SEARSPORT — The Searsport Shores Ocean Campground has been a hive of activity as it prepares to host hundreds for a traditional Armenian picnic on Saturday — and everyone is invited.
Astrig Koltookian Tanguay, who owns the campground with her husband, Steve, grew up going to the picnics hosted by her tight-knit Armenian-American community in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Now she’s holding her own picnic so that Mainers can taste home cooked Middle Eastern cuisine, groove to klezmer music, take a belly dancing lesson and much more.
“It’s going to be really big. It’s going to be really fun,” she said this week. “I want people to get a sense of what the culture is, a feeling for the food, a happiness for the music.”
The event is a chance for Tanguay, 57, to share her culture, celebrate immigration and raise money for an organization she’s passionate about: the Makers Guild of Maine Stringed Instrument Lending Library.
The Makers Guild, a non-profit that Tanguay helped to found 10 years ago, started the library to help more in the community have access to instruments. The library now boasts around 40 instruments and is hosted in the Carver Memorial Library in Searsport.
“We succeeded in getting this wonderful library,” Tanguay said. “But then we realized that the instruments aren’t going to do any good if we can’t fund lessons and performances.”
Although admission to the all-day event is free, money raised through meal tickets will be used to help pay for those things.
Tanguay’s own family’s immigration story is powerful, and rooted in a terrible chapter of early 20th century history. Armenia, a land-locked country in the highlands of western Asia, was the first state in the world to adopt Christianity. It also was an important crossroad along the ancient Silk Road, a trade route that connected Europe and Asia. But beginning in the late 1800s, it wasn’t always safe for Armenians to live in their homeland. During the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1918, around 1 million ethnic Armenians were murdered by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire.
Many of the survivors fled Armenia and settled around the world. The northeastern United States was one major destination.
Her grandparents were among those who came here. Her grandfather emigrated to Lowell, Massachusetts, as an 18-year-old, and her grandmother was a mail order bride who had made a dramatic escape from the region when she was 5 years old.
“She told the story of going out of Syria in the basket on the back of a camel, being hidden, because her parents and all of her family had been killed,” Tanguay said.
Her grandmother eventually made it to Italy, and from there traveled to Cuba.
“Then my grandfather picked her out of this newsletter,” Tanguay said.
In the United States, they became enfolded into the Armenian-American community, with cultural ties of religion, language, food, dance and more binding them closely together. Summer picnics were one of Tanguay’s favorite kinds of gatherings.
“Feeling the warm sun on your face, making and moving the music and sharing delicious home-cooked dishes with all their stories and memories makes you so joyful and glad to be alive,” she said. “It connects you to your extended family, your community, your own history and the beauty of the outdoors.”
Those are the things she wants to share with people this weekend. Eight ladies — five Armenian and three non-Armenians — will cook up a feast in the indoor-outdoor campground kitchen. The planned offerings include an appetizer plate, called a messe, with Armenian string cheese, kalamata olives, Syrian bread and halvah, a sweet confection made of sesame seeds, tahini, sugar, pistachios and honey. The main course will feature grilled shish kabob and rice pilaf, which Tanguay expects to be both delicious and a topic of much conversation among the cooks.
“If you want to know about warm and welcoming, you listen to five women talk about how to make 150 servings of pilaf,” she said.
Those who don’t wish to eat the whole meal, which is $49, can dine on a la carte offerings including kufteh, a kind of Armenian falafel, salad and pita bread.
Picnic goers also can enjoy music from the Armenian Band in the afternoon, klezmer tunes from the Casco Bay Tummlers beginning at 7:30 p.m., food demonstrations, mandala weaving, pottery being fired under the stars, belly dancing performance and group lessons and more.
Above all, Tanguay is looking forward to sharing the culture that shaped her with midcoast Mainers.
“The food and the music, the embroidery, the opinionated women,” she said. “That’s a really big part of it. Strong women.”
For more information about the Armenian picnic, held from noon to 9 p.m. Saturday at Searsport Shores Ocean Campground in Searsport, visit makersguildmaineevents.org