Sunday, March 19, 2017

Wishful Thinking

I like a good baklava. Layer after layer of light, crispy dough with pistachios and walnuts coated in orange blossom syrup, a heavenly sweet for special occasions. Of course nothing could ever be quite as good as a homemade baklava but I feel that perhaps the best one I ever ate was at the quirky Persian market on Castro Street, in 2008. It happened in March, as I was making my way through the aisle of jams and tea, shopping with fellow Iranian-Americans for the Norooz holiday, the Persian New Year celebration that coincides with the first day of spring. I have loved this mini mart for its colors and perfumes of home and for the amiable old-timers who man the register and holler your take-out order on the loudspeaker. I was checking my list, each item yielding a twin I could not leave behind, saffron for rice, yogurt for cucumbers, when a clerk turned the volume up on a television set affixed to the wall. We all turned to face the screen to watch President Obama wish us a Happy Norooz. We gazed openmouthed. It was very quiet until someone clapped and then we all put our baskets down to join in the applause. Another clerk walked through the aisles with a box of baklava. How sweet it was! How far we had traveled. How this message stoked our hopes for peace. Yes, that was the best baklava of my whole life, and Ziba joon and Mrs. Escandar would understand this one-time betrayal.

Norooz ceremonies are symbolic of the reawakening of nature, its rituals secular, dating back three thousand years. In the weeks prior to the new year, homes are swept clean, new clothes are purchased, seeds are germinated for sprouts, and a ceremonial table, the Haftsin, is set with seven symbols of spring and rebirth.

Year after year, a generation of Iranian-Americans like me, who arrived nearly four decades ago as teenagers, fumble through preparations for a holiday that falls somewhere between Valentine’s Day and Easter, trying our best to follow the customs lest we lose this hallmark of our homeland, too. Nostalgia hits us each spring and we are excited again, to get the tradition right. For the next eight years, President Obama continued to send a Norooz message, always quoting a Persian poet, even going so far as setting a Haftsin table at the White House, dictating a peacefulness we had thought unattainable. We listened, clinging to every word. Let me tell you, it blew our minds. For the first time, in a long time, overcome with a sense of belonging, we celebrated spring with new vigor.

This year, the vernal equinox, that moment when the sun crosses the earth’s celestial equator, making night and day of equal length will occur on March 20th, at 3:28 A.M. PST. I’ll set my alarm for 3:25, allowing myself four minutes to crawl out of bed and acknowledge the moment before going back to sleep. When I was a child, regardless of the hour, my parents gathered us around the haftsin table just before a radio broadcast of the countdown to the spring equinox followed by the Shah’s new year wishes. Throughout my childhood I expected something magical to happen when the clock struck spring, and afterwards, it really did feel dreamy to see my family in such good spirits, beautiful in their new clothes.

Spring comes earlier to my home in California. Already, the neighborhood trees are in full bloom. Recent rainstorms have lifted us from a five- year drought and the hills are bright green again. Ah, Spring, you never give up. You insist on coming back. I see you emerging from the cracks in the sidewalk, from the tight buds on the branches, making me tipsy with your heavy scent of hyacinth. I stand at the kitchen sink to wash the breakfast dishes and hear your song before I see you prancing for your mate. This tiny patch of earth where you flower is my garden and I ought to run out there to greet you but I shrug and turn away. This spring, no matter how much I try, my devotion to the season’s festivities has waned. In a brute reversal of goodwill, our delicate peace is threatened and the message so far has been menacing. Even so, I go to the Persian market to restock my pantry with pistachios and cardamom and I look back to the screen wistfully.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Girl Goes Down the Mountain

Iran, I have found you in the news again, but this time the landscape is promising and dotted with color. Oh, snowy slopes of my youth, what are you doing in the New York Times, brightening my kitchen counter while I light the griddle for pancakes?

I was an awkward twelve-year-old when my mother signed me up for ski lessons. She marched me straight to the only ski shop in Tehran where I was fitted for skis and boots. My outfit was borrowed--a bright tangerine parka with matching pants that were too snug. Doomed is how I felt.

On weekends, just before dawn, our instructor, Mr. Pazooki, picked up his students and drove to Dizin, the ski resort just an hour and a half from Tehran. As we wound our way up the mountain, six of us bounced on benches in the back of his Land Rover. On a good day, I threw up only three times. The five other children learned to recognize the signs and screamed "Agha (mister), pull over! Pull Over! Quickly!" Mr. P would swerve to the gravelly shoulder and leap out to watch me tumble from the back onto the snowdrift. He waited patiently on the edge of the road and listened to my shallow breaths as if he had all the time in the world. I prayed he would just leave without me.

