How my grandmother's obsession with food reminds me that family is important
“Would you like some more sabzi pollo, Berenice Joon?”
“No, thanks Grandma, I’m not hungry!”
“How about some fruit? I will cut some apples and pears for you.”
“Grandma, I’m really not hungry. Thank you!”
Two minutes later, she walks in with sabzi pollo (rice with green herbs), kabob, shirazi salad, fruit, and her homemade Star of David shaped pound cake. She then proceeds to give a detailed description of how she cooked and prepared every single dish, down to the way she peeled and cut up each fruit.
Growing up as a Persian American Jew, I quickly learned that food is everything. Each Jewish holiday we gather together as a family, and we are completely inundated with food. For Passover, we drink wine and say a blessing for each type of food we are about to consume. Even on Yom Kippur, known as a fasting day, we starve ourselves only to break the fast by enjoying a huge feast. We celebrate with a variety of colorful rices, stews, roasted meats, soups, salads, and vegetable and potato soufflés. Don’t even get me started on desserts!
With such plentiful food as the focus of our lifestyle comes the notion that it is the solution to all problems. The mentality runs deep — this is what I’ve learned growing up. My purse must always contain a bag of almonds and raisins in case I need a boost of energy. I must always — and I mean always — eat first before addressing any issue at hand. If I am dealing with any aches or pains, I must eat gondi (also known as the Persian version of matzoh ball soup). Dealing with a breakup, failed a test, stressed from work? The solution is to eat any type of meat, preferably red meat. Oh, and for a broken heart, the only reasonable solution is dessert.
I used to be frustrated with my family’s ludicrous (yet tasty) problem solver, while laughing off my grandmother’s refusal to take “No, I am not hungry,” as an acceptable answer. Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about what an inspiration my grandmother has always been to me, and that’s lead to new understanding of her obsession with food. Her optimism and strength has never wavered. Just recently, I visited her at the hospital after she had a heart procedure. Her spirits were as high as could be, despite her harrowing circumstances. With a huge smile on her face, she began to crack jokes about this season of The Bachelor.
As she spoke, a flood of memories flashed before me. I began to recall all of the life lessons she taught me throughout my youth. From teaching me the importance of enjoying every moment, to the necessity of dressing “classy with a hint of sexy.” It is because of her that I learned to love deeply and laugh often. “Life can be a battlefield, but you can conquer anything with a smile on your face,” she would always tell me. This particular night I visited her in the hospital, she did, in fact offer me food — this time, a bevy of freshly baked pastries. It was this night I finally found meaning behind her food obsession.
Food is one of her many ways of showing how deeply she loves and cares for us. Beyond that, it is a reflection of the beauty embedded within my culture’s deep value in preserving our family’s closeness and connection. It’s the omnipresent force behind all the times our family spends precious time together: from Shabbat dinners, to Jewish holidays, to Bar/Bat mitzvahs, to weddings. It’s the one constant that seems to always unite us in celebration. It provides opportunities for my family to laugh, to share, and to bond with one another. It offers moments for us to learn and grow as a family.
Food serves as a cultural symbol that my family has carried with them through their trek from Iran to America in hopes of creating a brighter future. I now understand that my grandmother incessantly offering food and constantly reciting her recipes is further grounded in her desire to share a big piece of our culture and to keep our traditions alive for generations to come.
As Chef Giada De Laurentiis once said, “Food brings people together on many different levels. It’s nourishment of the soul and body; it’s truly love.” Now, when food is being offered in moments, particularly when I am not hungry, I smile and am reminded of the cherished moments I have shared and continue to share with the greatest gift of life, my family.