[We all know the big American food holiday that’s fast approaching–most food blogs, magazines and TV shows are going crazy over it–but there’s another food holiday that’s fast approaching too, a holiday that I didn’t know anything about until last year when I decided to work on a book proposal about religion and food called “Food of the Gods.” The book, unfortunately, never got off the ground, but this sample chapter is something that I’m really proud of and eager to share. So, pull up a chair, take off your shoes, and join me as we journey to Elberton, Georgia for a taste of what might be for you, as it was for me, an unfamiliar holiday: Eid-Al-Adha, the Sacrificial Feast.]
“Elberton is a Red. Neck. Town.”
These words come from Gina, a red-headed native of Elberton, Georgia and occasional helper to the Jalil family, who is driving me and my friend Shirin from Atlanta to Shirin’s family home—the Jalil family home—in Elberton, two hours away. We are going to observe an Islamic holiday, Eid-Al-Adha, a holiday that one doesn’t normally associate with rural Georgia.
“We don’t even have a movie theater,” laughs Shirin, as we drive past a field of cows.
“We have a Walmart, a McDonald’s, a Dairy Queen and that’s about it.”
Shirin is my friend from college who, like me, went to law school after finishing a Creative Writing major. Unlike me, she actually practices: she litigates intellectual property cases for one of the top law firms in New York. Recently, I ran into her in Brooklyn (where we both live) and I told her that I was working on a book about religion and food and she said, “Well then you have to come to Georgia next weekend because my mom and aunt are amazing cooks and we’re celebrating Eid.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about: the word “Eid” sounded like “Heat” and I thought: “Why is her family celebrating heat? Are they cold?” But this was just the sort of experience I was looking for: an unfamiliar holiday in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar food.
“Sign me up!” I said and before I knew it, I was in a car headed from Atlanta to a tiny town called Elberton.
* * * * *
With a population of approximately 5,000 people, Elberton is the granite capital of the world. Indeed, when you drive into town you’ll see a display of gray granite tombstones and a big sign that says, “Elberton produces more granite monuments than any other city in the world.”
It’s such a small town, that when Shirin and I pop into a local diner for a cup of coffee, the woman working there says, with a deep Southern accent, that she’d “run some” for us but that they used it all up the night before at the after-party for the Elbert Theater production of “A Christmas Story.” We thank her anyway and notice a cop, who looks like an extra from “In The Heat of the Night,” glaring at us—or is he just staring at us?—from the corner.
No, Elberton is not the first place you’d expect to celebrate a holiday like Eid-Al-Adha. The town is extremely Christian, extremely conservative. After 9/11, representatives from the Chamber of Commerce came to Shirin’s house to assure her family that they’d be looked after; “you’re one of ours,” they promised them, aware that in a small town like Elberton, hate crimes against Muslims might not be an impossibility.
Yet, Shirin’s family has lived in Elberton, happily, for more than 30 years. Not only that, they’ve established an unlikely community of international friends, a close-knit group, that includes a Bulgarian Holocaust survivor—Anri Konfino—who Shirin’s family calls Chachajan (Urdu for “uncle”), his wife, Fika, an Iranian couple named Mo and Pari, and a Southern belle named Emily who lives with a dance instructor she met on a cruise ship.
“It’s a whole cast of characters you’ll meet when we get there,” says Shirin, as our car takes us deeper into the town.
What I’d learn later is that the force that draws so many to Shirin’s family’s house day after day, week after week, that makes this unexpected group of friends so loving and loyal, is the same force that propelled me to join Shirin for this trip home. Shirin’s mother, Shaheen, and Shirin’s aunt, Suraiya—who live, just the two of them, in the big house their father, Abdul Jalil, moved into long ago–are like two great artists whose art is only known by a small, grateful few.
Their art isn’t permanent, it’s temporary. It’s made with great care and skill, it’s done effortlessly but passionately.
Sheheen and Suraiya are world class cooks.
* * * * *
Eid-al-Adha is a holiday that commemorates a story that many of us are already familiar with: the story of Abraham and Isaac.
“Not Isaac,” corrects Shirin. “Ishmael.”
