Monday, May 14, 2012

Morning Cake

The first book I bought for my son was In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak. He wasn’t born yet and he didn’t have a name, but the ultrasound gave us a clear picture and the very next day, I was off to Kepler’s bookstore. I even inscribed it right there at the register: For my son and his good appetite. It hardly mattered that I had discovered this book in my twenties—it’s supple and squishy illustrations of the bakers who bake till dawn so we can have cake in the morn, spoke to me. At the time I was working ungodly bakers’ hours, sleepwalking the streets of downtown San Francisco to my job in a basement kitchen where I made enormous tubs of muffin batter.

So while my husband went to the paint store for cans of sky blue, my mother bought spools of yarn, and my sister brought over her daughter’s rocking horse, I started my son’s library. Soon his bookshelf held an impressive collection, from The Polar Express, The Giving Tree and Stone Soup, to Rascal, The Phantom Tollbooth, and To Kill a Mocking Bird. But the very first, and the books we read most often, were Sendak’s, such that Max, Mickey and Pierre were part of our family. We read them once, we read them twice, and we always made our chicken soup with rice.

Last year, I listened to Maurice Sendak’s last interview on Fresh Air while driving home. It sounded like Terry Gross was choking back tears, too, when Sendak said, “Almost certainly I will go before you so I won’t have to miss you. I will cry my way all the way to the grave. Live your life, live your life, live your life.” Remembering his earlier interviews, when he said the monsters in The Wild Things Are were modeled after the adults in his life (he had found grown-ups grotesque and never wanted to grow up to look like them with their yellow teeth, big ears and hideous hairs coming out of their noses) I wondered who looked back, when, as an old man, he’d catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Defying the world of adults, I bet he saw a ten year old boy.

Lately, my son has been spending a lot of time at the stove on Sunday mornings— inventing pancakes with sautéed bananas and chocolate, berries and yogurt, and last week, with a potato he dug out of the backyard (a compost gift). I stay out of his way, resisting the urge to butt in and flip the bananas, busying myself with the coffee press and taking photos of his creations to send to friends who inevitably reply “The apple doesn’t fall…,” and all that and I say, “Nah, he just has a good appetite.” I predicted it. More than a few have asked for his deep dish pancake recipe. So on Sunday, we poured milk in the batter and remembered Maurice Sendak, reading In The Night Kitchen out loud for what may have been the thousandth time. It was Mother’s Day, so I sat on a stool with a cup of coffee watching the careful preparation of morning cake with the season’s first cherries.
Thank you Maurice.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Writing Workshop

                                                       Pierre Bonnard,  The Letter  1906

At eleven, I was an awkward sixth grader at the Tehran International School where we were taught in English and Farsi. But on the slow bus ride home, sheets of rain falling against the windshield, you heard Norwegian, Hindi, or French in high-pitched voices rising above Radio Tehran’s tinny broadcast from the driver’s transistor radio.

Ever since my mother had started her new job, I had been letting myself in with a key she had duplicated for me on a Mickey Mouse keychain. I fretted over the key – turning it in my palm like worry beads from the moment I shut the door in the morning until I pushed it into the lock every afternoon. When the bus dropped me off, I took the stairs two at a time to get inside. I missed our afternoons. With my father at work until ten and my sisters away at college, I wasn’t crazy about coming home to an empty apartment. It took me a while to get used to sitting down alone and pulling pieces of braided bread to spread with jam she had left on the kitchen table next to a tin of cocoa and a note she had written that morning before leaving for work. She wrote—sometimes in English, sometimes in Farsi, on flowery stationery I had given for her birthday—detailed descriptions of our dinner, a recipe for salad dressing, a funny reminder about boxer shorts drying on the balcony, and her thoughts about my science project or a book she was reading. That my mother would sit down and write a letter to her daughter while she ate her toast every morning seems Victorian, but she wrote without a trace of prudishness, filling sheets of violet paper with ideas and humor and warmth. Until then, I had filled my composition books with dull paragraphs that read like lists, but her writing read like a conversation you felt privileged to be a part of. I read them again and again, filling the hours until she came home, then paced near the window overlooking the street hoping to catch a glimpse of her car before she turned into our driveway. I chopped cucumbers and tomatoes for our salad, stirred a dressing with lemon juice and olive oil, and counted to one hundred before checking the street again.

In my case the term latchkey kid is unjust. It implies neglect or the stretching of a family’s fabric. The intimacy of those letters proved that I was my mother’s confidante and when I read them, I felt cared for. Cherished. I began writing letters back. In fact, I became obsessed with paper—spending hours at the corner sundry shop in front of their small display of stationery and school supplies, taking an eternity to decide on a tablet of lined or blank sheets. I held the new notebook in my hands like a prayer book, hoping to fill its pages with words that I would later fold and leave on my mother’s pillow. Often, they were apologies—like I’m sorry I used the wrong sponge to wash the dishes, or I didn’t mean to ignore your friend’s daughter who is a year younger than me, and so on.

This letter exchange continued in my adulthood. While dating my husband, I was working grueling hours and he was often traveling for work. It was the era before email and we wrote to each other every day. Coming home dead tired I’d find an envelope in my mailbox with a seductive red and blue airmail trim, my name and address in his boyish handwriting. There was no way I was going to wait until morning to write back. Still enamored with paper, I chose the sheets lovingly and slowly we learned about each other. Now that’s Victorian! Even now, if one of us is leaving early or coming home later than usual, tender reminders are left on the kitchen counter. When our son learned to read, we tucked notes into his lunch box written in big block letters—I HOPE THIS IS THE BEST BURRITO YOU HAVE EVER EATEN!, or under his pillow from the tooth fairy, that gradually grew lengthier with illustrations and jokes. So far his replies to us have been brief, sometimes apologetic—Sorry, I left the light on. But apart from the words, we are knowing each other through our handwriting—the small close print, the big loopy cursive, tell us we are cared for. Cherished.

I don’t have my mother’s letters. They were left behind along with every glass and every spoon in our home in Tehran when we were forced into exile, but the writing lessons, even the recipes and reminders, are embedded in me like a constant companion.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In Celebration of Mother’s Day with Donia Bijan, Author of Maman's Homesick Pie

Menlo Park author and renowned chef Donia Bijan will discuss her book, Maman’s Homesick Pie: A PERSIAN HEART IN AN AMERICAN KITCHEN on Sunday, May 6th from 3-5 pm at the Menlo Park Council Chambers, 701 Laurel Street.  Part memoir/part cookbook, Ms. Bijan uses the language of food to tell her story, and to honor her mother from whom she learned to cook and to follow her dreams.
Ms. Bijan and her book have received praise from numerous national publications such as Family Circle and Publishers Weekly:
“Treat yourself to this delectable debut …ultimately this memoir is a loving tribute to her mother, her heritage—and food. Pour yourself a cup of cardamom tea (recipe included), and indulge in this savory slice of life.” —Family Circle
A “wonderfully written memoir … so well rendered … Bijan writes movingly of her parents’ accomplishments, their difficulty adjusting to their new home, and her own burgeoning love of food and cooking … Like the perfect dessert, each chapter ends with recipes.”—Publishers Weekly
For more information about the author and her book visit:
For event details, call Roberta Roth at 650-330-2512 or e-mail Roberta at