|The art of cooking
By Saghi (Sasha) Michaelis
August 9, 2002
Okay, how difficult can this possibly be?
She wiped the sweat off her face and walked faster. For God's sake, she has a Ph.D.
in biochemical engineering and just been hired into one of the best biochemical companies
in the Bay Area. Only yesterday a staff of experienced professionals praised her
for her latest thesis. She is a great scuba diver, drives a Porsche, and has even
once sky dived.
In view of all this, how difficult can it be to cook one simple meal?
She opened the door to her apartment and walked into her kitchen. She put the grocery
bags onto the floor and looked around. A meal is after all just the result of a set
of formulas in the form of a recipe. Right? For the first time in two days she noticed
the Gruyere cheese she had forgotten to put back into the refrigerator and threw
it away. So far, so good! At least, the kitchen looked reasonably clean, though she
missed to see the remainder of the flour on the bar Matt had used last night to make
She rolled up her sleeves, put her hands to her waist, and faced the kitchen.
It would be an easy meal. Nothing fancy. But as she looked around a while longer,
she gradually felt tired. Why had she agreed to this? But she knew why and from the
thought became angry with herself. She had agreed to cook a meal, yes a meal, for
an Iranian man. And she never cooked meals. In fact, she despised cooking. And no,
it was not because she did not know how to cook that she hated to cook. She hated
to cook because she simply detested standing in the kitchen for hours, wasting her
time on what some called an art, to feed a man, then wash the dishes, smelling the
oil on her hair and hands, feeling the grease on her body, and remembering the advice
that she must be a good cook in order to find a good husband?
These were the reasons she hated cooking -- yes, hated it with a passion,
although she could not, dared not, admit it. No one knew but Matt because Matt did
not judge. It wasn't his style. And that was why she loved him and the relationship
worked so well. Though her parents did not see that. They wanted her to marry an
Where was Matt, now? He had left her last night for a two-week trip to his cabin
in the mountains. He was upset because of tonight, because she had agreed not only
to please her parents by cooking this awful waste-of-time meal, but also because
she was deceiving them all, and herself.
Why didn't she admit to her parents how she felt about cooking, that it was not because
of "lack of time" or "being awfully busy at work" that she did
not take the time to make a meal for her parents and invite them over? Instead, she
had agreed to make this meal to please his parents and hide this terrible defect.
Her maman claimed she had never known a woman able to keep a man satisfied without
feeding him routinely.
She poured the basmati rice and water into a pan and added salt. She was not sure
if she should leave the heat on medium or high. The recipe didn't say! She looked
at her watch. Only half an hour left. The sooner this thing gets done the better.
She turned the heat on high.
She had agreed to this dinner because her maman had begged her to meet this handsome
doctor, educated in London, rich and well known. Well, all right, maybe he was fifteen
years older than her, but what did that matter? These things were common enough.
So what if by the time he was seventy, she would only be fifty-five? So what if,
when she wanted a young flesh next to her in bed, his would already be slightly wrinkled
Tears filled her eyes as she emptied the onions into the frying pan, disgusted by
that smell which hit her nostrils. When Matt cooked, she would feel differently.
She would sit on the barstool right across from him and he would pour her a glass
of wine he had specially picked for that evening, an apron wrapped around his waist,
while he made a delicious Italian, French, or Persian dish for them, and she would
laugh at his funny jokes or at the playful seriousness of his look as he mixed the
soup or fried the fish.
She flung the kitchen window wide open and breathed in the fresh open air, like an
animal in a cage. She turned the oven on 350 degrees and put in the bread. Then she
picked up the box of dried prunes and ate one. She liked prunes; just the same way
she liked Matt's body next to her on the sofa when they watched a movie. The recipe
said to throw the prunes in with the meat. She did that.
"29-years old and two months!" her maman had said when she had resisted
meeting this doctor."And I had such high hopes for you, Leila love. Your sister
is already giving birth to her third, and she is three years younger than you. She
can cook such dishes, you don't even believe. And you? you still live like this!
I certainly am not at all sure whom you belong to. We've never had any torshidehs
in our family, that's for sure!"
Leila emptied the pieces of beef into the frying pan. The phone rang. The answering
machine picked it up.
"Hi love, it's your maman. Calling to see if you
need me to bring something, salad or maybe some dessert - I know you have enough
drinks." She heard the disapproval in her mother's voice. "All right, maybe
I'll bring you some dessert?"
Leila picked up the phone. She tried to keep her voice steady. "Maman?"
"Yes, darling. Are you ready? Farhad and his parents will be there in twenty
minutes. Is the house clean?"
"No beer bottles around, I hope?"
She reached over and threw the last one into the trashcan.
"Good, love. He's so handsome and rich, and from such a good family. Your father
says his parents own a large ranch outside of London. Isn't that splendid? They brought
all their money out before the revolution. He's very happy that you have an education,
darling, but he did point out cooking is very important to him. Nothing like a good
woman who can cook as well. So it's important not to give the wrong impression."
