advice, anecdotes, Armenia

Peace Corps cookbooks… I wrote one for Armenia!

This photo was taken at Lake Sevan in June 1995.  This man was kind enough to pose with his horse and even let me sit on the horse for a photo.  I would have posted a food pic, but all of my Armenia pics are in storage.

Yesterday, I read an interesting article about Peace Corps cookbooks.  I found the article because the Peace Corps shared it on Facebook and that’s where I get all my news and ideas, don’tcha know?

This topic is near and dear to my heart, because in 1997, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia (group A-3), I inherited the Peace Corps cookbook project.  The cookbook project was originally taken on by a guy who was posted in the town of Talin, Armenia.  He had high hopes of putting the cookbook together, but was not able to get to Yerevan very often.  Back in 1997, not everyone had computers or access to the Internet.  Since I lived in Yerevan and was heavily involved in cooking projects during my second year as a volunteer, it seemed natural that I would complete the cookbook.

The very first Peace Corps group in Armenia, appropriately called A-1 (it’s not just a steak sauce anymore), had made a cookbook too.  Theirs was very short and not at all comprehensive.  It was also very primitive, since resources were in short supply when they were serving.  Seems to me that A-1 also lost about half of their group to early terminations or people finding jobs.  They had a really rough time of it, having arrived in Armenia during the dead of winter only a year after the fall of the Soviet Union.  I remember hearing horror stories about them living on candy bars and Cokes because they were paid in drams and, at the time, storekeepers only wanted Russian rubles or American dollars.  Also, at that time, there simply wasn’t that much in Armenia, especially in Yerevan.  As a member of the third group, I saw life change pretty drastically over my two years, especially in the capital.

In any case, I used the A-1 cookbook as a base to start the second edition of the cookbook.  It took weeks to do the work and I mostly did it on my own, using remnants of A-1’s cookbook, recipes already collected by the guy who had started the project, my own recipes, and those I managed to collect from other volunteers.  I also used an Armenian cookbook provided by our country director, who happened to be of Armenian descent, and  I included recipes I culled from an 80s version of Peace Corps Senegal’s cookbook.  There was a guy in my group who had previously been a volunteer in Senegal and had graciously let me borrow his tattered copy, which gave me ideas about what should go in our cookbook.  I remember titling the cookbook Bari Akhorjag (Good Appetite) and getting an Armenian woman to type the title in Armenian on her word processor so I could put it on the cover and it would be spelled properly.

The Peace Corps Armenia cookbook was truly my first real attempt at getting published.  I suppose I could and should have asked for more help with it, but in 1997, there was a strong move to get volunteers out of Yerevan, especially teachers.  I think I was one of two school (d’protz) teachers posted there, not including the ones who worked at the local university.  I had the time to do the work, was located near the computer, and had a real interest in cooking.  In fact, I remember baking homemade rolls, banana bread, and apple pies for the Thanksgiving dinner put on by our country director, and cooking a large meal for the A-4s at a hotel restaurant in Jermuk.  I made vegetarian manicotti and fresh bread that was very well received.  I was glad to do it, since I was invited by the Peace Corps Medical Officer.  I had never been to Jermuk and it’s a really nice town.

I spent many days in the Peace Corps office putting together the cookbook.  I even drew the art on the front page, which consisted of my crude renderings of fruits, vegetables, and foods and Fujika heaters in the four corners.  Fujikas, for those who don’t know, are Japanese kerosene space heaters.  I don’t know if Armenia volunteers still use them, but in my day, we each had two of them as well as a propane stove.  Most of us did not have access to an oven (I didn’t until USDA gave one to me), so we had to get creative.  I remember writing a chapter in the cookbook about using Fujika heaters as ovens (it involves using a very large metal pot).  When you’re bored, hungry, and cold, you can come up with surprisingly creative and innovative ways to make things work.

