Writing an Iranian Cookbook in an Age of Anxiety

As my family and my adopted country endured dramatic change, I learned to find solace in the kinds of written recipes I was taught to reject growing up.

Eric Wolfinger

Whenever my Iranian grocer in Los Angeles reminds me that this may be the last week for a given fruit, I tend to buy pounds and pounds of it, as if the season will cruelly pass me by. Or as if I might trip, fall, take too long dusting myself off, and pass it by. I panic with the arrival of fall’s first annab—jujubes. Winter’s anar and beh—pomegranates and quince—fill me with both joy and apprehension, as does spring’s chaghaleh badam and gojeh sabz—raw green almonds and sour green plums. And then there are early summer’s albaloo—sour cherries.

This panic set in once again sometime in June 2016. Having just signed my first book deal to write a Persian cookbook (recently published as Bottom of the Pot), I had no idea what to expect. But I did know that sour cherries would make an appearance, and if I didn’t buy them then, I’d have to wait until the following year—long after my deadline had passed. So I bought a crate of sour cherries, lugged them home from the store, and set to work. My method for making preserved albaloo was straightforward enough, yet when it came to committing exact amounts and times to paper, I froze. That summer, my adopted country—the United States—was hurtling toward political upheaval, and amid this growing atmosphere of anxiety, I was beginning to face my own ingrained fears of cooking governed by order and precision.

I was raised in a Persian kitchen ruled by instinct, spontaneity, hyperbole, and a good dose of saffron water and lemon juice. Recipes trickled down through cultural and familial osmosis. The wafting scent of onions frying golden-brown or mounds of green herbs chopped to perfection migrated over oceans, inconspicuously weaving their way past immigration lines and border checks, eventually finding refuge deep in our bones and our movable kitchens. Measuring tools and timers were banished to the dark corners of cupboards and drawers—save for my mother’s well-traveled rice cup. Cracked and weathered, it wasn’t exactly standard, but it was the only instrument with which the rice-to-water ratio could be trusted.

My family proudly shunned the impudence of the written recipe. As if stuffing herbs into tablespoons would suck the soul right out of the khoresh ghormeh sabzi, signaling a bitter conclusion to our epic kitchen tales—tales of a family, a culture, and a region constantly at odds with itself and the world at large, but forever resilient. No matter how destructive the previous chapter, as long as we kept gathering around a table, who knew what the next day could bring?

So, in the summer of 2016, I stared at the glistening sour cherries scattered on one side of my kitchen island and at the dull measuring utensils on the other. Nervously, I popped the fruit in my mouth and pondered how “foolproof” my recipe really was. What if it was too sweet? Not sweet enough? What if it was too thick or too runny? Too traditional? Not traditional enough? And what of the sour cherries themselves: Are they accessible enough for a kharegee—a foreigner—which in this case meant anyone not of Persian descent?

My concerns stemmed partially from the fact that for my entire lifetime, Iran—the country of my birth—has been scrutinized, demonized, and shrouded in mystery in the eyes of many. With passions, different political leanings, and conspiracy theories flowing from the rivers of the Alborz Mountains to the shores of the Pacific, it is a place both mistrusted from the outside and deeply divided from within. We can’t even come to a consensus on what to call ourselves or our cuisine: Persian or Iranian? The two words refer to the same people from the same land eating various regional and household interpretations of similar dishes. I use them interchangeably. This debate became even more personal as my editor and I contemplated the subtitle of my book; we settled on Persian Recipes and Stories.

Which is to say that cultural, political, and familial responsibilities hoisted themselves on my back as I pondered the fate of the sour cherries. Not wanting to let down my people, the kharegees, or the cherries, I chose the next best alternative: I held my breath and threw the fruit in the freezer, vowing to get back to it in a week or two.

The next week or two turned into many far-from-ordinary months. Uncertainty and confusion led the news, and cookbooks demanded written recipes. As the United States threatened to fall off its hinges in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, I rolled up my sleeves, measured, cooked, and recounted my journey from Iran to Italy, Canada, and the U.S. for my book. I tested and retested dishes until I could no longer tell what anything tasted like anymore, until I was no longer able to digest one more breaking-news story. But the news kept rolling in, each story more unbelievable than the previous, and the bottom of the pot kept sizzling.

As the world thundered, I paved a new, diplomatic relationship with my measuring cups and timer, finding solace in their certainty. Whereas only months before I’d felt restricted by the written recipe, I now relied on it. I no longer felt comfortable sprinkling a dusting of turmeric here and a palmful of dried mint there, as generations before me had done. I now craved exactitude, a path grounded in logic and truth.