"What about a maid?" she said before thinking.
"I'm sorry, Maman."
Her mother sighed in frustration and then said, "Sure you don't need help?"
Last thing she needed was her maman fussing over every little thing she did, and
then dolling her up for the new man in her life.
"Sure, I don't."
"See, you just have got to set your mind on cooking. I knew you could do it,
She hung up and picked up the Alsace Riesling wine bottle and poured herself a drink.
She drank the entire glass at once and looked at the recipe again. Then she noticed
that the recipe said nothing about putting wine in the khoresht. Didn't make sense!
Matt always put half a glass of wine in any dish he cooked and Matt was a great cook!
She poured a glass of wine into the khoresht.
Oblivious, she put her left hand on the flour spread next to the stove and drank
the rest of her wine. Then she suddenly came to herself. Her clothes were a mess.
She had been standing here for the last twenty minutes doing nothing but staring
at this stupid stove, and they would be here any moment!
She turned to run upstairs but stopped and sniffed. Something was burning. She looked
at the pan, but the meat looked all right. In fact maybe it needed more heat because
the wine had caused a little lake in the pan and the meat looked like tiny objects
floating in it. Also something else smelled like it was burning. She put a hand to
her hair in confusion and then picked up the cover of the rice pan and gasped. The
rice was burning!
Her mother always said that an Iranian woman is a true housewife once she masters
the Persian rice. She turned down the heat immediately. Something had to cool off
the rice. She emptied a glass of water into the rice pan. Well, maybe if she turned
up the heat? The stupid recipe had no trouble-shooting tips! She should have bought
a book titled Cooking for Dummies, or something like that.
Oh God! Where is Matt? Why is she doing this? To please
her parents? She pinched herself back to reality. She didn't need to be saved. She
could take care of herself. For God's sake how difficult could following one simple
recipe be? But it seemed difficult enough, because now water was boiling out of the
rice pan and it did not look good at all. She turned the heat down and opened the
patio door. She still needed to set the table. At least, that was easy.
By the time she had lit the last candle on the table the doorbell rang. She breathed
in, rolled down her sleeves, and walked to the door. She opened it with a smile.
And there she stood, her future mother-in-law. The short and fat Mrs. Sabeti smiled
at her agreeably, but then her expression changed to mere surprise. Why was she looking
at her so awkwardly? Leila wondered. Then when she saw the smirk on her future father-in-law's
face she almost had an immediate heart attack.
She had forgotten to change! Here she was in her blue jeans, orange shirt, and tennis
shoes and worse of all: her hair was pulled up messily into a pin. She thought of
running to her room and changing, but it was too late. Now, as if she really needed
this, she got a case of nervous hiccups. She kissed Mrs. Sabeti on her cheeks, trying
to control her hiccups. The lady seemed to smell something on her, and pulled herself
away. She felt herself blush. Behind his parents walked in Farhad. He was short and
appeared rigid but was surprisingly grinning widely at her. Behind him, her maman
looked like she was going to pass out as she put a shocked hand to her cheek.
"Look at you!"
"I'm sorry, Maman. I forgot to change."
"And that smell. Did you burn something?"
"I don't know?"
Thankfully, at this moment, Mrs. Sabeti changed the subject. "You have a beautiful
little apartment here, Leila darling. Did you decorate it yourself?"
"Yes," Leila said. In fact, she considered decorating a house as one of
her few domestic abilities and was told many times by friends and family that she
was indeed very good at it. "Please take a seat. Would you like a drink?"
"Yes, tea will do, thank you, Leila darling."
Mrs. Sabeti seemed a very nice lady and Leila felt slightly relieved. She rushed
to the kitchen, catching the amused glance that passed between the Sabeties. A moment
later her maman followed her into the kitchen.
"Something is burning, I can just tell ---"
"Leave it, Maman. I'll can take care of it."
"And the way you look. You've got flour all over your hair." She brushed
off her hair. "How in the world did you manage that? What am I going to do with
you? No one is ever going to marry you this way?"
"Maman, please, they can hear you."
By now her baba was in the kitchen as well and signed to his wife. "Come now,
dear, leave her alone. You don't need to fuss over her all the time. If she says
she has it in control, she does. After all, she is a doctor."
Not that that has anything to do with cooking a damn meal! But she did not contradict
her baba. Her maman whispered, "Why? Why are you like this?" and was pulled
away by her husband from the kitchen.
Why, Maman? Because of watching you and my friends' mothers in the kitchen since
I was a little girl, doing nothing but scrubbing, and cleaning, and cooking. That's
why! To me, cooking was never an art, but an obligation; it was a routine I had to
break to feel like I can breathe again.
"I'm sorry," she repeated to the empty kitchen. A moment later she
served the tea.
