Uncle Paul’s Brunch
Paul loves to cook. He says, “Cooking brings people together. It has lots of steps similar to dentistry, except you can improvise. There’s always something new to try.” He used to be our professor at Boston University dental school. Tough too. Those dentures needed to be perfect before we went to him. Only after we graduated and some of us even finished our post-doctoral degrees, did he consider us grown up enough to fraternize with. Two years ago his New Year’s Day brunch marked a new beginning for me.
That year an episode of gastritis, caused by the stress of a major career change, had put me in the hospital just after Christmas. I remember hoping and praying to get better for Amir’s (nickname: Mojo) New Year’s Eve party, an intimate gathering of five friends.
We represented five countries, our own mini United Nations, all of us away from our families yet together like a family. Everybody spent the night at Mojo’s except for the superior chef, himself. When he arrived around 9:30 the next morning, his jacket emitted the crisp cold January air, smelled of snow. He was carrying a few Whole Foods reusable sacs filled to the brim with the required ingredients. An unlabeled paper bag held his cast iron skillet along with his toque, a “Life is Good” baseball cap. The skillet reminded me of an ad I had once seen on a singles’ website. The profile title read: “Have a spatula, will travel.” That’s our Paul, I suppose: “Have a skillet, will travel.” Out of the last bag peaked the most important item, Starbucks coffee. Ah, yes! Soon my cloudy mind would get a perfect jolt of clarity.
In the kitchen, Sheila and I emptied the contents of the bags onto the sparse countertops, taking care not to cover Paul’s main working area, the wooden chopping board. He had an extensive menu planned: omelets, scalloped potatoes, his famous French toast, even yogurt parfait.
“May we help, Uncle Paul?” I asked. As I waited for his answer, I was eight again helping mom in our kitchen in Tehran, my little hands chopping the onions while I tried to hold a matchstick between my teeth. But mom’s story made me laugh so hard the match fell out and tears came rolling down my cheeks.
“Ok, Miss B,” his voice startled me back to reality. “Would you peel these potatoes?”
“Sheila can cut the fruit.”
Despite his football-player physique, Paul moved around us adroitly in the tiny space. Mojo’s entire Cambridge apartment turned into a petit suit of knives chopping, dishes clanging, music playing and sweet conversations flowing. All that gave me solace, because the pleasure of food goes beyond merely eating. It lies in the preparation, community, occasionally bumping into each other, and the immersion of every sense from touch to taste.
Soon our hair and clothes were redolent with the smell of food, something that would ordinarily annoy me, but on this day gave me great joy.
I had one more assignment to complete, preparing the yogurt parfaits. Each glass began with a piece of blueberry crumble cake (Paul’s version of a surprise) in the bottom, then yogurt/fruit mix followed by a drizzle of honey. Meanwhile, he quickly put together a tomato, feta, parsley salad loaded with olive oil. I finally rewarded myself with that long overdue cup of coffee, then left Paul in the kitchen with Sheila. Oil continued to sizzle in the pan. Intoxicating aromas rose. By the time I made my way back to the kitchen, he had finished the potatoes together with his signature French toast: brioche soaked in fruit, butter and sugar syrup, berries lacing each slice. If you are patient enough to wait for the second batch, you’ll experience the true magic. Here, the berries have been bathing in the syrup long enough to yield a luscious nectar. This sanguine lava takes its time to penetrate every nook and cranny of the brioche, making bite after bite burst with sweet ecstasy. Besides, after the last batch you have access to the left overs in the bottom of the pan, where the flavors settle into crunchy pieces. In Iran the crunchy rice in the bottom of the pot, tahdig, is a delicacy we fight over. Here in the U.S., I call anything in the bottom of pots or pans tahdig and go after it with the same ferocity.
I set up the little coffee table with plate after plate of Paul’s delectable dishes. He ended with two different omelets, smoked salmon followed by ham and cheese.
The exchanges, as we gathered around the table, went like this:
“Yum…smells so good.”
“Paul, you have outdone yourself this time. Come sit with us.”
He sat down to eat only after we were all served. Paul’s love of cooking steeps his food and kitchen. It transfers to those he cooks for. When he finally joins us his presence grounds the energy of the room. The kitchen is his domain; his brunch the perfect blend of American size and French touch. Those lucky guests who have experienced his creation are mostly lost for words of gratitude and stuffed with food, love, and comfort.
That day, amid the warmth of friends, every morsel of Paul’s passion-infused, home-cooked meal, nourished my body and soul back to health. I didn’t just leave the table with a full stomach, but a full heart. Anxiety slowly melted away.
Gastritis, be gone. I was ready to end that old stressful career and embrace my own passion, writing.
Bahar Anooshahr is an Iranian-American woman who moved to the U.S. at the age of seventeen after the revolution and Iran/Iraq war. Once a nonstop talker she had to remain silent for a year before she could communicate effectively in English. Her works have been published in Tea A Magazine, The Single Hound, Berg Gasse 19, and Monkeybicycle. Essays from her recent visit to Iran also appear in Pink Pangea, a travel site for women.
© Copyright Bahar Anooshahr 2012