Ghormeh Sabzi and Gender Roles

Is it possible to reconcile two different traditions and still have a place in the kitchen?

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Flickr/Pejman Rahimian

If there’s one thing that dominates my childhood, it’s my grandmother feeding me.

My parents separated in 1999—I can’t remember whether I was six or seven—and my grandmother became our primary caretaker. As an elderly Iranian woman, her passion in life was feeding us. She was ever-present in our lives, picking us up from school and staying with us until either parent got out of work.

There was always food, and it was always from her. Basmati rice on a placemat on the floor as we watched Cartoon Network. In 2002, we went through a phase where she’d heat up place-n-bake Toll House cookies almost every day; that ended one morning when she baked our breakfast and our father threw the plate of cookies on the floor. Sometimes she’d walk on me in the bath to bring me orange slices, which I always found a little creepy—and the day I asked for some privacy, I think I broke her heart.

This hasn’t stopped. My father is 52 years old and still eats his mother’s food—whenever I go home, it’s a guarantee that there will be rice and some sort of stew waiting in the oven at some point. Before heading back to college, she would prepare Tupperware containers full of basmati rice and an eggplant stew, because she knows eggplant is my favorite. A few weeks ago, she had a root canal and still made my sister lunch: “I can’t feel anything so it doesn’t matter,” she explained.

My grandmother’s behavior is pretty much a crash course in Iranian food culture. Food is everything in Iranian society, and I think it’s the biggest tie to home for those abroad. It’s also the easiest way to insult someone. You are not supposed to turn food down because it will result in hurt feelings: I know from experience. My string of years as a pescetarian troubled them. The chicken was crying because I wouldn’t eat it, they said. Once my Babajoon held a grudge because I didn’t drink my orange juice at breakfast (it tastes weird with cereal, okay?). My sister and I were overweight for several years, partially because we were constantly being fed, Hansel and Gretel style.

Another facet of Iranian food culture is serving. Until my sister and I were teenagers, we were not encouraged to prepare our own food. On multiple occasions my grandmother has stated that she exists to serve us—I think it’s supposed to be a compliment or dedication of love, but it always makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes we fight the status quo, but it leaves her offended. It’s troubling, but it’s usually best to not get involved. Iranians are very stubborn people.

When I think of Persian food, I think of old ladies. Amehs and mamans of my second cousins. Of course, younger women cook too. The process takes decades to master, though, and the gift is too great to simply be congenital. By visiting my extended family, I gained access to Persian dishes I seldom had at home: slightly different tastes or choices of meat, and my favorite, unfamiliar reiterations of eggplant. Each old Iranian woman had a specialty, I noticed. Ameh Iran makes incredible fesenjoon, a thin stew starring pomegranate juice and ground walnuts. Pouran, my grandmother, reigns supreme with kashk-e-bademjoon, a spectacular eggplant dish that takes three days to prepare (My people do eggplant best, end of story).

I also noticed that it wasn’t just my grandmother who took on such a subservient role. It was all of the old ladies, who were slowly taking on their female descendants as proteges. Iranian food culture was so heavily based in institutionalized gender roles, and because I was so used to the system, I never realized it.

Persian food, and I mean real Persian food, takes days to prepare. Those gems are handled by the women, who lovingly tend to their pots of stew and boiling rice. The faster stuff, often involving grills or fire, is prepared by men. On Saturday nights my Babajoon would grill chicken while my grandmother prepared the accouterments—yogurt, Shirazi salad, the ever-present rice. My uncle, who has now fully assimilated into Deep Southern culture, made kebabs a few times, or at least my closest family only attended a couple of those dinners. Still, kebabs don’t receive the esteem heralded to ghormeh sabzi or javaher polow, which is fair because the “male” and “female” categories are separated by a significant time difference.

The only other men I can think of who do heavy cooking are those in catering companies, which have become more popular in areas with a large Iranian population. They make large gatherings much easier, especially on the women, who usually spend days preparing for dinner parties. But those caterers usually aren’t Iranian, and I know that because my dad’s cousin has raved at how well they can imitate Persian style.

It is not the cooking that irks me so much, but the setting and the cleaning. Again, subservience is a major factor here, but it pains me to see my grandmother, who has already done so much, bending over dishes and sinks in full knowledge that she has a bad back. But if you tell her to stop, she gets upset—Persians are stubborn people, and so much of the dining culture depends on refusal. All we can really do is lend a hand. After dinner parties or larger gatherings, the women swarm. Sometimes I slip up and act male and feel like I’m being rude—I am, if I’m forgetting to help clean or serve, but it’s also unfair that the husbands, fathers and sons have no obligation to help whatsoever. They’ll remain at the table with full bellies and hot, over-steeped tea, setting up a game of backgammon or arguing about bathroom tiles. They do nothing, and it makes me angry. But I’m not sure if this is the best way to look at the situation. These roles are only so defined because there’s been little effort to challenge them.

One morning several years ago, I arrived at my grandparents’ house in an attempt to learn about eggplant (nothing crazy, just a glimpse at how the woman does it). Somewhere within the first 20 minutes, I yawned and we decided that I should take a nap instead. As I made my way to her bedroom, I apologized, and she said she would finish cooking, like she knew this would happen all along. We accepted that I was a lost cause. The Persian housewife gene was not encrypted within me—perhaps I got the manic or gambling addict one instead. Luckily my grandmother has a new protégé, one who’s actually deserving of the title: my sister. She inherited the gene and is in a relationship the family approves—and now that she’s entered her twenties, Pouran wants her to know how to cook for her husband. Our grandmother’s aspirations frightened me—husband? Marriage isn’t in the picture yet, is it? Sure, you were married at this age, but that was what, 50 years ago in a radically different part of the world? At least let the girl get through medical school and fulfill the Iranian Dream first.

My sister is strong, though, and smart. She’s fluent in biochemistry and made molten lava cake in a crock pot on a whim—I doubt I’ll ever master those two sciences. She will make you dinner, but she won’t take your shit. Don’t even try to walk away without clearing the table and washing dishes. You just got some free food. Now act grateful for it. I’m proud to associate her with the new generation of women with Persian blood. She’s cultural, determined, and poised—a Persian woman for the new millennium.

To me it has nothing to do with carrying on the stereotype of a woman’s place in the kitchen, she says. It’s important to carry on our culture even if it’s in a small way. The food is damn good, and I don’t want that to stop once Pouran is gone. She tells me that it helps her feel closer, that the knowledge of Persian cooking is another thing to share. Learning her recipes really does feel like an honor.

Sarra Sedghi is a freelancer based in Athens, Ga. Her perpetual food baby is named Frederick. She is currently making up for all the years when she didn’t like oysters, scrambled eggs or hot sauce.

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