Ah, yes; one of the central dichotomies in world religion is the division between those who descended from Isaac (Jews, Christians) and those who descended from Ishmael (Muslims.) The Isaac camp believes Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac, the Ishmael camp believes it was Ishmael.
Either way, the basic narrative is the same: God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice his son (Isaac or Ishmael), Abraham reluctantly but dutifully takes Isaac/Ishamel to the top of a mountain and just as he’s about to plunge a knife through his son’s heart, God—at the last minute—transforms his son into a ram.
“And that,” explains Shirin, “is why we sacrifice an animal on Eid.”
Growing up in Pakistan, Shirin and her brother Shuja (who I’d meet later that day) would each get a pet goat two weeks before Eid-al-Adha.
“We’d keep our goats in a parking lot under our building,” explains Shirin, “near the cars. There’d be goats and camels and cows and cars and we’d take our goats for a walk every day leading up to Eid.”
The day of the sacrifice, a butcher would come to the house and take the goats to a garden, with a big patch of grass to absorb the blood.
“We weren’t upset,” says Shirin, “we were excited. It was a big holiday.”
The goat would then be cut up and sent to the kitchen, where Shirin’s mother would decide which piece went to whom.
“There was a system,” explains Shirin. “1/3rd of the meat had to go to the poor, 1/3rd of the meat went to friends and family, and 1/3rd you kept for yourself. People all over the city visited each other with packets of meat.”
Shuja later recalled the first time he was allowed to sacrifice the goat himself, at the age of 13.
“It has to be painless to the animal,” he explained. “The butcher holds it down, and you cut its jugular so it dies immediately. And you say the name of God while you’re doing it—a prayer called the Bismillah.”
Would I, like Shuja, have been able to slit the throat of a goat at the age of 13? When I was 13 I could barely get through my Bar Mitzvah; I was hospitalized two days later for dehydration.
“We don’t sacrifice any goats in Georgia, though,” says Shirin. “There are all sorts of rules and regulations governing slaughter.”
I have to admit, I’m a bit relieved.
* * * * *
The car pulls into Shirin’s driveway and it’s quite a driveway. In fact, it’s more like a road than a driveway; a road that leads past what looks like a private forest to a one-story, modern-looking house with big glass windows, a house made from Elberton granite.
“Now you’ll have to watch my mom and aunt carefully when they cook,” warns Shirin as we exit the car and make our way towards the house. “You’ll see—they do everything so fast, you won’t be able to take it all in. And when you ask them what they just did, they’ll say they don’t know.”
This is a theme that’ll repeat itself many times during my visit. Both Shirin and Shuja are big champions of their mother’s and aunt’s home cooking, but they’ve struggled to replicate this same food at home.
“Good luck,” says Shuja when I tell him that I’m here to gather recipes for my book about religion and food. “They won’t tell you anything,” he laughs.
Indeed, upon walking through the door, a smell hits me; an enticing smell, a wonderful smell.
I follow Shirin through the entryway, past a sun-lit room with a sculpture in the middle and a portrait gallery of Shirin’s grandparents and relatives, through the living room and into the kitchen where Shaheen and Suraiya are busy at work.
“Hel-lo!” says Shirin in a sing-song voice and Shaheen and Suraiya turn around and greet us both with warm embraces for Shirin and firm handshakes for me.
“So you are the food writer?” asks Shaheen, a stern-looking woman with a suspicious smile.
“Yes,” I say.
“We’ve heard a lot about you,” says Suraiya, who has a softer face and a ring through her nose.
“What smells so good?” asks Shirin.
“Oh it’s nothing,” says Suraiya and she leads us to the kitchen counter where she has set out a pot, a bowl and a half-covered plate.
On the plate are what look like large pancakes called “parathas” that Suraiya made herself (she shows me the dough in the refrigerator.) In the bowl is a bright looking combination of cucumbers, onion, red chile flakes and vinegar. The pot, though, is the source of the beautiful smell; in it is chicken braised delicately with a complex array of spices.
“What spices go in there?” I ask, furiously scribbling notes as I survey and salivate over the lunch we’re about to eat.
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Suraiya with a furrowed brow. “Shaheen what spices go in this chicken?”
