Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Book, Auntie Mohtaram, and One Last Category

I have a personal project, to which I've only barely alluded on this blog. It's just the beginning, and I'm a little nervous about saying things like "I'm writing a book," when I'm not totally sure it's gonna happen (in the same way, when you're 16, you don't tell your friends you're taking the driving test until the license is in your hands... too scary!). As usual, it's a long story. Here we go...

This past Hanukkah, my friend Rachel got me a book called "The Book of Jewish Food", by an Egyptian Jewish woman named Claudia Roden. It's amazing (to me) in that about one-fourth of its 600 pages are devoted to Ashkenazi food, and the rest is Sephardic. It contains tons of recipes, but also a great deal of history, photos, personal stories, etc. about many different Jewish communities around the world. On top of all this goodness, the names of all the recipes are in their native languages (Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Ladino, etc.) which totally feeds my obsession with linguistics and the connections between languages. It's a very impressive tome -- so much research, so much information, and so much heart.

Having said that though, the amount of the book that is devoted to the Iranian Jewish community is pretty slim. Most of the Persian recipes are not specifically Jewish, but general Iranian dishes, and it appears her primary source is the Sisterhood recipe book from a synagogue in Skokie, Illinois.

This got me thinking -- there is *much* culture, history, heritage in the Iranian Jewish kitchen. So many stories and delicious recipes among my parents and grandparents alone. Additionally, it's a culture that's dying -- the number of Jews who still live in Iran is steadily decreasing, and those of us outside the country simply don't have lifestyles that can maintain the culinary tradition our moms and grandmas practiced on a daily basis. I felt there was a book to be written here. And I felt that I was in a unique position to write it. Granted I have no formal qualifications. But I am completely obsessed with food, and have access to many many Iranian Jews. And I am certainly well-versed on the consumption side -- I've read tons of cookbooks, and have eaten a LOT of food.

I mentioned it to a few close friends and family. Friends were excited and supportive. Family was mixed: sister and Mom thought it was a little crazy, but surprisingly, Dad was really excited. He started rattling off stories about about how the Shah of Iran would, on Saturday afternoons, go into Tehran's Jewish ghetto, where some elderly widow would make him the traditional Shabbat meal (not for any religious reason, just because it was delicious), and about how Iranian Jews have a battery of 'mezze' dishes, since theirs were the only households in the Muslim nation where you would find alcohol. Wow, I had no idea! Since then, I've started interviewing people -- people of my parents' generation and older, because they have memories of the foods/holidays/traditions from Iran.

Sunday, I visited my eldest aunt. At 77 years old, she is the oldest of 6 siblings, nearly 20 years older than my mom, the youngest. The two hours spent at her house were a truly memorable experience. First of all, before the storytelling even began, there was the hospitality. We (my mom and I, as well as my 4-month-old nephew who lives across the street) got there and she immediately started feeding us, and continued to do so over the course of our time there. First, she cut up a cantaloupe, and brought some wheat lavash bread to have with it ("I can't eat melon without a bit of bread", she told us). Next, an orange, then an apple, peeled and sectioned at the table, followed by a cucumber. Then tea, which she topped of with hot water halfway through because it may have gotten cold ("Water has to be cold, tea has to be hot"). Then pumpkin seeds and raisins, and finally a small container of cookies and sweets.

So we talked and talked and talked. She has a million recipes at the tip of her brain, measuring things in spoons and cups, but also in 'the size of two hazelnuts', or 'the shape of an egg'. Her perspective is different from my parents' -- her late first husband was from a town called Kermanshah, which is not far from the border with Iraq. Both of his brothers had wives of Iraqi Jewish descent, so she has a set of recipes for typical holiday dishes that varies considerably from what my mom, or her mom, would make. Sweets for Passover, all sorts of homemade preserves, 3 different types of halvah. She gave us the recipe for gondi torshi, sweet and sour rice balls that were the traditional Yom Kippur fast-breaking meal for her in-laws. Little did I know that she brought my mom gondi torshi in the hospital on the night after I was born to break her fast (yes I was born on Yom Kippur, and yes my mom fasted on her delivery day)! She started tearing up when she recalled memories of her own marriage at age 15, the tribulations of being away from her childhood home and being in charge of dinner for 6 in-laws, all the while nauseous with morning sickness (yes, I have cousins older than my mom). This woman has been through a lot, and she's eager to tell her stories. She was asking me if they make cassettes that are 2 hours long, so she can just get it all out. I think we can make this happen for her.

Before we left, she insisted that we do not leave empty-handed. You see, her backyard is an extremely well-kept garden. Surrounding her lawn are fruit trees, herbs, flowers, pots, trellises, and much to her dismay, gopher holes. She brought out a giant knife and hacked off fresh mint, rosemary, 2 types of lemons, and grapefruits for us to take home with us.

So thus begins the saga of the book. It's just the beginning, and I know I'm prone to starting projects I don't finish, but I really hope I can push through with this one.


  1. I hope it happens for you. I wouldn't have the patience to sit around and talk to the old people, especially the crazier ones I know too much about. Good for you for seeing past that.

  2. How exciting! I know nothing about the foods of Jewish people (being raised Italain-Catholic) and I too keep telling myself I want to capture my grandmother's thoughts to transcribe somewhere down the line....what am *I* waiting for??

    Good luck and hope it comes to fruition! :-)

  3. Tracie, how lucky you are to still have Grandma around! You *will not* regret spending some time listening to her stories.. and as far as family cuisine is concerned, Italian is some of the best out there! mmmmm

  4. OMG - How truly yummy, exciting, and lovely! What a wonderful way to preserve some of your family history. I will definitely be one of the first to buy your book! WHOOHOO!!

  5. I'm the WORLD'S BIGGEST SUCKER for family history and you've got a gold mine right here. I'm found myself reading this post and hanging on to every word. You are an excellent writer!

    I think to not pass on and share the stories, foods and recipes would be a shame.

    This makes me happy.

    Yay for the project!

  6. matt - thank you so much for your kind and ebullient praise! it's been a while since this post was written but i assure you that the wheels are in motion to make this book a reality. lots of updates in fact... if only i had a blog where i could post such things.. oh wait =)

    incidentally, your blog is lovely (not to mention your incredible photography!). it's an instant mood-booster! (and homemade alfajores, good lord!)