On a recent night in Nazaret and Lena Derkevorkian’s backyard in Lexington, the tonir is humming. The semi-subterranean wood oven, one of only a few in the area, looks like a brick missile silo in miniature, sending up a blast column of heat and smoke that greets visitors before its owners have a chance.
Nazo (as Nazaret is known) and Lena are hosting a dinner party for a dozen longtime friends, including well known members of Boston’s Armenian-American community like Carolyn Mugar, the activist and philanthropist whose father founded Star Market; Noubar Afeyan, the biotechnology entrepreneur and investor; and Anthony Barsamian, the first Armenian-American president of the Massachusetts Council of Churches.
The Derkevorkians have hosted barbecues for this group many times, so the flow of the night is well established. An hour before dinner and despite steady rain, the crowd is clustered near the tonir listening to Barsamian give community updates and recount his last Armenia trip. A collective bellow sounds when he unveils a bottle of Armenia’s famed Ararat brandy, silky at 20 years of age and reputedly a favorite of Winston Churchill’s.
“The tonir was the central gathering place in Armenian villages until electricity and natural gas spread in the Soviet era,” says Nazo, a physician who was born in Aleppo, Syria, and educated in Armenia, before immigrating to the United States in 1990. “Every time I use it, I think about how I wouldn’t have survived here without these friends.”
Live fire revelations
If the tonir itself wasn’t enough evidence of how seriously Armenian-Americans take their barbecue, Nazo builds the case by plucking sizzling ground beef kebabs from a separate grill. He wraps each in a thin sheet of lavash, the unleavened flatbread that appears at every Armenian meal, and pulls it off its skewer to distribute.
The beef is simply seasoned (recipe follows), but the mingling of charred meat, fat drippings, and bread is elementally pleasing. Simultaneously, a platter of beef and bulgur wheat dumplings called kibbe, grape leaves filled with rice and vegetables known as yalanch, and savory pastries called boreg are unveiled.
For the uninitiated, vibrant flavors like these feel more Mediterranean than Eastern European, even though Armenia is tied to the latter in most people’s minds. It parallels the overdue, recent revelation that Jewish food is not all borscht and brisket, which Yotam Ottolenghi, Sami Tamimi, and Michael Solomonov have helped drive. Armenian-Americans in Boston have something similarly revelatory underway, thanks in part to David Bazirgan of Bambara in East Cambridge, Seta Dakessian of Seta’s Café in Belmont, and Nina and Raffi Festekjian, attendees of the Derkevorkians’ party who are opening a Lebanese-Armenian restaurant in the South End this summer.
“Many Armenian-Americans that came to the Boston area after the 1960s were from Lebanon and Syria, and to a lesser extent Turkey,” said Dr. Khachig Tölölyan, a Wesleyan University professor who is the founding editor of Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies. “They have as part of their lives a constant orientation toward communities, and good food in this case, from the Levantine countries they lived in before.”
Harnessing the tonir’s heat
With the crowd focused on noshing, Nazo slips back to the tonir. To cook in it, a metal contraption that looks like a tiered dessert tower is used. Above a fat catching bowl at the bottom are three levels of skewers crossed through a vertical metal column. Nazo has threaded enormous marinated pork chops and a boneless lamb leg on the skewers and piled potato wedges in the bowl. With help from Raffi Festekjian, who also has a tonir in his backyard in Lexington, he lowers the whole rig into the oven.
Twenty-five minutes later, the pork chops and potatoes are done (the lamb leg will go back underground for a bit). Nazo and Raffi cover two platters with rounds of lavash. After removing the pork from the oven and placing it on the platters, they drape another layer of lavash over the top, ensuring not a drop of smoky, rendered fat goes to waste. The crowd, unfazed by the fact that they’ve already eaten a full meal off of the grill and the platters, senses a breakthrough and heads upstairs.
Lena Derkevorkian’s ability to stun and delight may eclipse her husband’s. Her 15-foot dinner table sags under the weight of traditional Armenian dishes and bottles of Zorah Karasi, the buzzworthy Armenian red wine aged in amphorae. It is imported by a crowdfunded company that is donating a share of proceeds to the Armenia Tree Project, a reforestation initiative founded by Carolyn Mugar.
“We can never eat or drink alone,” Lena says. “Or enough.”
Following an opening blessing by Barsamian, Afeyan speaks up to nominate Mugar for the role of tamada, an ancient term that means toastmaster. The tamada is an entertainer and a facilitator, as well as a guardian of an idea that carries special weight in a community that has suffered immensely in its history: Meals together are sacred.
“I have never done this before!” says Mugar with relish. “I will start with a toast to our hosts and the women around this table. I wish you the spirit that you impart to other people.”
Each of a dozen toasts leads to new conversation. People open up about their family histories, which uniquely combine the pain of genocide and the promise of the American Dream. Almost everyone has barbecue stories to offer, and Nazo uses his toast to announce that a group of the men around the table will build Mugar a tonir at her house in New Hampshire. The gathered become especially animated talking about their plans to organize relief for war-ravaged Aleppo, a city that, for many in the diaspora, including natives Nazo and Lena, stands for the safe haven it provided for those who escaped the Armenian genocide.
Depth of flavor
The unmistakable feeling of warmth and kinship lifts up an already delicious parade of dishes: Armenian dolma, vegetables stuffed with beef, bone marrow, rice, and herbs; manti, a small dumpling served over labne-style yogurt and topped with sumac; tomato and cucumber salad, also with sumac; hummus; the tonir potatoes, which are faintly burnt, crispy, and luscious; entire additional platters of kibbe, yalanch, and boreg; and the meats, of course. Thanks to the fast cooking time, the pork chops and lamb leg are juicy and smoky. Nazo serves them with unique toppings, including thinly sliced onion, herb, and sumac salad, a lemon-driven chimichurri, and grilled, peeled sweet peppers.
Near the end of most barbecue feasts of this size and scope, people float away, figuratively and literally. But in unison, the crowd starts to murmur about Aida Bejakian’s legendary desserts. She is Lena’s sister and has been sitting quietly at the end of the table for most of the dinner. Tonight, she has brought her tantalizing version of kadayif, the popular Middle Eastern dessert of shredded phyllo wrapped around semi-soft, semi-sweet cheese. She smiles as people throw their heads back with delight, and then offers a barbecue story of her own:
“A few years ago, we had a family barbecue and my mother-in-law fell and broke her leg. We called an ambulance and we were all worried, but everyone was also sitting there smelling the kebabs cook and feeling really hungry. As they are wheeling her to the ambulance, my husband Sam rushes up and gives her a plate of kebab and dolma, and he gave all the paramedics one, too. They left, but then came back 10 minutes later and asked for more food for the people at the fire station.”
Amid roaring laughter, Carolyn Mugar intervenes one final time as the tamada: “A toast to endless Armenian hospitality!”
Sam Hiersteiner can be reached at email@example.com.