September 25, 1997
It is a late Friday morning, not long before Rosh Hashanah, andalready the tantalizing smells of exotic spices and frying onions arewafting from Marcelle Kadkhoda's sunny, compact apartment kitchen.
The Persian émigré, in her 70s, is wearing an apronand sensible shoes as she cooks for Shabbat, preparing the familyrecipes that have been handed down from mother to daughter forgenerations.
In a stainless-steel pot simmers a typical Sabbath dish,Abghoshet, a soup of boiled chicken, chickpeas, potatoes,whole onions, dried lemons and the turmeric that Kadkhoda buys in thebustling Middle Eastern markets on Pico Boulevard. The dish is servedin a bowl, over chelo (long-grained white rice), and eatenwith a spoon.
There is also a fancy rice, polo, with red beans, carrots,turmeric and cinnamon; a beef stew with chopped fresh greens; andgondi -- white meatballs prepared with veal or chicken, groundchickpeas, onion, cardamom, turmeric and white pepper. On this night,the gondi will be served as appetizers with baskets of Middle Easternbread (lavash, barbari, pita, sangak) andfresh herbs that are eaten delicately by hand.
The feast is a holiday meal that could be served on Rosh Hashanahas well as Shabbat.
As Kadkhoda cooks, her daughter, Janet, a tall, glamorous lawstudent in her early 40s, pours a perfect, golden cup of tea from thegold-plated samovar and seats herself on a pink velvet chaiselongue in the airy Beverly Hills living room. Before her, the coffeetable is laden with pistachios, golden raisins, dates, fruit,cucumbers and the rice-flour cookies that Marcelle bakes fromscratch.
Janet urges a visitor to help herself as she explains that, in herhousehold, food is about more than just...food. Every Friday night,her extended family gathers for Shabbat: "For me, the meal symbolizestogetherness, sharing, the fact we are Jewish and we are blessed,"she says.
Marcelle Kadkhoda learned to cook by osmosis back in Tehran; norecipes were ever written down. Her father, Morad Shalom, was aneducated, well-to-do businessman who also published the firstPersian-Jewish newspaper. The family lived for a time in a suburb ofParis.
But by the time Marcelle was 12, her mother had died, her eldersister had married, and she and a younger sister had become thefemale heads of the household. Like most Jewish girls, Marcelle quitschool after the sixth grade and, instead, reigned in the kitchen.
There, stews were a staple of her repertoire -- one with eggplant,another with green beans, and a third with chicken, pomegranatepaste, prunes and walnuts. When she left the Jewish ghetto to visitthe open-air markets of Tehran, she knew that she must not touch anyfood lest shopkeepers force the "dirty Jew" to purchase the"contaminated" goods.
On Rosh Hashanah, families gathered in the courtyard of Shalom'sapartment building to listen to his Jewish wisdom. They brought largepots of food and ate their repasts, Persian-style, upon largetablecloths spread on the ground.
After synagogue the next day, the family enjoyed a special mealthat took days to prepare. The women would bring home the legs andhoofs, head and stomach of a sheep; they spent a day cleaning theanimal, shaving its head and scraping the hoofs with a razor blade.Then, they placed the meat in a vat with turmeric, onions, garlic andherbs, and boiled the concoction overnight.
By the time Marcelle married, in her late teens, Reza Khan, thefather of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah, was in power, and thenewlyweds were allowed to move out of the Jewish ghetto. The timeswere more progressive, and Marcelle vowed that her only daughter,Janet, would get an education beyond the kitchen.
The holidays remained traditional, however. On Erev Rosh Hashanah,there was the usual Persian-Jewish seder, with nine blessings overfoods such as brains and herbs. Apples and honey symbolized a sweetyear, pomegranate seeds represented fertility, and sheep's lungsindicated one's sins should be light as air.
On Yom Kippur, the break fast began with a three-minute boiled eggand a cold drink made with chopped apples and sugar.
Janet Kadkhoda, as a young woman, earned a bachelor's degree incomparative literature from the National University of Iran and wentto work in the university library. But in 1979, Islamicfundamentalist students tore down statues of the shah, burned theflag and ordered Kadkhoda to help close down the library. TheAyatollah Khomeini's revolution had begun, and Janet soon left thecountry for Israel. However, her parents were unable to follow suituntil 1983, when they escaped via the underground movement.
They fled on motorcycles, sometimes disguised in Kurdish dress,over the desert and mountains to Iraq. At one point, MarcelleKadkhoda's husband, Mansour, a diabetic, fell off his motorcycle andbroke his leg.
Mansour died in a car accident a year and a half after arriving inLos Angeles. Janet has married, divorced, raised her son, Allen (now15), worked as a library director and gone back to school to becomean attorney.
Marcelle, who speaks no English, remains a stranger in a strangeland; for her, cooking continues to be a link to her past and to herculture. She still makes her own cheese, yogurt and challah. "Cookinghas become my mother's purpose in life," Janet says. "It's one wayshe connects the family together."