There are more than just a handful of foodie memoirs out there and I’ve read a good number of them. This one stands out a little bit more as Bijan might be an odd egg in this world of foodie memoirs. She comes from a well-off Iranian family. Her father was a doctor and her mother a nurse. They built their own hospital and the family lived in the penthouse of the hospital building. The whole family was spending a month in Majorca in 1978 when the revolution occurred and they weren’t able to return home to Iran.
But what is different is that after she graduates from the UC system – starting at Santa Barbara and then Berkeley, she heads out to France to study at the Cordon Bleu under Madame Brassart, “the same five-foot lady who had made Julia Child miserable in 1949”. She determinedly gets herself a job at Fauchon then works her way through hotel kitchens and top restaurants in San Francisco, eventually opening her own restaurant in Palo Alto.
This is a woman devoted to her food. Her love of food stems from her parents. Her father, for instance, had an interesting way of holidaying.
“Soon after, he would scour the neighborhood for delis, charcuteries, bakeries, stocking up on local groceries. This foraging was as essential as sightseeing. The cathedrals and museums were impressive, but he was curious about what the locals ate, their markets, their shopping carts.”
To her food-loving father, savouring food is one thing, working as a cook is another. It’s a rather strained relationship after she decides on her culinary future.
The thought of his daughter’s not becoming a doctor remained unbearable for my father, who refused to give up hope that I would come to my senses once this kitchen fever subsided. He remained obtuse about the necessity of a respectable profession. I could not have pulled off this cookery scheme, as he came to call it, if we had returned to Iran. We would have been the laughing stock of our community: Ha, ha! Dr. Bi-jan sent his daughter to America to study medicine and she decided to become a cook instead! He could not contain his outrage at my pending return to France to work without pay. We have raised a fool!
I’ve always wondered about working in a restaurant kitchen. I did come close to applying to a professional cooking school once, but I had the feeling that the kind of intense life of a kitchen would probably not be for me. It is what Bijan calls ‘addictive’:
“I never tired of the pattern of assembling a dish, falling in love with it, sending it away. You shrug and start all over, but each time it feels different—you and your dish in perpetual courtship. The intensity of working in a kitchen was addictive. I thrived on the fever and the pace. I survived on cookies and torn heels of baguettes. When I had a day off, life on the outside was jarring and I had trouble switching gears. I hadn’t the slightest clue what new movies were out, what people were listening to or dancing to, what exhibits were at the museums. I managed only to watch reruns of Taxi or read every night before collapsing into uninter- rupted sleep, unless I had nightmares. As if the daytime drama were not enough, kitchen night- mares would haunt me in my sleep, dreams where everything unraveled in an irreparable mess— tickets handed to me were written in a code I could not decipher, tidal waves rose inches away from where I stood facing the stove, empty walk-in refrigerators formed a treacherous maze. Increasingly I lost touch with friends, living an insular kitchen life, working longer hours, and advancing through the ranks of medieval kitchen hierarchies.”
There is plenty that Bijan doesn’t tell us. This isn’t a memoir that delves deeply into the heart of conflict – whether it is the politics of Iran or her relationship with her own father. This is a book about food, and it has recipes too. So maybe it’s more like a cookbook with a story behind it. But it is a light, easy book that shouldn’t be read while hungry.
Like this enjoyable passage about childhood treats in Iran:
“Recently, while gnawing on the end of a Twizzler, a friend asked me, What kind of candies did you grow up with? I paused before I said, Roasted beets, sour green plums, furry green almonds, and salt- roasted corn on the cob. Our snacks often came from street vendors we passed on our way home from school. In winter you could get a wedge of red beet that had been slowly roasting under coals and had caramelized. The vendor handed it to you warm, wrapped in newspaper, and you peeled away the charred skin, which left hennalike stains on your fingertips. In spring we looked for green almonds, which cost us a nickel for a dozen or so. They, too, came in newspaper cones with coarse salt, and a dozen was never enough. We ate the gojeh, sour green plums, by the pound and suffered the consequences. In the summer you found vendors with little charcoal grills on the side of the road, where they fanned their coals and yelled, Balali, while yellow ears of corn blackened on their grills. It may have been the only time I saw my father eat from the outside, fearful as he was of any food prepared outside the jurisdiction of a trustworthy home kitchen. Nevertheless, street food was our treat. My only candy was the lollipop I learned to make at home by caramelizing sugar in a pot and letting it harden on a spoon.”
And those recipes! Persimmon parfait. Saffron yoghurt rice with chicken and eggplant. Pistachio brittle. Cardamom honey madeleines. Can’t wait to give it a try.
Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs
This is my first read for Foodies Read 2015