I wrote a chapter on food safety, as well as places to find ingredients.  Since I lived in Yerevan, I had great access to ingredients, relatively speaking, but even living in Yerevan was no guarantee that you could find what you needed.  Shopping was often a multi-stop affair that took awhile to accomplish.  Also, you were limited by what you could carry or take on public transportation.  In 1997, Yerevan was becoming decidedly cushy and a lot of western style stores were opening, though they were usually too expensive for Peace Corps Volunteers to patronize.

I added a glossary of food and kitchen terms, as well as a metric conversion chart.  I remember sitting there thinking about what kind of information would be useful to volunteers and, if it seemed appropriate, I added it.  Again, in retrospect, it might have been good to have someone work with me, but no one volunteered to… and truthfully, I like working alone.

I distinctly remember writing a chapter on beer and wine.  In 1997, Pete’s Wicked Ale (which I think is now defunct) was all over Yerevan.  You could find it in the smallest xhanut (store), while you might not find any butter or flour.  I wrote about Pete’s Wicked Ale and said it was decent.  That was before I learned how to drink beer properly.  Actually, when I first got to Armenia, I liked mass produced American beers, which mostly weren’t available in Armenia (though I did once see some Schlitz being offered at an insane price).  I learned to like European beers in Armenia because Armenian and Turkish beers were terrible.  They may still be terrible now.

The first edition of the cookbook was ready on my 25th birthday, June 20th, 1997.  It was so well received that we did a second run so some of the expats in Yerevan could have a copy.  I also brought a few home to give to people who had supported me during my time away.

Beautiful Lake Sevan… the water is freezing cold, but gorgeous.

It was kind of exciting for me to live in Yerevan from 1995-97.  I got to watch that city change on a daily basis.  When we first arrived there in 1995, Yerevan was only marginally less spartan than some of the towns in the regions.  While life was a bit more convenient there, it was still a place where you weren’t guaranteed running water or electricity.  In fact, during my first year in Yerevan, we only got electricity a few hours a day.  Some people illegally hooked up their apartments to the metro or hospitals, which always had power.  They had what was called “left lines”.  I didn’t have a left line.  At one point, I went six weeks with no power because one of my neighbors had rerouted my electricity to his apartment.  He didn’t know I was living there.  Yerevan was also much more expensive than living out in the regions was.  I had to pay my own rent for several months and there were a couple of times when I literally didn’t have food to eat because it had gone to paying rent.  I later taught English to adults working at NGOs and got my rent covered.  Technically, I wasn’t supposed to do that, but it was a widespread practice to make up for budgetary shortfalls.

One of my other projects during that time involved using dried Armenian fruits and vegetables and creating recipes.  I was working with several business volunteers and the USDA, which even provided me with an oven so I could do the work.  I can’t tell you how awesome that was.  In my mind, it beat teaching, a job that is certainly very important, but for which I have little talent.  I am a creative person, though, and I found that my creativity came in handy in Yerevan. I used just about all of my creative gifts, from singing in the opera house to writing to cooking.

I’m sure if I went to Yerevan now, it would be totally different to me.  I understand that now, most volunteers don’t serve there.  While I wanted to live in Yerevan and I got to experience some things living in that city that I wouldn’t have out in the country, if I had to do it over again, I would not have chosen to live in Yerevan.  It was very stressful being so close to the powers that be.

Anyway… I think of the cookbook project as the one thing I did in Armenia that really had a lasting impact, even if it ultimately only impacted the Americans serving there.  There is a copy of the 2010 version on the Internet now and I’m proud to see that my name is in it a few times.  Some of the things that were in my version of the book remain in the 2010 version, while other things– perhaps not as relevant as they were in my day– are now omitted.  I’m sure the part I wrote about Pete’s Wicked Ale has been struck.  I haven’t seen that beer in years.

I went through much of my service wondering what the hell I was doing in Armenia and whether or not I was making a difference.  I can see that my time there did make a difference, though I also know that had I not written the cookbook, someone else would have.

I wish I had brought a copy of my version of the Peace Corps Armenia cookbook with me to Germany.  It would be fun to read it again.  But it’s somewhere in Texas, with all my other crap.


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