Shaheen looks into the pot. “Tumeric,” she says. “Cumin.”
“Many, many, good spices,” says Suraiya, who takes a pancake and lays it on a piece of aluminum foil. She tops the pancake with a spoonful of chicken, then a spoonful of the cucumber mixture, and rolls the whole thing up in the aluminum foil, like a Pakistani burrito.
“Come,” says Shaheen. “Let’s sit at the table and eat lunch.”
The investigative food journalist within me loses the battle to my growling stomach. This is going to be a challenging few days.
* * * * *
In 1971, Shirin’s grandfather, Abdul Jalil, was exiled from Pakistan. Jalil, who built the first oil refinery there, was friendly with a young politician named Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (father of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.) When Bhutto sought Jalil’s support in an upcoming election, Jalil wouldn’t offer it. So when Bhutto became President of Pakistan, he nationalized the oil industry, compromising Jalil’s empire. Jalil’s brother was put in prison and Jalil was forced to flee.
Shaheen and Suraiya share this story on the couch after lunch, a lunch that tasted every bit as good as it looked.
“We grew up with servants and drivers,” says Shaheen, sipping tea. “We had eight guards outside our house with guns.”
“There was a medical school right across the street from where we lived,” says Suraiya. “And the boys from the medical school were scared to look at our house because they were afraid they’d get shot.”
Knowing he had to leave the country, Jalil landed where many immigrants do – New York City. Eventually, he made it down South thanks to a politician who’d recently been elected governor of Georgia: Jimmy Carter.
“Mr. Jimmy Carter was the one who brought my father to Georgia,” says Shaheen. “And somehow through his contacts he wound up in Elberton.”
Elberton’s Chamber of Commerce was eager to ensnare the entrepreneurial Jalil; if he would open some kind of business here, any kind of business, that would mean lots of jobs and money for the town.
“So they said to him,” Shaheen recalls, “’Mr. Jalil, we already have a man who lives here: he’s one of yours.’”
Jalil, excited to meet another Pakistani (or was it another Muslim?) agreed to be introduced to this person. A meeting was arranged and Jalil walked into a room and stood face to face with a man who was neither Pakistani nor Muslim: it was chachajan, Anri Konfino, the Jewish, Bulgarian Holocaust survivor.
Later, when I meet Anri—who is 92 years old and keeps pictures of topless women on his refrigerator—he recalls: “I sat in a room and then Jalil walked in. I looked at him, he looked at me and I thought, ‘He doesn’t look Jewish?’ Finally, I said ‘Shalom’ and he paused and said ‘Assalamualaikum.’ We laughed and from that point on we were like family.”
Jalil opened a carpet and fibers factory in Elberton and the Chamber of Commerce awarded Anri “Person of the Year” for his coup.
“We love them,” says Fika, Anri’s wife, of Shirin’s family. “And their food—“ she makes a gesture indicating its greatness.
“But,” she adds, “I’ll tell you one thing.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“They never give out a recipe.”
* * * * *
Shirin and I arrive in Elberton on Sunday, the day before Eid. Between lunch and dinner, Shaheen and Suraiya begin preparing the food for the next day.
“We make everything ahead,” says Shaheen. “That way when everyone is here, we are not so busy.”
The theme of this holiday is, most definitely: meat. We will be eating a giant goat leg, grilled goat chops, and kefti (meat kabobs.)
Preparations begin with the marinade for the goat chops. The leg of goat is already marinating, but now the same marinade will be used again. Shaheen removes a large bowl from the refrigerator that has a yellow-colored yogurt mixture inside.
“This won’t be enough,” says Shaheen. “We need to make more.”
She takes a big carton of yogurt and spoons huge glunks of it into the already-made yogurt marinade. Then she opens a jar of chopped garlic (jarred, minced garlic is used almost exclusively; as is jarred, minced ginger) and spoons three or four large spoonfuls of each into the mix.
Here’s where things get tricky. She reveals a metal spice container with many smaller containers of various spices which she spoons into the marinade almost imperceptibly.
“What was that?” I ask and before I have time to scribble her answer, she’s already spooning two or three more spices in.
