My trip to Chicago had little to do with what you're supposed to do there. There was no deep dish pizza or trips to the Field Museum. There were no hot dogs dressed with tomato slices, pickles, and everything that isn't ketchup. I walked right past Intelligentsia Coffee with nary a drop of their much-talked-about brew. We did none of the requisite tasting during our visit to the Taste of Chicago. And I must sheepishly admit I didn't follow even one of the great suggestions you guys had offered me. Instead this family trip -- and oh boy, was it a family trip -- offered kabob, baklava, and albaloo.
What can I say, when we cousins happen to find ourselves in the same city, it becomes an intensive cousin immersion program. So what if we just all had dinner together -- change into something comfortable, and get yourself back to the hotel lobby. We'll circle together as many chairs as it takes so we can all catch up and tell dirty jokes until even the front desk people are dozing off. And then the next night, when we gather at the home of one of the local cousins, it's actually not about food. While one group of cousins plays football in the vastly grassy backyard, another crowd marvels at how Adam, who used to make lawnmower sounds whenever he walked across the room, will be attending college in a few short months. And look back not-so-fondly at the mock weddings our evil older siblings would orchestrate for us little ones. And yet another group of cousins is inside playing poker -- thirteen-year-olds trying (and succeeding) at beating some of the fifty-somethings out of their hard-earned cash.
But the following day was very much about food: quite possibly the best barbecue I've ever eaten. On the banks of Lake Michigan, a stone's throw from Northwestern, my aunt's friend Albert showed us that he was a consummate professional. He grilled some twelve pounds of hangar steak, thick hunks pre-marinated with mashed onions, then 'basted' with a repurposed Windex bottle filled with seasoned lemon juice. The result was incredibly tender, and was lovely with the vats of basmati rice my aunt had prepared -- tahdig and all -- not to mention grilled tomatoes, corn, beets, roasted garlic, salad, and more. My aunt's friends were incredibly gracious, and one, a woman from the Iranian city of Mashhad, was kind enough to sit with me for a few minutes and share some fascinating recipes for my cookbook project.
And then came the next night's family dinner: we had whipped together a polo -- in this case basmati rice with dill, saffron-fried onions, and peas -- and a salad, which made quite a feast when supplemented with a couple roast chickens from the Howard Street Jewel. Over a languid dinner, while cousin Sam took pictures of himself and played kissyface with his girlfriend, I turned my iPod to its very loudest so cousin Debbie might make out the sound of old Persian songs from the tinny headphones, taking us back to our awkward adolescence.
This is the way it went all week: eat, reminisce, repeat. Over afternoon tea in the backyard (served with baklava my mother hand-made and hand-carried to Chicago [Persian-style of course, with cardamom and saffron]), we'd marvel over how, as we transitioned from Iran to the west, there were those weeks of overlap when my poor uncle in Israel, along with his own wife and two kids, had to house my aunt and uncle, one-year-old Sam, my mother, my sister, and one-year-old me in his tiny apartment. Then over our daily breakfast of lavash bread, sheep's milk cheese, and sour cherry preserves, my dad recounted the incredibly story of how, while we were all off in Israel, he was feeling the effect of the Revolution firsthand back home: he just barely got out of a meeting with the komiteh -- an ominous meeting that most never returned from -- thanks only to the mercy of the local mullahs who had taken a shine to him.
And those very sour cherries brought my parents back once again. On our last day in town, we stumbled upon a farmers' market downtown. Amidst Amish butter cheese and Wisconsin's most bulbous zucchini, my aunt and parents were thrilled to find a booth selling baskets of albaloo -- the sour cherries their generation grew up on. Super-tart and looking like they were lit from within, they offered me taste, as did this whole trip, of days gone by.