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By Catherine Dehdashti
Persian food entered my life when, in college, I waitressed at a small kebab house in Minneapolis. During the slow hours, I would flip through the owner’s cookbooks and poetry collection, discovering Iran as a place of delights beyond what I’d previously imagined.
One February, I fell in love with a customer, Mohammad. We eventually married and had babies. His mother taught me how to cook everything she could cook, and my interest grew.
When I started writing about food, I learned food publications hesitated to promote the cuisine of enemy countries. But, inspired by colorful magazine stories on Chinese-American, Jewish, Mexican-American, and Cajun Thanksgivings, I longed to rectify what I saw as a sad omission of the Iranian-American Thanksgiving story.
Having seen the artistry of the spring Persian New Year victuals, I imagined how traditional Thanksgiving dishes would be Persian-ized.
In my food writer’s mind, I saw mounds of jeweled pilafs, squash khoresht, a turkey stuffed with barberries and fresh herbs, and saffron-scented sweet potatoes. I dreamed of the decorative touches that an Iranian hostess applies to her dishes, the potential Happy Thanksgiving written with crushed pistachios in Farsi calligraphy across a tureen of rosewater-flavored cranberry sauce. I imagined the distinctively Persian tarof, a complicated set of formal manners, practiced at the Thanksgiving table.
When my husband’s cousin called to invite my family to St. Louis, Missouri, for Thanksgiving with her family, I thought my dream food story was about to be realized.
I’d always gone to my mother’s house for holiday meals. For Thanksgiving, my mother serves: a big turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, salad, green bean casserole, biscuits, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. My mother does not top her sweet potatoes with marshmallows, as so many other moms do. I always asked her to, but she always refused.
Mohammad, our children, and I arrived in St. Louis the day before Thanksgiving. Our host’s home was divine, with silk Persian carpets and fine objets Iranica throughout. Each of the many side tables offered crystal, silver and china bowls filled with chickpea-flour cookies, candies, nuts made golden with saffron and spiced melon seeds. My mouth watered for what the next day beheld.
Mohammad’s cousins and some of their teenage and young adult children were there when we arrived. The evening consisted of trips to the airport for the staggered arrivals of the rest of the kids coming from their college towns. The family members live across the U.S., from southern California to northern New York.
After breakfast the next morning, they started cooking. I ventured into the kitchen and looked around, excited for the first Thanksgiving dish to discover its Persian side. But a look around proved that everybody was working on the types of dishes that would be served at my mother’s house. There was not an Iranian ingredient in sight.
Each person took the lead on a specific dish and got help as needed from the others. Three women worked in a circle to flute the crusts of apple pies. A man sharpened his knives and basted the turkey. I was assigned the creamed spinach recipe, which included six packages of frozen spinach, two packages of Philadelphia cream cheese, Pepperidge Farm seasoned bread crumbs and copious amounts of butter.
I’d eaten at their homes before—this was not what I expected.
Conversation, a mix of Farsi and English (for my benefit) flowed. I took the opportunity to ask the women why they didn’t make any Persian cuisine on Thanksgiving, trying not too well to hide my disappointment.
“It started when the kids were small,” one cousin said. “We used to make a turkey but the other food was Iranian. Then the kids started asking ‘Why can’t we have such-and-such?’ and ‘My friend’s mom’s all make such-and-such.’ So we started making the things the kids wanted, and we liked it.”
Another cousin said, “Sometimes we make baghali polo (a fava bean rice pilaf that goes well with poultry). But not always.”
The kids who were helping in the kitchen shrugged at the question. One of the boys stirred his simple cranberry sauce, telling me he had always made the sauce. It was tradition. Other kids were busy setting up the basement with their sleeping bags. They’ve always treated the long Thanksgiving weekend as one long slumber party together. They sank into the couches, teased each other about boyfriends and girlfriends, and talked about future plans.
When I pressed some more about the food, suggesting that some saffron or advieh (Persian spice mix) would add an interesting flavor, our host finally put me in my place. “You know, the part I really like about our get-togethers is being together—cooking the food together and just being in one place to see each other. What we make isn’t really that important.”
Gulp. I bit my lip, but nodded. I guess I needed that.
While the food cooked, a phone connection was made to another sister in Iran, and the mother who lives close to her. It was as if all of the women of the family were in one place at one time, talking and laughing. Mohammad and our children basked in the pleasure of the family’s female voices speaking Farsi, a musical language that has always reminded me of a colorful silk scarf with silver bells sewn on.
I stopped being a food-story mole for the rest of the day. A bountiful American feast was being lovingly prepared by a close-knit family, with no pretense or pressure whatsoever. And no tarof. Just being together.
The resulting feast included: A big turkey, a smaller deep-fried turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, salad, green bean casserole, my creamed baked spinach, biscuits and cranberry sauce. And I finally would try marshmallows baked on sweet potatoes. It couldn’t have tasted better.
As the main part of the feast came to an end, our host asked me to come to the kitchen and help her set out the pies. Away from the others, she asked: “So, did you detect any Iranian flavor in this meal? Anything at all to tell you who made it?”
I said: “No, it is as traditional American as my own mom’s Thanksgiving meal.”
She smiled triumphantly, and then paused. She understood what I’d been after, and in that moment decided to throw me a bone. “There is one thing we do that is different, but it’s with the leftovers.”
The next morning I awoke to a familiar fragrance. As I came down the stairs into the kitchen, I was greeted by the bubbling of a porridge cooking in a Crockpot, Persian flatbreads, three silver-topped crystal vessels filled with rosewater-flavored jams, and a forgiving smile from our host.
The porridge was halim-e gandom, made with the leftover turkey, wheat, and a bit of spice and sugar. My mother-in-law had made a similar dish with lamb for our children when they were babies. It’s honest, unadorned comfort food. Not food story material though—it’s not too pretty.
There would be no exotic Iranian-American Thanksgiving food story from this writer, but it was better that way. With that breakfast under our belts, we said our goodbyes with kisses and hugs, and climbed into our minivan for the long drive back to Minneapolis.
Halim-e gandom (porridge)
Adapted for leftover turkey from Najmieh Batmanglij’s recipe (Food of Life, Fourth Edition), halim-e gandom works in a slow cooker or any heavy-bottomed pot. It is enjoyed by children and laborers, after bar-going, or for the weary traveler with a long road still ahead.
Makes 6 servings
2 lbs. cooked turkey on the bone
8 cups water
2 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. turmeric
2 cups whole wheat grain, soaked in 4 cups water for 24 hours, then drained
1/2 cup dried chick-peas, soaked in 4 cups water for 24 hours, then drained
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar
- Place cooked turkey in a large pot or slow cooker, add the water, bring to a boil, and skim the froth as it forms until it stops forming. Add onions, salt, pepper, and turmeric. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes or until meat falls off the bone. Remove bones.
- Add soaked chickpeas and wheat grain to the pot and continue cooking over low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary.
- Puree with a hand-held immersion blender, or in a food processor. Cook for another 35 minutes over low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture reaches the consistency of smooth porridge.
- Spoon halim-e gandom into bowls. Garnish with melted butter, cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar.
Catherine Dehdashti is the author of Roseheart, a novel.Visit her website at www.catherinedehdashti.com.
Note to editors: This essay may be reprinted, reposted and shared without permission, maintaining the author byline, credit statement and credit to Najmieh Batmanglij for the recipe.