Thursday, November 21, 2013
He bursts through the front door - unwittingly inviting in the crisp November breeze. Out of breath and on a mission, he spreads out a world map on the kitchen table. An explorer out at sea - years in search of a long-lost exotic land. And now so close to setting his eyes upon it. Almost within reach. Running his aged fingers along the map and smoothing out its creases, he turns and focuses his periscope on me - the unknowing representative of said exotic land.
Now show me - where have you lived - exactly where are you from?
Uncle Ned. Drew's great-uncle. Sweet, sweet Uncle Ned.
We were spending Thanksgiving with Drew's grandparents and extended family in Battle Creek, Michigan. Over the years my travels had taken me throughout the United States - the Pacific Northwest, West Coast, East Coast, the South. But somehow I had always simply flown over the middle of the country - with maybe a brief (or at times not so brief) layover at Chicago's O'Hare. This was officially my first visit to The Midwest. In the heart of the country to celebrate a mighty American tradition: Thanksgiving.
I didn't grow up celebrating Thanksgiving. Whole turkeys are kind of hard to come by in Rome or Tehran. But having attended American schools, I was fully versed in the tradition and folklore of this holiday. Later when we moved to Canada, the Thanksgiving celebration shifted to early in October. My understanding of the difference of dates between the two countries is simple geography. Thanksgiving is essentially a celebration of the end of the harvest, and it is believed that since Canada is farther north, the end of the harvest and the onset of winter comes earlier. Another notable difference is the fervor and intensity with which this holiday is celebrated in America, versus the slightly more subdued approach Canadians take in all things (the current Toronto mayor buffoonery not-withstanding). Regardless - even tough this holiday is not cemented in my past - it is a gathering I can fully appreciate. An event centered around family, food, warmth, togetherness, love, and the mandatory familial tensions and misunderstandings. Yes - a gathering I can fully understand and embrace.
Adas polo literally means lentils and rice. It is a very common, everyday dish typically served with a fried, or hard-boiled egg. I think a poached egg would also be great. Ultimate comfort food. It has also taken on the role of the side dish to serve for Thanksgiving in many Persian homes. The addition of the dates, raisins, cranberries and a hint of cinnamon sprinkled in the rice give it a beautiful festive autumnal appeal and add just the right amount of sweetness and texture. It is also a great vegetarian alternative. Typically, adas polo is prepared with tahdig in mind. Which means you would go through the two step method of preparing the rice. First parboiling the rice and also cooking your lentils separately until they're al-dente. Then steaming the two together until everything is cooked through and you have crunchy golden tahdig. You also have the option of adding the dried fruits mixture to the steaming process or simply scattering them on top of your rice when serving - as I have done here. But if you don't want to make tahdig you can prepare your basmati rice (white or brown) as you like, cook your lentils completely through separately, prepare the dried fruits mixture and mix them all together at the very end when serving. But you know I'm going to urge you all to try and make tahdig. And actually, steaming the rice and lentils together wonderfully melds all the flavors.
I was seven years old the last time my entire extended family had the opportunity to gather in one place. This was before many of them scattered to various corners of the world, while some stayed - living through a revolution, a war and other struggles brought on by these events. We might have been celebrating a birthday, it might have been Persian New Year, it might have simply been a dinner - a get-together. As hard as I try, I can't remember the exact occasion. And at the time I'm sure no one had an inkling that this particular get-together would be the last time we would all be laughing, eating, and bickering together. That those casual good nights and kisses at the door would be our very last.
As foreign as Battle Creek, Michigan might have seemed to me - as foreign and exotic as I might have seemed to Battle Creek - spending that Thanksgiving at Drew's grandparents house was as familiar and loving as any family get-together from my childhood. The linoleum-floored cozy kitchen, the shaggy rug, playing Canasata with Grandma and great-aunt Lolie, Grandpa's morning coffee and doughnut ritual, Grandma's Steinway piano and German antiques, the cuckoo clock, Grandpa enchanting me with his tales of serving in the Coast Guard in Alaska during World War 2, bringing down boxes full of black and white photographs capturing those moments (some of which now adorn our walls), Lolie and Ned sharing their love story and how they loved to go out dancing. And of course the day long madness of preparing the great meal. Tip-toeing around individual desires and needs of what and how a dish should be prepared. (I've come to understand that it really takes some diplomatic, ambassadorial savvy to successfully get everything on the table to everyone's liking). And finally opening up the card tables, attaching them to the antique dining table, spreading out the table cloth and gathering around the table. No matter what is served, or how it is served - it's that moment of togetherness that is forever going to be etched in our memories.
All the elders of the family are now gone. Grandma, Grandpa, Lolie & Ned. As are my own grandparents and great uncles and aunts. All of them hearts and souls of the family. We are told Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks and be thankful. And so I give thanks for that Thanksgiving in Michigan. For the warm embrace of all those sweet people. And with that same sentiment I offer you a lentil and rice dish. It might not be familiar, it might not be traditional, but it is delicious and made with love. And I hope at some point it can find its way to your table.
When the explorer sets foot on the foreign land gifts are exchanged, customs and languages described. And when he leaves to make his long journey back home he returns with new stories, new discoveries and hopefully a box full of new recipes.