I fell on my first run and my orange pants ripped in half exposing my underwear to the world. The children howled. These days I would have been arrested for indecency, but in 1972, my instructor shrugged off his parka and tied it around my waist, anxious to resume the lesson.

Did I refuse to go back after that first time? Yes. But my mother had paid for a season and by golly, she would carry me up that mountain herself if she had to. So I went. I vomited on the way, and it was hard, and I trailed behind the other kids, always the last link in the chain that made its slow descent towards Mr. Pazooki, who stood at the bottom, gazing up at my flailing arms.

Then it happened. I'm pretty sure it was the fifth or sixth lesson when fear washed away. Suddenly, all I could see was the light on the snow glinting around us and the only sounds were the soft slushy scrape of our skis racing down the hill and Mr. P smacking his gloved hands in applause.

Why this sudden longing in my chest? I have no idea. Standing here now, over a smoky griddle, I can hear the chair lift rattling and my friends shouting You dropped your stick! Snowy mountains are not far but nowhere is the peak so high, the range so immense and beautiful, the powder so soft as in Dizin.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Two Pigeons and a Fava Bean

Lean Food with Cook Utensils, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin

My grandfather raised pigeons in his backyard. I used to think the sound of cooing was a hymn unique to his house. To me, my grandfather's garden was an infinite maze of surprise and discovery.

I know if I went back today it would seem small and tangled, but in my childhood it loomed large and full of possibility. The rows of cages on stilts with their tiny doors were the closest thing I had to a dollhouse. Yet I was afraid of the erratic movement of birds each time my grandfather lifted the latch on those doors to "let the little devils out". If he allowed me to accompany him, I trailed behind apprehensive because I didn't much like pigeons outside of their cages. Their flutter, fits and starts between my feet made me anxious and I stood fixed as a pole in the midst of their nervous merriment. But I went for the occasion that occurred most rarely.

It seemed more like a magic trick the first time my grandfather reached inside a cubicle for an egg--like the penny he found behind my ear. I can still see the smooth and speckled orb he cradled in his palm. "How?" I gasped. "Two pigeons and time," he replied. I stared openmouthed as he pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket to wrap the egg. "Take this inside." I dashed like a courier, cautiously holding the bundle in front of me, up the path, past the fountain, to the kitchen, where the woman who cooked his meals after my grandmother died, was bent over a basket of shelling beans. How did beans make more beans? How did pigeons make more pigeons? I remained puzzled over the former, but the latter was less vague and nothing short of a miracle.

I have since learned that in Italy, there is a gentler way of achieving two ends with a single effort. In Italian, a fava bean replaces the proverbial stone to kill two birds. My friend Susanna taught me this kinder expression: due piccioni con una fava. I thought of my grandfather and how in one afternoon, he taught his granddaughter about nature and nurture.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Eternally Yours

Mitchell Johnson, "Rome (Marcello)," 2015 22x26 inches, oil/linen

My last visit to Rome was in the summer of 1968. I was six years old and my shoes were too tight. My mother agreed to a pair of two-tone, suede Mary Janes which were too small, but I kept that to myself until I was whimpering through the narrow cobblestone streets, through the Vatican and the galleries, through the ruins and the basilicas. That she kept a brisk pace and crossed the streets like a Roman, didn't help. An absolute virtuoso, weaving through Fiat toy cars, staring straight ahead, like she knew where she was going, briefly consulting a map before lunging once more into traffic, all the while pulling me along as I half ran, tripped, and hobbled to keep up.

Rome in 1968 must have been splendid, a far less congested tourists' playground. If only I could remember what I saw...Bernini's fountains, the Colosseum, the Sistine chapel, but my eyes were fixed on my shoes. Oh, how pretty they were--soft pink and pistachio green, with a small suede flower stitched to the buckle. I brushed each and every smudge with my sleeve. Oh, how they hurt. Oh, if only we could rest a bit. Then she stopped. Do you see what I see? her smile said. Inside the gelateria was like stepping into a clock and stopping time, for the minutes it took me to stretch up to the glass case, to choose a flavor from the range of colors, and the moments we sat on a bench with an ice cream in our hands, were long and indulgent--an eternity to a child.

When the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Rome came up, I immediately recalled my suede shoes and the taste of my first gelato forty six years ago. My husband is a visiting artist at the American Academy, and in hindsight, I cannot believe I initially resisted the idea of joining him for part of his stay. What about our son's school, homework, basketball practice, I protested? What about my novel at the finish line? They stared at me Are you nuts? Well, yes.

