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A family in Vayots Dzor enjoys an outdoor afternoon feast amid the grapevines.
Photo by Sossi Madzounian, Smithsonian Institution

The exuberant hospitality of Armenian cooking, eating, and drinking is a source of cultural pride. Armenia: Creating Home conveys how its deep history, a tradition of feasting, and innovations in technique energize Armenia’s food scene and engage outsiders.

During the Festival, Armenian cooks taught visitors how to make the staples of a feast: cooking lavash flatbread in tonir (wood-fired oven), making cheese, and grilling khorovats (skewered meats). The feasting continued into the evening with concerts on the National Mall featuring Armenian folk and jazz music. While tasting and toasting Armenian wines, visitors met winemakers who are reinvigorating the industry through their production, from cultivating ancient varietals and aging wine in karas (large clay urns) to a winery incubator model encouraging the growth of small labels.

Cooks and winemakers shared their experiences with traditional recipes and the ways in which food- and wine-related enterprises have shaped their cultural identity and created a pathway for exchange—both within Armenia’s boundaries and across diaspora communities.

What Makes an Armenian Feast?

The ways in which different communities organize their feasts reflects the cultures of those communities. For example, parties in the United States—which typically are non-hierarchical and promote the “freedom of eating and drinking”—may epitomize American ideas of democracy and freedom.

In Armenia, a traditional feast typically embodies the patriarchal and authoritarian elements of the recent past. Firstly, a tamada or toastmaster is elected to “rule” the table. The best toastmasters are those who thoroughly know the rules: the correct succession of toasts, the traditional values of the home (elders, children, and hearth—which is synonymous with family), and the place of the feast participants in the social hierarchy. The spatial organization of the table also reflects the hierarchical structure of the society, which resembles the written rules for medieval royal feasts.

An important figure in every Armenian feast is the guest, who is asked to occupy one of the most prestigious places around the table and whose toast is among the first offered by the toastmaster.

“Have you ever sat at a feasting table? You haven’t?” asks the hero of a popular Armenian film jokingly. “Then you still will have the luck to admire your personal merits. Merits, the existence of which you even didn’t suppose beforehand.”

The Rules of Feasting

  1. Read up on the Armenian tradition of toasting and stock up on Armenian wine.
  2. Prepare the ingredients for your feast. Try out new recipes and make sure everything is made for sharing. Make sure the table is always filled with food.
  3. Invite friends and friends of friends to join you.
  4. Elect a tamada, or “toastmaster,” to rule the table.
  5. The tamada gives the first toast, welcoming everyone and thanking the host. “Cheers” in Armenian is “Genats!”
  6. If you invited guests to join you, the tamada offers them a toast as the guests.
  7. Share food with the table.
  8. While enjoying the feast, others offer toasts to elders, children, and the hearth—in that order.

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