By Phyllis Sides
RACINE – It was a family affair at St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church annual Madagh picnic Sunday at H.F. Johnson Park.
The picnic is like a family reunion: Anybody who has a connection to St. Hagop comes back to Racine for it, picnic chairman Zohrab Khaligian said.
“People come from all over,” said Khaligian, who has been chairman about five years. “It’s very enjoyable and rewarding. There are non-Armenians who have come so many times they are part of the extended family.”
Agnes Garabedian from Downey, Calif., started coming to the picnic about 15 years ago after meeting her “cousin,” Lucy Buchaklian.
“I met her on an airplane in 1971,” Garabedian said. “We were going on a pilgrimage. We became friends and we’ve been cousins ever since.”
All Armenians are cousins, Buchaklian added: “I told her if she didn’t come to the picnic I wouldn’t visit her
St. Hagop’s has held their traditional Madagh picnic since 1938. The traditional meal, bulgur pilaf and beef stew, is cooked over an open fire pit in the park.
Preparing the traditional meal is a two-day affair. The pit is dug and the fire is started Saturday evening so cooking can start at about 5 a.m. Sunday. They have to start early so the food will be ready by 11 a.m. for the blessing of the meal, said Andy Mikaelian, one of the cooks.
“I’ve been at the park since 5 to 5,” Mikaelian said. “We use about 800 pounds of beef, 150 pounds of onions, special spices, tomato sauce, tomato paste and we cook it until it’s ready.
“There is no recipe. It’s just to taste.”
“There were at least two generations of cooks helping prepare the meal,” Khaligian said. “We want to keep the tradition going. It’s important to maintain our cultural heritage and national identity.”
The meal is served after the blessing and it is shared with everyone who attends the picnic. In addition to the Madagh meal, the picnic features marinated shish kebab and chicken dinners, sarma (stuffed grape leaves), pastries and other delicacies.
Madagh means offering and the tradition came over from the old country, Sara Mikaelian said. The tradition dates back to biblical times to Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his only son.
“It’s a thank you for our bounty,” she said. “We are the only community in the country that carries on the tradition this way.
“The food is passed out to the congregation and the public. In the old country it was passed out to orphanages and old folks’ homes.”
The Rev. Arsen Kassabian said the traditional food and the blessing were symbols of Abraham’s sacrifice and of Christ’s sacrifice.