“That? That was cumin,” she says.
“That was coriander.”
“That’s meat tenderizer.”
“Meat tenderizer,” she repeats, moving on to a specially labeled container.
“This,” she says, holding up the marked container, “is our garam masala. It’s a very special spice mixture of 10 – 12 spices.”
“It’s very complex—too many to name.”
“Can you just name a few?”
“Oh,” she sighs; “Cardamom, black pepper, black cumin.”
“It’s a special kind of cumin.”
I’m already scratching my head in confusion.
“But regular cumin will do.”
She continues adding to the bowl: coconut powder, cayenne pepper, oil, ketchup.
Then she does what any great chef would do: she tastes it.
“I think it’s too hot,” she says and turns to Suraiya.
Suraiya goes to the bowl, dips her finger in, tastes and turns to me. “What do you think?”
On the spot, I dip my finger in and taste. “It tastes good,” I say. “I like it.”
Suraiya isn’t convinced.
“Let’s add lemon juice,” says Suraiya. “And more yogurt.”
Suraiya adds yogurt and then squeezes a lemon into the bowl as Shaheen stirs.
“Now taste,” says Suraiya.
Shaheen tastes and nods.
“Better,” she says and then she instructs Suraiya to get the chops.
Shaheen takes one of the goat chops—which are tiny, one-bite specimens—and dunks it thoroughly in the marinade. Then she goes to the stove, turns the heat on an electric burner and places a skillet on it: she’s going to do a test chop.
“To make sure the marinade is good,” she explains.
The instincts on display here, the patterns and movements and gestures, are reminiscent, in their own way, of the same patterns and movements and gestures I’ve seen in professional kitchens.
For example: the test chop. It makes such good sense to cook a goat chop with the marinade before submerging all of them in the marinade, to make sure it’s good. And yet how many of us home cooks would think to do that? Some of us might, but most of us would be eager just to get it done.
But real cooks don’t follow recipes, they feel their way through recipes. Cooking is its own religion: there are unspoken rules that are so basic, so ingrained, they don’t need to be spelled out; they’re embedded in bone, they flow through the blood stream.
The test chop emerges and we all taste.
Happy nods all around: the test chop is a success and the marinade is good to go. Before I have time to throw the rest of the chop away, Shaheen and Suraiya are already dunking the remaining chops in the marinade; by the time I turn around, they’re done.
* * * * *
That night, after a wonderful dinner of Chicken Karhai (Shuja’s favorite dish; Shirin’s favorite dish, veal curry, we’ll have for lunch the next day)…
…we watch images from the Hajj on Pakistani TV.
The Hajj occurs in the days leading up to Eid-al-Adha: it’s an annual pilgrimage to Mecca, in which hundreds of thousands of Muslims from around the world journey to Saudi Arabia to visit a holy site that contains Abraham’s footprints and the spring that nourished Hagar after her wanderings in the desert.
You may have seen these pictures in the newspaper: thousands of Muslims crowded around a big cloth-covered box, genuflecting, hands and arms pushing through to touch it. If I were watching this at home, it might seem quite exotic; but here in Shirin’s living room, it’s much less so. Shaheen herself participated in the Hajj ten years ago: “My feet were so sore from all that walking,” she tells us.
Soon the adults go to bed, and Shuja puts on the Pakistani Music Awards. They’re sort of like the MTV Music Awards, except there’s no nudity, sex or bad language—just Pakistani pop stars gyrating to Pakistani pop songs with big smiles and sunglasses on their heads. I nod off to the sounds of Sehar singing her hit: “”Bheega Bheega Mausam.” I don’t know what the words mean, but I know that if I ever meet a Mausam I will certainly wish it a “Bheega Bheega.”
* * * * *
The morning of Eid, Shirin greets her mother with “Eid Mubarak” and her mother returns the greeting.
“That means Happy Eid,” explains Shirin and I quickly put it to use when Suraiya and Shuja’s wife, Nayela, come to the living room too.
“Eid Mub—“ I begin and falter.
“—barak,” helps Shirin.
“Eid Mubarak,” I finish, proudly.
“Eid Mubarak,” they return.
