The Story of Armenian Immigration to America Through a Cucumber
By 1930 and even long before then, a new story was emerging in the San Joaquin Valley, a story about how immigrants, and refugees fleeing genocide, and descendants of slaves toiled away on the lands in Central California - some of which were considered to be barren - and ended up changing the culinary course of an entire country.
This 450 mile stretch across California produces more than half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts that grow in the U.S. It encompasses cities like Modesto, Redding, Tulare and of course Fresno.
And this is where, for over 130 years, Armenians who survived massacre and genocide managed to find "home" after being forced to leave their homeland behind. They pioneered the production of dried fruits and nuts, introduced and catapulted figs to a nationwide industry and were essential in establishing raisin farms and vineyards.
Today, their descendants, upwards of 40,000 people, still live and work there, some of them still in the industries their ancestors established, some of them without any trace of their lineage in their face, or their name.
But if you ask an Armenian-American from the Central Valley to tell you what their favorite foods are, you will instantly know how deep and strong their roots run. They'll tell you about the shish kebab, and the tel banir (string cheese), and the rice pilaf and the toorshoo and the paklava. Like Armenians across the world, they'll talk to you about food so much, you wished you hadn't asked in the first place.
They'll also be able to tell you about the Armenian Cucumber, "gootah" or "kutah" or "խթա" as its known in Armenian. This long slender, rigged variety (its scientific name is "Cucumis melo var. flexuosus") has a taste that's similar to cucumbers, except its not a cucumber at all.
It's a melon. And if there's one thing Armenians have excelled at for hundreds of years, it's being premiere melon connoisseurs.
Their preoccupation with this sweet fruit they always serve to guests, keep a steady supply of at home, make jams out of and probably have songs about started way before their arrival in America.
In the 15th century, the cantaloupe was even brought to Italy from Armenia and named after "Cantalupo," a city near Rome that at the time served as a county seat for the "Papal States," territory that was under direct rule of the Pope.
The Cantaloupe, also called the "Muskmelon," wasn't introduced commercially in America until the 1890s, when Armenian farmers, fleeing violence and perhaps sensing that a bigger catastrophe was looming, brought seeds with them to California and attempted to replicate the produce they had cultivated for centuries on the other side of the world.
"With the advent into Fresno of the immigrant Armenians from Asia Minor, the introduction of various kinds of new fruits and vegetables was started," wrote a columnist for The Fresno Bee in 1933. The paper was covering how melons was finding a "hospitable home" in the valley, thanks to innovative farmers who grew a variety of the fruit - there was the Tigranagerd Angeleno Watermelon, named after Tigranakert, once upon a time the capital of the Armenian Kingdom, but now known as Diyarbakir in Southeastern Turkey. There was the Armenian muskmelon, summer squash and then of course the Armenian cucumber, the unusual looking "melon" that grew over 30 inches long and could be cut up in salads, eaten with yogurt or pickled, a favorite pastime of Armenian families in the Central Valley and just about everywhere.
About 20 years after the Armenian Cucumber really made a splash in and around Fresno, it reappeared again across the country, much to the amazement of newspapers, who wrote about this melon masquerading as a cucumber like it was the second coming of Christ.
In 1959, in Arizona, an Armenian woman named Anna Garabedian grew an Armenian Cucumber so big, it made the front page news section.
"Giant Cucumber Grows in Tucson," the headline read. "Armenian Vegetable Well On Its Way To Becoming Yard Long, Foot Thick."
Mrs. Garabedian moved from Detroit to Tucson, and as the paper reported, became "almost a fanatic about gardening," spending four hours a day in her yard and growing everything from sweet potatoes, pimientos, palm trees, and of course cantaloupe, which is actually how she accidentally ended up with the seeds of her Armenian Cucumber in the first place.
Someone had put cucumber seeds along with the cantaloupe seeds she bought and an Armenian cucumber had sprouted in an Armenian woman's yard.
It was a momentous day for Mrs. Garabedian, because it was a moment she'd been waiting for for 14 years.
"One time I met a lady who had some Armenian Cucumber seeds in California, and she promised to send me some seed," Garabedian told the paper. "She didn't though. Now I say to her, keep your old seeds. I've got some of my own."
The Armenian Cucumber continued to make headlines, in Santa Cruz, Calif., St. Petersburg, Fla., St. Joseph, Mich, and Arcadia, Calif.
One paper, asking where the cucumber's owner had received the seeds, got an answer as complicated as Armenian immigration: from an Armenian neighbor, who got them from a friend in Fresno, who get them from the "Old Country,"
In 1979, it even made an appearance in Wichita, Kansas. "The smiling holder of what she described as an Armenian cucumber is Mrs. Robert Osborn," the paper wrote. "I ask all you other record-seekers, can you top this one?"
Like Mrs. Garabedian from Tucson, I found my own Armenian Cucumber largely by accident, as I walked around Detroit's Eastern Market (est. 1841) one afternoon. It's shape and girth were unmistakeable.
I knew had found my long lost relative.
"What do you call this cucumber," I asked the man behind the counter slinging vegetables. "Oriental cucumber," he yelled back.
I didn't have the energy or heart to explain to him anything beyond the fact that I wanted to buy it, that it was actually not called "Oriental," that it was a melon, that it actually existed here in his stall today because of enterprising immigrants and refugees, so I let him call it whatever he wanted and took my cucumber home.
Armenians largely ended up in America through forced upheaval that changed the course of their existence and identity forever. This cucumber, eaten in many places in the Middle East and beyond, was brought to America and introduced to the public by a people who had lost virtually every physical, tangible reminder that they existed. Like so many other aspects of the cuisine, these seeds took on a different role for a community in exile. It was the experience of so much loss and the generational burden of that loss that makes the Armenian culinary legacy so important and crucial to document today.
These seeds were not just for planting. These seeds became treasure. They were proof of life. And they followed Armenians across America as some kind of calling card, sprouting in the most unlikely of cities and towns, becoming a symbol of migration and the heritage that Armenians and Americans share in this country.