Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Taste For Small Things

There is a quirky Persian market a half hour away, beloved by my family not only for its delicious grilled kebabs, but for the dry humor of the cranky old-timers who run the register and the take-out counter. I don’t have to drive twelve miles to buy parsley, leeks, and dill, but my list is filled with longing and the herbs are just an excuse. The Rose Market gives me a taste of home; to sniff packets of sumac and cardamom, even cakes of soap; to eavesdrop on the easy banter between the clerks—how I love to hear their voices over the static of a loudspeaker calling the kebab orders like life sentences to guys who man the grill—Two chicken, two koobideh. For here! I linger in the tea isle and study the script on each tin, I fondle jars of fig and sour cherry jam, filling my basket with lavashak - pomegranate fruit leather, pistachio halva, and noghl - sugar coated almonds. If I need saffron, I know the mister keeps it under the cash register like hundred dollar bills. When I tease him about his secret stash, he hands me a tiny cellophane envelope filled with delicate threads, like crimson hay. Here, good things come in small packages.

When I first met my husband, he was a regular at The Rose Market. Every Saturday morning, after a pick-up soccer game, he joined two Iranian teammates for lunch, and there he was introduced to Persian cuisine. Ah, the things we do for love. Eager to please my family, he asked his friends to teach him Farsi and they obliged. Later, while boasting to my mother that they had ordered koobideh, a ground beef kebab, gojeh, a grilled tomato, and dool - penis, for lunch, she howled knowing his friends had set a trap. “You mean doogh, honey. Not dool!” she corrected. “Yes, the fizzy yogurt drink. It’s delicious!” he replied. No doubt.

Passing years have not diminished my enthusiasm for the charms of Rose Market. I anticipate the long drive like a dog wags its tail before leaving for a walk. It begins in the morning as I’m staring out the window at the first blossom on the crabapple tree. By the time the breakfast dishes are done, I’ve composed a list: dried mulberries, sugar cubes, feta, cucumbers, but I’ll come home with much more. I don’t want to leave looking over my shoulder, wondering if I might have forgotten something. Each ingredient yields a twin I would not want to leave behind, tea for sugar cubes, yogurt for cucumbers, lavash for feta. But these trips are quotidian compared to our Norouz pilgrimage. That’s when I make up for all the wish lists I never wrote to Santa.

Norouz, the Persian New Year, coincides with the first day of spring and in my efforts to get it right, to follow tradition and uphold a cherished holiday, I look to my grumpy grocer. The shelves at The Rose are stocked with everything from hyacinth to delicate chickpea cookies scented with rosewater, the owners going so far as bringing in a fish tank and scooping out goldfish for your haftsin, the symbolic table you will likely find in every Iranian household days before March 20th. I sense the old-timers are on my side. They will send me home with everything I need to celebrate like a pro.

When I’ve marinated my fish with lemon peel and salt, and washed the fresh herbs for sabzi polo, a rice dish as quintessential as turkey on Thanksgiving, I am once again an apprentice to the alchemist, a student of Persian cuisine. No matter how many times I’ve made this dish, after chopping dill, parsley, and cilantro, spooning layers of rice with herbs, cinnamon, leeks, and green garlic, then wrapping the lid of my rice pot with a dishtowel to trap the steam, I still feel the eyes of generations before me with raised eyebrows and their discontent. Humph! Look how coarsely she chopped the herbs. My God that rice is begging for butter! Where is the fenugreek? Did you see how stingy she was with the cinnamon? I drizzle more butter and say grace because an apprentice is never sure if she got it right, always getting by on a song and a prayer with a little help from the fellas.

NPR's Tell Me More is doing a wonderful broadcast all about Norouz on Tuesday March 20th.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Vernal Equinox

Daylight savings precedes the first day of spring, but that moment when the sun crosses the earth’s celestial equator, making night and day of equal length all over the earth will be on March 19th, at 10:14 pm PST. Perhaps after such a mild winter it isn’t worth noting the actual date. After all, trees are already blossoming, and the other day, my husband opened the trunk to display a dazzling selection of perennials in pinks, oranges, and whites to plant in the backyard. But the spring equinox marks the Persian New Year, a holiday we have not forsaken in exile. Norooz ceremonies are symbolic of the reawakening of nature, its rituals dating back three thousand years. In the weeks prior to the new year, homes are swept clean, new clothes are sewn or purchased, seeds are germinated for sprouts, and a ceremonial table is set with the seven dishes that herald spring and rebirth. As part of a generation that straddles two cultures, we are the sons and daughters who sweep what remains of our parents’ dreams for peace and a new beginning.