"Bah! Bah!" Mrs. Sabeti kindly said. "Such nice tea, and is it Persian,
"Bah! Bah!" Mr. Sabeti said. "Nothing as refreshing as Persian tea
on a hot summer day."
"Come sit down, Leila dear," her baba said, "and talk a little."
She put the tray on the side table and sat down dutifully. Farhad was eyeing her,
like she was a chemistry formula. She tried to smile.
"So, your mother says you recently graduated. You must be proud."
Mrs. Sabeti leaned forward and smiled.
"Yes, it was definitely hard work." She stopped. She did not know what
else to say, which was rather strange for her. Normally she had a good comment or
something - even a noise that she could make. It must be, she decided, because of
the look of murder in her mother's eyes that she felt so ill at ease.
"Well, but you are now a doctor, just like our son."
Mrs. Sabeti looked proudly at Farhad who smiled and leaned forward but did not say
anything. Leila eyed him a while longer. Seemed like a nice enough man, and the gleam
in his eyes did not necessarily criticize her, they simply appeared puzzled.
"What sort of doctor are you?" She finally found her voice.
"General practitioner." And then as if the cue had been passed on to him,
he got into technical details that no one but her understood, though everyone listened
in awe for his intelligence, anyway.
After about fifteen minutes of uninterrupted description of Farhad's work, by Farhad
and his parents, her maman could not take any more of such open haughtiness and decided
to put her own two cents about Leila's work.
"And Leila is a biochemical engineer, aren't you darling? She's got this really
good job and does
research. We're very proud of her. Tell them what you do, darling."
"Oh just stuff!" Leila suddenly felt exhausted and unexpectedly stood up.
"Dinner is ready."
Her maman gave another one of her I am going to murder you looks.
Leila put the rice on a plate and the khoresht on another. She put the bread on a
tray, murmuring to herself that she simply did not care anymore. A moment later everyone
sat down and when Leila looked at her maman, she thought that for some reason she
appeared very pale. It could be of course due to the face that the rice was not coming
off the plate very easily, except in clumps, and that the khoresht tasted sour and
the bread was completely burned.
Mrs. Sabeti coughed on the khoresht. "This is interesting, yes, um... very interesting.
rather sour... did you add some specific herb to this, Leila joon, to make it taste
so.... um... intense...?"
Before Leila could respond that the specific sour taste was in fact the result of
adding wine, her
mother interrupted. "Pickles. That's what's done it. Leila loves pickles, so
she adds them to everything," and then awkwardly giggled.
Leila nodded, raising her eyebrows. "I do love my pickles."
Mrs. Sabeti obliged them by laughing, but Farhad was already pushing the khoresht
to the side and trying to eat the rice with a straight face. Leila had a feeling
that this is not going too well.
Amazingly enough the dinner finished quite early and the Sabeties left politely stating
that maybe they should meet sometime in the near future, not for dinner, but perhaps
just dessert or that wonderful tea Leila Khanum made.
When they were gone, her maman picked up her purse and marched to the door.
"I disown you. This is it! It's over." She began to cry.
"Now dear," her husband said. "Mistakes happen."
"Not to my family, they don't. Did you look at their faces. That Mrs. Sabeti
looked at me like I'm below her or something? that I can't even teach my own daughter
some cooking or even dressing! That stupid bitch!"
"I thought you liked her, Maman."
She pointed her finger at Leila. "Don't you even dare talk to me again, you
hear? You're no daughter of mine. Such a disgrace! Aberoomoon raft!"
"Maman, I'm sorry?"
But her maman was not listening. Waterfalls of tears ran down her cheeks as she walked
out of the apartment. Her baba patted Leila gently on the shoulder but looked at
her as if he saw something he could not believe.
A moment later the door was shut and Leila turned to look at the half empty dishes
of plate on the table feeling horribly guilty. Then the phone rang.
"Hi there, little tiger." It was Matt's voice. He always referred to her
in that way because of her
temper. "Wondering how the dinner went? Meanwhile, I'm getting ready to go on
a long hike..."
She picked up the phone.
"Yeah. How are you doing?"
"How did it go?"
Leila looked around her. "Well, the rice is in clumps; the khoresht ended up
being sour 'cause I put too much wine in it; and I burned the bread. Oh..."
tears gathered in her eyes, "maman looked horrified. I don't think she'll ever
forgive me... stop Matt! Don't laugh! It's really not funny!"
But Matt was laughing and would not stop, and she imagined him the way he always
laughed, throwing his head back as if the charm of the moment had completely over
"You're nuts," he said at last.
"I miss you."
"Well, then, what are you waiting for? Get in that Porsche and drive here. Maybe
we can do the hike together. I don't want to go at it alone, that's for sure."
There was no sign of last night's frustration or anger in him and Leila was glad
about that. "I'll be right there," she said, "and Matt?"
"I love you."
She put the dishes in the dishwasher, grabbed her stuff, turned the lights off, and
drove towards her own description of freedom.