On January 10, 2017, with my manuscript deadline only weeks away, I freed the sour cherries from their frozen exile. I set about the painstaking task of stemming and pitting them as they thawed. At exactly the 12-minute mark of the cherries bubbling away, my mother, Maman, called from Vancouver and told me that a few hours earlier she had fainted at the breakfast table. Alarmed, I gave the pot a quick stir and moved away from the stove. More than 20 minutes must have passed before I checked back: The cherries had thickened beyond as much as necessary. Once again, I held my breath, jarred the mixture, and hid it away.

Three days later, I stood by my mother’s hospital bed in Vancouver. As Maman and I arranged for home care, we also talked about food: We debated rice-to-meat ratios for koofteh tabrizi. We pondered the necessity of toasting the flour first for Persian halvah as we awaited the dawn of a new world order. On January 19, 2017, the night before my flight back to Los Angeles and the eve of inauguration day, my father, Baba, came over to say goodbye. As I buried my head in Baba’s warm embrace, his trademark cologne mingled with the heady perfumes rising from the containers of Persian takeout he had brought. Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men humbly took a knee in the presence of tahcheen, khoresh gheimeh, and crunchy pieces of saffron-tinged tahdig. A panacea for the perpetually homesick.

My parents, who had long been divorced, didn’t usually agree on much. But that night they discussed the few areas that were common ground for them: politics, religion, and food. Like the cracked and weathered rice cup, they were hardened realists who had lived through a coup d’état in 1953 and a revolution in 1979. The coup d’état would forever dash their hopes for democracy in their homeland; later, the revolution would uproot them and hurl them halfway across the world.

Between perfectly constructed bites of rice, stew, yogurt, and fresh herbs, my parents decried the self-serving edicts of the new president-elect—a man they saw as a fumbling court jester or a wannabe king. But the cracked and weathered are also sometimes the wiser among us. By the end of the night, as we slowly sipped our tea, Baba and Maman reminded me that strongmen in all countries come and go. They shape-shift over time, oceans, and borders, trading in their gilded crowns for holy robes and golden suits and ties. They might annihilate much that is good and true, but hope is always within reach. Before leaving, Baba pulled me in close and urged me to be careful the next day at the airport. “Things are about to change,” he said. “You never know what can happen.”

Exactly one week after Baba’s words of caution, I woke to an even more anxious and confused world. The new gatekeepers had imposed a “travel ban” on seven countries, and Iran had made the cut. The next 24 hours were a blur of panic, protests, and efforts to figure out who exactly was affected. I learned that I was now classified as a kharegee solely because of my birthplace and would be unable to travel for the time being. Four days later, Maman went into surgery, and Baba was rushed to the E.R. in kidney failure. They were at the same hospital, four floors apart, with my brother surfing up and down flights of stairs and keeping me abreast of the situation.

Seasons come and go. Albaloo season, once again, came and went. Book deadlines were extended and met, extended and met. Travel bans were modified, challenged, and ultimately made the law of the land. Maman recovered; Baba’s health continued to decline.

One day this past April, Baba, with my stepmother at his side, walked himself into hospice. His room filled with family and friends bearing platters of baghali polo, okra simmered in a tangy, rich red sauce, and sticky sweet baghlava. He was only missing his favorite dish: khoresh fesenjan. I had promised that I would prepare it for him, but time had not been my ally. At the very last minute, we arranged for my husband, Drew, to fly out to see Baba. He would kiss my father goodbye, exchange a few inappropriate jokes, and come back and be with our girls so I could fly out myself. That night I grabbed a fresh bag of walnuts, cracked open a bottle of pomegranate molasses, and set about making Baba his fesenjan. As with the cherries, I was silencing the fear, pausing the inevitable, the unexpected, and the unfathomable.

Recipes, like memories, are fluid and ever-changing. At best, they can take you by the hand and be your guide, should you need one. I had tested my fesenjan so many times that I could have made it blindfolded in my sleep. But that night I needed a steady hand to take me by the arm. I reached for the galley of my book, a copy of which I had also left at Baba’s bedside. I skipped the headnote and went straight to the recipe. I couldn’t mess this one up.

I measured one cup of pomegranate molasses as instructed and then poured a little extra from the bottle, for Baba. As the fesenjan simmered away, I contemplated how to get it past airport security. The stew was thick enough that it could possibly pass for a solid. But it was also juicy enough that it could be considered a liquid. I debated filling multiple three-ounce shampoo bottles with it. Perhaps I could freeze it so it could morph into a solid. Ultimately, I filled a regular soup container, handed it to my husband, and wished him luck. A few hours later, I received a message that security had opened the container, taken a sniff, and asked him what it was. He proudly replied “Fesenjan, a delicious Persian stew of walnuts and pomegranate molasses. You should try it sometime.” They let him through.

Baba died this past spring. My family tripped, fell, and is still dusting itself off. Along the way, we held our breaths and ran to the Persian market looking for raw green almonds and sour green plums. But we had just missed the season.

“There’s always next spring,” the Iranian grocer consoled us. “And sour-cherry season is right around the corner.”