Between Persian and plain
I inherited my grandmother’s
earnestness about Persian cooking but none of her confidence
April 9, 2005
When I was growing up, my grandmother had a pair of glasses she kept tucked
away in her nightstand. Their black plastic frames covered nearly half of her
tiny face and the lenses made her eyes appear twice as large as they really
were. The only occasion you’d ever catch her wearing them was when she
was cooking. Some days she would wake up as early as five or maybe six, tie
her hair up in a kerchief (an equally rare sight) and pull on those glasses.
She’d scrunch up her sleeves and you knew it all meant only one thing:
guests were coming for dinner.
I’d amble in between a string of cartoons to
make myself some frozen waffles drenched with Aunt Jemima syrup
and there she’d be, all the burners on at once, frying up
pounds of chopped onions, armfuls of eggplants, and mountains of
tiny meatballs. My mother would join her and together they’d
joke and bicker in the kitchen well into the afternoon, stopping
only for a makeshift lunch of noon and panir with, say, a small
handful of herbs and a couple of fresh walnuts, too, if those were
already done soaking. At some point my father would be called in
to man the food processor, and no matter how well my mother and
grandmother cleaned on such occasions, little green flecks of sabzi
would linger in the kitchen for days.
A dinner party back then meant at least thirty or more people,
all of them other Iranians living in our small Northern California
town. The wives dressed as if for some state function and without
exception only the men drank alcohol. There were always at least
three khoresh dishes, two types of rice with separate plates of
thick tahdigh alongside, stuffed grape leaves, kookoo, potato cutlets,
homemade yogurt, and, for dessert, bowls of a thick saffron-infused
rice pudding and carefully assembled towers of fresh dates. My
mother would usher the guests to the table with apologies for the
simplicity of the fare.
We kids always disappeared downstairs to watch television and,
when called up for dinner, would sit cross-legged and pick, often
less than enthusiastically, at the night’s offerings. Our
parents were becoming foreigners to us, and we to them. In the
meantime, there were dinner parties.
This is my sharpest memory from first-grade: one fat cucumber,
unpeeled, sitting squarely in the middle of my white plastic Hollie
Hobbie lunch-box. When I confronted my mother years later about
this, she denied it absolutely, only to add that if she had indeed
packed such a lunch, it was surely far more nutritious than the
garbage the American kids were eating. The point was surely lost
on me, full as I was of longing for neat little metallic containers
of juice and packets of Oreos. But I’ve forgiven my mother
entirely in the intervening years, for I also remember the bowls
full of pomegranate seeds, separated by hand and waiting icy-cold
in the refrigerator for me when I got home.
I also remember how my grandmother made the most extraordinary
pancakes, from scratch, naturally, which she would douse with sugar
and honey. If she wasn’t too busy in the kitchen, my grandmother
would sit at the table and smile at me as I ate. Even at ten I
could recognize the frozen pancakes for the fakes they were.
There were no cookbooks in my house when I was growing up. All
cooking was performed from memory and honed by experience, and
everything my mother and grandmother cooked pointed the way back
home, that is to say, Iran. In fact, the first cookbook to enter
our house was presented to me as a high school graduation gift
from my Farsi teacher, a goodly women with justifiable concern
for our culture’s culinary future in the hands of girls like
me. The book languished, unopened, in my parent’s home for
years. No one could bear to throw it away, but neither did it have
any likely use.
Every so often someone, mostly my father, would get a craving
for kabob, so we’d pile into the car and visit an Iranian
restaurant over in San Francisco. I don’t remember anyone
ever ordering the chicken kabob or, God forbid, the shrimp kebobs
that started appearing on the menu. Come to think of it, probably
no one so much as glanced at the menu, as invariably the waiter
would bring us each identical platters on which two thick columns
of ground meat lay nestled aside enough rice to feed eight or ten
The other kind of restaurant we frequented was chosen less for
the food then for the regal ambience my mother so loved. I have
a photograph of myself taken at the Fairmont Hotel on such an outing,
a goofy grin on my round eight-year old face, and I am wearing
a white dress that had been ironed for me just before leaving the
house. I have almost certainly already made several trips to the
buffet for the mashed potatoes and chocolate pudding that would
never have appeared at our dinner table at home.
As long as I lived at home, I had neither interest nor inclination
toward cooking. No one, least of all my mother, seemed disturbed
by this, for it was understood that I would learn when I had to,
meaning when I got married and both husband and children would
be counting on me to bring forth the nurturing hot meals every
night. I bristled at such suggestions, none too silently, I might
add, and my disinterest for the domestic arts edged steadily into
The years passed and in the end
I came into cooking by a different route altogether, one that my
mother could surely never have contemplated. It happened like this:
In my first year of graduate school I met a girl who lived in my
apartment building who’d just spent a year traveling by herself
in Morocco. One night, over a chicken and carrot stew served with
couscous, she regaled us with her tales of the Orient, many of
them none too wholesome. The plates were mismatched and the five
of us had to sit on the floor, but to me that dinner party was
the most soigné of my life.
It was therefore the case that I was prompted into my first attempts
at home cooking. The setting, a three by six foot kitchenette with
brown Formica cabinets and two electric burners, was far from inspiring,
but the results of my efforts soon grew edible, if not excellent.
With no one to feed me for the first time in my life, I tackled
cooking with a seriousness I’d only ever applied to my studies.
The result was that within months my cooking books and magazines
needed a shelf all their own. I’d take the train into Manhattan
just to pick up a certain ricotta cheese from Zabar’s and
carry it greedily all the way back to New Jersey for a new recipe.
I threw my own dinner parties with my own mismatched plates. Quite
improbably, I had turned into a cook.
But Persian food? The very thought filled me with anxiety. Sure,
I could toss off a lovely pasta and poach salmon with something
nearly approaching artistry, but with Persian food I had history
and precedent with which to contend. Thankfully I managed at around
this time to locate the long-neglected volume on Persian cooking
given to me by my old Farsi teacher. I followed the recipes down
to the last grains of salt; I could trust myself to nothing less
than complete obedience. If I was at home cooking for my mother,
I developed an irrational possessiveness about my Persian dishes
and took to guarding my pots lest she should so much as sneak in
a pinch of cinnamon. I had inherited my grandmother’s earnestness
about cooking but none of her confidence.
I hear you can get your herbs pre-chopped at the Iranian grocer
these days. Not for me such tactics. It’s true that I don’t
host big parties very often, but when I do, I throw myself into
the task with an old-world-style panache that never fails to amuse
my friends. It seems no one is much inclined toward cooking in
the old way anymore. My friends and I have a lot of pot-lucks and
there’s always a plain pasta set out just for the kids because
no one expects they will touch anything else.
I still love to cook and do so more than I ever imagined I would,
but on some nights dinner at my house means peanut butter sandwiches
and a glass of milk -- and there are no apologies for the simplicity
of the fare. I cook Persian food only when seized by a craving
that a Tofu stir-fry simply cannot satisfy. My own son will have
nothing to do with khoresh, a trend that my mother is forever urging
me to correct.
For my part, I am happy enough that he eats roast chicken and
rice, so uncommon is even this among many kids his age, and I am
prone to beaming at the sight of him with a piece of tahdigh in
his four-year old hands. And when I am not too tired, I sit with
him at the table and smile at him as he eats.