Returning to Rome with my own family this winter, I watch my son, now taller than me, taking long strides across the same streets, stopping motorists with the same bravado as his grandmother, and once again I'm half jogging to keep up. At a cross light he slaps away the hand of a pick-pocketer unzipping my bag Don't touch her! he yells into the woman's face and she flees. He spends the next few hours devising schemes for catching thieves, luring them with fake money or filling a backpack with shards of glass. He's wound up. What does he think, I wonder, of walking along the Via Sacra in the footsteps of Julius Caesar, or the multilayered Basilica of San Clemente above a 1st-century Roman house, and the spooky underground passages beneath the Colosseum where men and beasts waited to be slaughtered? What about the young doctor in skinny jeans and a leather jacket who makes a house call when he's sick and examines him with such tenderness (say aaah like an Italian), or the homeless man who plays soccer with him in the park? What will he remember?

I'm seeing it all for the first time, really. Inside the Pantheon, my eyes are drawn to the dome and the opening to the sky. In the Sistine Chapel, I look to the ceiling for Michelangelo's Last Judgement. Bird watching beneath the tall umbrella pines in the Pamphili park, oh, how formal and dignified they stand, and yes, those are parrots nesting in the parasols! My gaze is unaccustomed to such splendor. It's like love and a new sky just opened above me. How can there be this feeling of newness in a place so ancient? They have all been here for an eternity, adapting again and again over centuries to their latest surroundings, to the next wave of humanity, insisting on their place. It is impossible to explain where we've been, but this time I feel connected to what we've seen. I won't wait so long to come back.

I wear more sensible shoes now, but my neck hurts. Isn't it time for an ice cream?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Swimming with the Stars

Henri Matisse The Swimming Pool

Never mind the oldest and the youngest. In the pool we are all the strongest. Our lane mate, Ann, turned eighty yesterday. Our pool sleeps under covers in the dark and on most mornings, Ann wakes up before the birds to lift and reel the heavy bedspread on a spool. At 5:45, it's always our turn to play! We show up like an army, thirty or forty of us to break the glitter she has uncovered, to splash and puff and shiver and swing our arms, to leave our rigid selves on land and watch the first, small, pink clouds sail above.

For years we've watched and learned from Ann's long, beautiful stroke, her razor sharp flip turn, the ear to ear smile and praise she lavishes on us when we've shaved a second off our interval. If I've arrived early enough to watch her take aim and jump in the pool, I'm reminded of hopping into fountains as a child and the defiant whoop whooping, I am the life in the fountain! Catch me if you can! 

This morning she swam beneath a canopy of balloons tied to a vase of flowers from Karen's garden. There goes joy in the water, I thought. 

Happy Birthday Ann.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Simmering Dinner

Photo: Wayne Bremser

Hearing that Judy Rodgers had passed away sent me to the kitchen. Her beautiful cookbook is one of three on my shelf and I've turned to it again and again because Judy, anchored as she was to technique and history, often had answers to all my questions, because repetition came before creativity and innovation. If you think making the same dish day after day is easy, it's not. If you're not falling in love with the same dish each time you carefully gather the ingredients for it, whether it's a caesar salad or a hamburger, you should untie your apron and order take-out. 

I never had the privilege to work with Judy, but have always felt her tall slender presence nearby--a quirky angel with waist length hair, mini skirt and bright colored tights--you would have to search the planet for a more serious, dedicated, intelligent chef. Restaurants come and go, chefs tire and retire, but Zuni stayed and Judy never looked away. She spoke to every single diner through her intensely flavorful soups, her simmered dinners, creamy scrambled eggs, and summer puddings. Moored to her stove, gliding through the dining room with a champagne flute was not for her. She was marrow to the bone.

Tonight, in memory of Judy, we're making her braised chicken with honey and vinegar, substituting dates for figs, and remembering all the soulful meals, the birthdays and anniversaries we celebrated at Zuni.

So long Chef. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

At Last

“Hey, do you know this author Alice Munro,” my husband asked. “She’s Canadian. Did you ever read any of her books?” I woke up at five fifteen this morning to the news of my beloved author’s Nobel prize. What a glorious day! It’s been too long since I’ve actually jumped up and down over the announcement. The last time was in 1995 when Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), another good shepherd, received the award.

I’ve devoured every word Munro has ever written and reread her books when I miss her. Her stories come in teaspoons to be read and savored, page by slow page. To choose a favorite would be like finding one child more enchanting than the other. She taught me that all stories are right here in our backyards, laying low, subversive, unassuming as leaves, if only you bend down to examine them. I learned that a leaf lives an interesting life if you care to look closely and trace its veins like a palm reader to find the miracle of economy. Your entire world is there like an only child.

“Do I know her?” “I worship her!” How had he missed that?