Why Old World Traditions Have a Place in My Family

As a young girl growing up in Orange County, California, my Iranian culture embarrassed me. I wanted to look and dress like my American classmates. My mother, a talented seamstress even today, would knit and sew clothes for my brother and me. The clothes were a far cry from the t-shirts and Dolphin brand shorts my girlfriends preferred.

Throughout elementary school, I threw my mother’s home cooked Persian lunch straight into the garbage bin at school. I finally convinced her to pack peanut butter sandwiches and apple slices. Over time, she learned to make spaghetti, meatloaf, and tacos – staples at my friends’ dinner tables.

But as a mother now, I see how fortunate I had really been to experience the richness of traditional Iranian (and Jewish) food, music, and literature. I look back at my foolishness with remorse and longing. And I ponder how I will pass along the traditions as I raise a family of my own.

Almost every single weekend during my childhood, my parents, brother, and I were invited to one of my Iranian aunt’s houses in Los Angeles. The entire family, cousins, aunts, and uncles, would gather for whatever celebration needed to be honored: the Sabbath, a child’s birthday, or the anniversary of someone’s death.

My grandmother was the family matriarch who orchestrated these events and made sure we were all fed.

“Sit, nini. Sit, little one. I’ll peel some fruit!” she would say to me.

She would use the ritual of fruit peeling to keep my cousins and me hostage while she spoke of Iran. Otherwise, we paid no attention. It was the fruit that lured me in. The innocuous fruit brought me face-to-face with the Old World elders for whom I felt both respect and embarrassment. I hated speaking Farsi, but grandmother did not speak English.

“You should eat this fruit, my little one, but save some room for the meat. You are too skinny!” grandmother always said. 

I would wait patiently for my favorite snack, freshly peeled Persian cucumbers. Persian cucumbers were smaller and less bitter than their larger Western cousins. She peeled them slowly and then generously sprinkled salt on the horizontal halves. The mouth-watering smell of salty crisp cucumbers compensated for how slimy they made my hands feel as the juices ran down my fingers.

In return for the sacred cucumbers, I listened to my grandmother talk about the neighborhood in Tehran, where she once raised my father and his four siblings.

“They all ate meat!” she would explain. “Our home was always filled with laughter and the smell of my dolmeh (meat and rice wrapped in grape leaves). You come to my house and I make it for you next time.” 

Grandmother’s dolmeh recipe continues to be a family treasure. She wrapped rice, meat, raisins, and apricot marmalade inside pickled grape leaves, baked them and served them in small bite sized portions.

All my favorite sweets adorned the various tables throughout her home; flour-covered nougat squares called gaz, and a refreshing pitcher of coarsely grated apples with rosewater. I loved to watch my grandmother peel apples. First, she would get a very small paring knife and gently, but swiftly, circle her way around the core, peeling away the thinnest layer of the apple’s skin. The objective is to peel the entire fruit’s outer shell in one motion without breaking the flow of the skin. It was beautiful to watch her peel. Her hands, like those of a skilled sculptor, worked effortlessly and swiftly. How graceful to observe the skin of a gold and ruby apple fall onto the plate in one swoop!

And then there were the pomegranates. Pomegranate preparation was labor-intensive. Grandmother quartered the crimson fruit, delicately plucked the seeds from the rind, and then poured them into a small bowl. She would say, with her melodic voice, “Now you eat all of these seeds and bring me lots of great-grandchildren!” Pomegranates symbolize fertility in Iranian culture.

Those weekends during my childhood were filled with elaborate stews and savory rice dishes, hours-long games of chess and backgammon – traditional Iranian games that children learn before they could read – and stories from the elders about the Old World.

I cherish them today and hope to pass along these customs to my young daughter, who, thankfully, already begs to learn words in Farsi and to learn how to make proper Basmati rice with potato crisps called tadiq.

What are some of your most beloved memories as a child – and which of these traditions would you love to pass on to your own children? Share your stories with us.

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