Do you recall years ago a fast-food commercial with a little old lady yelling out, “Where’s the beef?” Well, I will paraphrase her query with “Where’s the lamb?”
Memories of our picnics at Lake Chemung in Brighton, Mich., from about 30 years ago still offer a cozy glow. The lakefront picnic ground was located 40 miles north-west of Detroit out Grand River Road when it was still quite rural.
It was a trip well worth taking. There was something for everyone—ample parking and tables, pits for the hundreds of shishs of lamb kebab, and a lake for the young ones to swim in, under the watchful eye of an adult.
You’d pull your car into the private property entrance, Herman Torigian would be there to collect a modest entrance fee, and you’d be on your way. Everyone would help unload the car of its treasures, there to assure a full belly and a good time. Out would come the extra chairs, towels for the swimmers, the Coleman stove for the morning basterma and eggs, cheese and Armenian olives, a wicker hamper with fruit, katahs, and boeregs, and a coffee pot.
Breakfast in the park was the best. The coffee would be perking and that unbeatable fragrance would fill the brisk morning air. Basterma and eggs would be in the fry pan and families would begin the day with the sun shining down on them. The voices of late-arrivers left sleep at a premium.
Volunteers would load the shishs with actual lamb kebab, peppers, and tomatoes. Yum, yum. The fragrance of charred meat and smoke would fill the air and the call would go out that the kebabs were ready. I remember the long yet patient lines of casually clad patrons chatting amiably with one another, while the line snaked slowly to the promise of an authentic Armenian lamb kebab dinner with rice pilaf and salata. Remember the real pita from Victor Bakery?
You carted your cherished loot back to your table and family members chortled between forkfuls of paradise, as they made room at the table for yet one more late-arriving relative. The chatter was a mix of Armenian and English. We were surrounded by the love of our survivor generation moms and dads. First- and second-generation families shared the love of good food and community camaraderie.
Those were the days. We still think about Lake Chemung and miss it tremendously. There were always tables of guys playing cards (and for many of them, that was the draw to come out that far on a Sunday). Some were sated with kebab and laid out on a chaise lounge listening to a Tiger game. Teens played ball and the younger set splashed in the lake.
We’d wander from table to table visiting with friends; a more congenial atmosphere one could not find. You were always offered coffee and a pastry, like katah or choreg, deftly made by someone’s mom. Pineapple upside down cake seemed to be a favorite homemade dessert.
All that changed, though. Rental fees for the picnic grounds escalated, and worse than that soon all the exiles from our homeland of Historic Armenia, the parents of the first-generation American-born, began to pass away. Their final resting places bear names like Woodmere, White Chapel, and Woodlawn Cemeteries. Their presence is sorely missed.
It is just not the same anymore. The flavor seems to have diminished for those of us who were so closely tied to our Armenian-speaking parents. We were bilingual and loved it. Lake Chemung memories are bitter and sweet.
On Aug. 12, St. Sarkis held the Blessing of the Grapes picnic on Armenian Community Center property. It is very convenient to attend immediately after church services. The parking is nearby, the huge tent accommodates several hundred people, and the nearby Community Center takes the overflow, providing convenient restrooms and respite from heat.
The grapes were blessed by our new Der Hayr, Hrant Kevorkian, who has impressed parishioners with his beautiful voice. His Badarak was highly praised, and it seems the community and he are off to a great start. Our new Yeretsgin Tamar along with Der Hayr mingled throughout the crowd greeting picnickers with mutual enthusiasm. Tradition lives!
Lamb was nowhere to be found, though. Baaa! Its price is prohibitive. That’s chicken on those skewers. The pilaf and salata still remain on the menu, so too the watermelon, but alas, there is no Armenian pita from Highland Park’s Victor Bakery.
We are all ensconced at long tables with the usual “saving of chairs” being a troublesome issue. The party goes on without a lake and eliminated is the long-distance drive home. There is no Herman Torigian hawking leftover bread when the party begins to wane. Within three hours it’s all over. We head for home down traffic-filled roads.
Most don’t even know about Lake Chemung. They’ve been cheated just like many other things they never will experience, like starting school knowing only Armenian and dances at the Findlater, Armenian Friday nights at the Stockade, living in Delray or Highland Park, and parents who said “amot” and meant it.
They will never know the joy of mothers in dresses and aprons making katah instead of buying it from someone else. No one plays ball in the street or goes to the corner store for a cold Faygo pop. That’s right, in Michigan we call it pop.
They don’t live in “Armenian neighborhoods,” in homes with one bathroom and no family room. It is called progress, success, but is it?