When the King of California Public TV Had a Very Armenian-American Christmas
If you grew up in Southern California, Huell Howser and his exaggerated Southern drawl were an unmistakable part of your viewing experience. There was perhaps no one more enthusiastic on television, no one more interested in exploring all the people and places in California that made it such a fascinating place - from the absolutely banal to the esoteric to the many overlooked things that actually made for engaging tv you could appreciate, or eventually came around to appreciating after you realized his enormous smile and tendency to repeat every single thing his guests told him was genuine. Whatever it was, wherever he was, you were bound to hear his famous catchphrase, "That's Amazing!" every time you watched.
Hailing from Tennessee, Howser was so well known for his shows "California's Gold," and "Visiting...With Huell Howser," that he even made a hilarious guest appearance on The Simpsons.
From 1991 to 2012, Howser beamed into the living rooms of Californians via PBS, stumbling upon Tony Danza at Pink's Hot Dogs, introducing us to the odd yet delightful American Fotoplayer (used to provide music and sound effects to silent movies), telling everyone he met during an entire show about a dog he witnessed eating an avocado and toying with an immigration agent at the U.S.-Mexican border.
But in 2003, he decided to focus on something a little more in line with this project's endeavor: he enlisted his drycleaner, Lisa Nahabedian to tell him all about Armenian Christmas (celebrated on Jan. 6th) traditions.
As you probably guessed, hilarious insanity ensued.
Lisa, who owns Larchmont Cleaners in Hancock Park is originally from Aleppo, Syria, a place that had a robust and old Armenian community before the devastation it endured during the Syrian Civil War.
Huell is confused.
"You're Armenian, but you're not from Armenia?"
You recognize the look on Lisa's face - the look that says, Huell if you've got 2 hours, I can explain the complicated history and identity of Armenians, the majority of whom do not, in fact, come from the country currently called Armenia, but let's not go there because I've got a laundry business to run and you've got a public television show you need to make and many "That's Amazings" to dole out to unsuspecting strangers who won't know they're on a tv show until that exact moment when you shove a microphone in their face and flash your pearly whites at them.
But Huell, looking at Lisa so intently, inspires her to try and explain this complicated history as succinctly as she can. She tells him her grandparents were from Turkey, that they were marched into the Syrian dessert during the Armenian Genocide and settled in Aleppo, where she was born.
Huell seems to be completely satisfied with this explanation, which could either indicate he's spent enough time in L.A. to have heard the story of these "Armenians and their doggone genocide" for the umpteenth time or he's decided to move on to why he dragged Lisa on his show in the first place: to discuss all the culinary delights associated with Armenian Christmas.
Lisa, ever the gracious host who proclaims that she loves to cook, leads the camera through a spread she's set up in her dry cleaning shop. There are cookies stuffed with dates similar to the popular Middle Eastern dessert, Mamoul ("Armenians love dried fruit!"), baklava and candied pumpkin rind that Huell does not understand at all. (It melts in your mouth, not in your hand, ha!" Lisa tells him, amusing herself with her borrowed M&M slogan to describe her pumpkin jam).
There's dried figs and raisins and more dates, this time from Saudi Arabia ("from the prince!" Lisa says). It's elaborate, complete with white table cloth and other festive details and so much food you think you're at a gathering for a small village, not a dry cleaning shop. As you do.
Huell has bigger plans than just discussing some dried fruit in a dry cleaner shop, so he invites himself over for Armenian Christmas at Lisa's house. When he arrives, with his camera man Cameron in tow, there's just the right amount of chaos you'd expect in an Armenian household before 40 people arrive for dinner.
Lisa is checking on her cheese boregs in the oven - what she refers to as cheese turnovers for Huell who possibly cannot pronounce "boreg" correctly. She pauses to show him stuffed jalapeños - obviously not very traditional, but Lisa's been in Los Angeles exactly 25 years at this point and she's entitled to incorporate some local Mexican flavors into her Armenian Christmas, ok?
With Huell totally taking up too much space in the kitchen, she moves on to show him a dish he's fascinated by: "ishli kufta" or "kibbeh," an oval shaped and fried concoction of bulgur, onions, ground beef and spices, which is popular all over the Middle East and especially Lisa's hometown of Aleppo, where dozens of varieties can be found.
Then, suddenly, Huell bumps into the other lady in red in the kitchen he's been ignoring since he got there.
"I'm her aunt Ana Bogosian, and I love my niece!" she declares with a smile.
No, Ana, I love you!
Lisa, now realizing that she really does have 40 people coming over and Huell is taking up a lot more time than expected, frantically goes over to the other side of her kitchen to make some hummus, something most of her customers ask her to bring them, she says.
While she's mashing the garlic, Huell reminds her about the cheese boregs, which she runs over to check.
"You like to be in total control of the kitchen, be honest" Huell says.
In a spectacular turn of events, it looks like Mr. Howser, only 10 minutes in, has found the essence of the Armenian woman when she is in the kitchen.
"Oh ya," she says, not wasting a second on the answer.
Along the way, Huell discovers Lisa and her family eat fried and marinated catfish, the same way they used to do in Aleppo, and muhammara, a Levantine dish made of ground walnuts and peppers.
"Don't forget Huell, I am from Middle East!" Lisa tells him, echoing the diverse aspects of identity encompassed under the umbrella of being Armenian.
When Huell finally realizes that the table Lisa and her aunt Ana Bogosian are stuffing with food isn't even the main course, he can hardly contain his shock.
Now That's Amazing!
As more food is brought out, Lisa takes a break to introduce Huell to members of her family, including her mother-in-law Alice, during which Huell - clearly forgetting he is an Armenian household - asks if Lisa learned any cooking from her.
"Now this is a critical question," she says, after giving him the death stare, and manages to answer as graciously as ever - all the women in her family contributed to her knowledge of cooking she tells him.
It's only around 20 minutes long, but this eccentric episode reveals peculiar and touching details of Armenian identity - how we navigate intersectional identities and incorporate emerging ones into who we are ("I like to practice tradition, but sometimes you have to change it" Lisa says), how acts of violence and terror set in motion a series of events that have kept Armenians migrating from one country to another for so long, how despite those things, people have thrived and continue to find humor in life, and how food plays such a central role in distilling all of these complicated things into a spread on a table in LA for a unintentionally hilarious tv host to discover.