My earliest memories of Norooz carry the scent of hyacinth and toasted almonds, slivered and caramelized with saffron and honey. My grandmother served them with tea when we paid our first day of spring visit, noticing at last, my new suede shoes. I had insisted on them, even though they were too tight and my heels were scraped. I couldn’t resist the soft two-tone tassels, one mauve, one rose. Every year, in early March, my mother shepherded us through the shops that lined the avenues of Tehran to buy new clothes for the holiday, calling on a seamstress to make our dresses. I pictured bright patterns, sashes and satin collars, but after standing still for too long to be pinned and measured, I inevitably ended up in a modest shift with cap sleeves—like ordering chicken after you’ve considered chateaubriand. The trees along the wide boulevards were in full bloom, shopkeepers kept longer hours, serenading us with saz o avaz, our holiday “carols”, if you will, filling those early evenings with music and promise. To me, the world smelled like flowers.

The other day, I sat next to my son on the floor surrounded by Legos, watching him maneuver gently like Gulliver between Lilliputian rooftop gardens, garages, fountains with statues surrounded by park benches, and a car wash. Even in Lego City there were signs of spring and I was compelled to ask what Norooz meant to him. Year after year, he’s watched me fumble through preparations for a holiday that falls somewhere between Valentine’s Day and Easter, a cherished tradition that we, as Iranian Americans, hold dear lest we lose this hallmark of our homeland, too. I was curious to know if it mattered to him whether we set the haftsin, the symbolic table with seven elements of life, namely sabzeh, wheat sprouts representing rebirth; sib, apple, a symbol of health; sumac, which mirrors the color of sunrise; sekeh, coins for prosperity; serkeh, vinegar, representing the wisdom of age; seer, garlic, a tribute to health;senjed, the dried fruit of a lotus tree, symbolic of love, and other components such as a flowering hyacinth, candles lit for every child in the family, painted eggs, goldfish, a volume of poems by Hafez, and a mirror to reflect everything we hope for in the new year, to be mindful and present. I wondered if he would miss buying goldfish and giving them silly Farsi names, coloring eggs, going to the bank for crisp dollar bills (the only gift exchange being new money for children), spring cleaning, or buying new shoes. Would he look in the pantry cupboard for the clover shaped chickpea cookies he adored? His answer came slowly but clearly, that mostly he liked celebrating something unique, different from the other holidays: “It’s not commercial…you don’t see the junk at Target.” If a nightingale lit on my shoulder at that moment and sang, it would not have sounded sweeter.

Yes, it mattered. That I am still learning how to tend wheat sprouts for the haftsin isn’t important. For too long, I had relied on my mother to carry the tradition, not paying close enough attention to how it all came together—like a terrific Thanksgiving meal you show up for with a napkin tucked in your collar. I’m no longer a visiting grandchild to a scene where smoke from my grandfather’s pipe floats above my face when he reaches to put a gold coin in my pocket. An immigrant’s career continues as long as there are children walking between us, mapping the space between their parents and grandparents. It’s not enough to sit them down and tell them stories about the ancient land of Persia and its empire. Singing them a version of Glory Days won’t suffice, for they are over. We have to plant real gardens, in real earth, in front of our new homes, and when the hyacinth blooms, to bring the scent inside and tell them: “This, this is what Norooz smells like.”

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Robert Motherwell, 1973 "Blue Painting"

Heidi swam an elegant backstroke. Extending her arms in long powerful arches like a painter gone mad with his brush—coloring crescent moons blue with sweeping motions across his canvas. So when I picture her now, it is always in the pool, on her back, her eyes looking up at the clouds and migrating birds, swinging her arms in that carefree look-at-me-I’m-a-bird way.

Eight years ago, I was a rookie masters swimmer and she welcomed me warmly in the pre-dawn hours. Heidi made sure she knew who she was swimming with—no anonymity allowed, waiting for us at the wall to make sure we all knew the warm-up, but more importantly, to say hello, and always, always, greeting us with: “It’s so nice to see you.” And an hour later, when we heard Coach Tim call: “That’s a wrap.”, she’d look in your eyes and say: “Thank you for swimming with me.” Really.

Our friendship was limited to time spent at the pool and in the showers, but what struck me was that Heidi didn’t waste time on small talk, delving into conversations about travel, marriage, your new baby, movies, and being an avid reader, books. She talked to everyone indiscriminately and earnestly like the child who waves hello from his car seat to people in adjacent cars. And sometimes, you would almost be annoyed with this goodwill ambassador, but not for long, for she disarmed you with her open smile.  Because it wasn’t so much friendliness, but her genuine interest in knowing what you cared about, who you were underneath the swim cap and goggles. She asked good questions and listened for your answer with her head tilted, as if what you had to say was all she cared about.

When Heidi had a stroke, we swam, filling our days with yards. What else were we to do? Some people pray. Some people swim. We did a lot of both—convinced that if we swam hard enough, long enough, she would come back to us. One thing I’ve learned about swimmers is, we’re a dogged bunch. Fill a three-foot hole with water, we’ll jump in and try to do laps.

They say that when loved ones die, they leave a hole. Heidi’s loss on the other hand, has filled us with a capacity to love we didn’t know we had—our hearts have grown fonder, of each other, of water, of trees, rain, sun, clouds, grueling work-outs, warm showers. We’ve become like the mad painter, filling our canvas with blues, imitating her arc.