I was fussed over and cared for like a clumsy child—although probably the cognac remedy isn’t tried out on kids).  But while anyone entering another’s house would be treated to Armenian coffee and treats, possibly an entire meal (how they manage that with surprise visitors is remarkable), my polite acquaintances quickly became fast friends.  Every get-together (or at least, every get-together with archaeologists; I’m not sure about generally) involves toasting, by the hosts and/or by the guests.  Now, it seems like I nearly always give a variant of the same toast, thanking my hosts, and in the case of my closest friends, thanking them for becoming my family in Armenia.

One example of Armenian hospitality is the egg lunch that my husband and I were treated to last week.  He and I don’t eat meat, and while some meat-loving Armenians shake their heads at us, our friends understand—and remember.  After not seeing us for a year, our friends remembered that we don’t eat meat, and so perhaps contrary to the typical pattern of hospitality, instead of meat, they made two different egg dishes as the main courses.  And of course, like everything else, it was fresh and delicious (I even enjoyed the fresh peas, despite the fact that I don’t really like peas—they squish unpleasantly).  Another friend knows I’m lactose intolerant, and she always goes out of her way to bake splendid dairy-free treats or prepare amazing dairy-free dinners.  I’m very lucky to have such thoughtful friends.

This post was supposed to be about my friends, and how I missed them, and somehow, it’s become about food again.  It is true that socializing nearly always involves food, or at least, drinking coffee—even the work day is punctuated by breaks to prepare Armenian coffee (even as I write this, a colleague just asked, “Elizabet—surtch kuzes?”, Elizabeth, do you want coffee? Yes, please!).  I guess food and friends are inextricably linked in my experiences here, so perhaps it’s not so bad to discuss them both in one breath.

Reflections on a return

figs in the window

I started to write a little bit about the things that I’ve missed in Armenia since leaving last year, but it quickly ceased to be “a little bit,” and so instead, I’ll talk about one of the most important things I’ve missed: the fresh fruit and vegetables.  I love my neighborhood produce store in Chicago, don’t get me wrong, but the summer produce here is incredible: peaches as big as softballs and as sweet as honey, watermelon that melts in your mouth, juicy figs that don’t cost an arm or a leg (maybe an ankle, but they’re worth it), and the tomatoes.  Oh, the tomatoes.  Juicy, bright red, tender, flavorful—not picked green and then sent to a warehouse.  All summer, before arriving here in August, I would look at even the organic tomatoes at my store in Chicago and sigh, reminding myself that true vine-ripened tomatoes were waiting for me in Armenia.

Armenia’s fruit- and vegetable-basket is the Ararat plain, a mountainous plateau that has been at the heart of Armenia since time immemorial.  Armenia has a number of inactive volcanoes and calderas in and around it, and it seems that the volcanic soil has a near-magical ability to grow a wide (and delicious) variety of fruits and vegetables.  One of the traditional dishes here is khorovats, or barbecue, where pieces of meat are placed on skewers and cooked over coals.  The meat is accompanied by whole peppers (spicy or not), eggplants, and tomatoes, all of which are also skewered and barbecued.  There might be a variety of side dishes as well—sauteed eggplant slices with garlic and walnuts, fresh herbs, homemade yogurt and cheese, potatoes, mushrooms, a million kinds of salads—but the simple preparation of the barbecued vegetables is mouthwateringly fantastic, with its combination of the charred exterior and the tender, juicy inside.  I don’t eat meat, but I’ve never left a khorovats dinner without being stuffed.

When I first stayed in Yerevan in 2008 (before that, I had only lived in a smaller town called Aparan), even the large supermarkets had mostly seasonal produce.  That meant that in the winter, there’d be primarily squashes and root vegetables, but it also meant that everything was fresh and not designed for optimal transportation.  Now, you can find quinces from Moscow, lemons from Georgia, and, to my surprise (and error) last week, apples from New Zealand.  I meant to buy some tasty local apples for my husband, but clearly, I should have been suspicious when I saw stickers on the fruit.  The last New Zealand apple is still on our table, while we’ve eaten our way through peaches, figs, and local apples.

fresh herbs and lettuce, all for less than $2!

There are many traditional dishes available in Armenia, but my tastes are quite simple and tend to revolve around the fresh, delicious produce.  I also find that I’m spoiled and rarely even buy some of these fruits and vegetables back in Chicago, preferring to avoid the mediocre and wait for the fantastic, when I come back to Armenia. I’m lucky that I get to come back frequently; scurvy isn’t fun, from what I hear.

in medias res

It’s hard to know exactly where to begin, or how to introduce this blog.  If a blog reflects the interests of its writer, then this one will be difficult to categorize.  There will be some ruminations on history and archaeology; thoughts about friends and relationships; information about beer and tasty food; pictures of various journeys; and anything else that pops up, really.  I studied all the liberal arts in college (at a “Great Books” school), I debated between psychology, philosophy, and history for a career, and now I find myself pursuing a dual degree in anthropological archaeology and ancient history.  In some ways, it seems like I’ve been all over the map, trying to figure out what I find most compelling, what I want to do in life.  But through it all, I realized that at the center of my investigations, driving my curiosity, is an interest in people: in our history, in the ways we tell each other about what we think is important, in the ways in which we build our lives and our cities or environments that reveal our values, in personal relationships, and in societal structures.  This blog is perhaps an attempt to synthesize my longstanding interest in people and the world we make (and how we write about it), an inquiry into (and observations about) the social, and the science.