We eat a breakfast of sweet vermicelli noodles and hot milk called sivayyan. Sweet foods are classic on Eid (“Eid” itself means celebration) and, indeed, the sivayyan is very sweet, but good.
At last, some drama. Nayela, Shuja’s wife—who is a radiologist with a degree from M.I.T. and an M.D. from Duke—sits at the breakfast table in jeans and a sweatshirt.
Shaheen, who is not one to repress any dissatisfaction, addresses Nayela with a great sense of purpose.
“Nayela,” she says, “it is the morning of Eid and you must not wear what you are wearing. You should dress up for your husband. It’s different for Shirin, she isn’t married, but how you dress reflects on your husband’s family.”
Nayela, to her credit, doesn’t flinch. Having grown up to Muslim parents in Birmingham, Alabama (yes, Birmingham also has Muslims), she assures Shaheen that she’ll change before Shuja gets back.
Shirin, usually the outspoken one, doesn’t respond. I’ve known Shirin for a long time—almost 10 years—and in that time I’ve known her, I know that Shirin is an independent woman — an accomplished attorney, a free-thinker, emancipated in almost every sense of the word — and, yet, despite it all, still seemingly vulnerable to her mother’s scrutiny.
Yet Shaheen herself is also an independent woman. She divorced Shirin’s father in Pakistan and left with Shirin and Shuja to join her family in Georgia a year before Shirin was finished with high school. Suraiya, too, was divorced before her husband passed away. These four woman—Shaheen, Suraiya, Shirin and Nayela—are all at various points on a spectrum of life for modern Muslim women. Defining themselves and their happiness, they still negotiate the conventional rules, the ones that compel Shaheen to urge Nayela to dress up for her husband, the ones that Nayela and Shirin simultaneously defer to and test.
These same rules, in fact, make it slightly strange to have me spending as much time as I am in the kitchen with my pad and pen. My place isn’t with the women preparing the meal; my place—according to their tradition—is with the men, for whom the meal is served.
* * * * *
The cooking really gets started right after breakfast.
Shaheen begins by searing the leg of goat; she uses a large pan—like a cross between a skillet and a Dutch oven—and when she finishes browning the meat (I fail to observe what fat she uses in the pan; I’m guessing vegetable oil)—she sets it aside and cleans the pan by adding red wine vinegar. Once the pan is cleaned of all grit, she returns the meat to the pan, puts a lid on and weighs the lid down with a copper weight. She puts the whole thing into a 450 degree oven and says it’ll take two to three hours to cook.
Meanwhile, Suraiya calls me into the kitchen so I can watch her prepare the potatoes; a dish called “Aaloo Bhurta.” She’s boiled the potatoes until tender (“What kind of potatoes?” I ask; “Many kinds,” she says, “You can use whichever”), peeled them, and mashed them. They now sit in a pan, drying out on low heat, and Suraiya begins executing a technique I’ve witnessed several times hanging out in the kitchen. It’s a technique specific to this type of cooking, a technique used to enrich and flavor the veal curry we’ll have for lunch, the dal we had with dinner the night before, and now, these potatoes. Let’s call it Pakistani Oil Infusion.
Here’s what you do. You take vegetable oil and put it in a little pot, fill it about ¼ full. Turn up the heat and here Suraiya adds half an onion, sliced super thin. (It’s sliced so thin that Suraiya wouldn’t let me slice the onion when I offered to help; “It must be very thin,” she said, dubious of my ability to get it thin enough.)
The onion cooks and cooks and cooks until it’s crispy golden brown.
Suraiya uses a slotted spoon and removes the onion to the potatoes. That’s Part One.
Part Two is the actual Oil Infusion. On a little tray, Suraiya has set up pieces of slivered ginger, pieces of slivered garlic, 3 curry leaves (from a curry plant Nayela gave the family that they keep in the kitchen), and a red chile.
She drops the ginger, the garlic, the curry leaves and the chile into the oil and it sputters and spatters and hisses and fumes.
After about 10 seconds, she pours all of it into the potatoes and then immediately stirs the potatoes round and round.
This, as you can imagine, perfumes the potatoes with intense spice and flavor. Fat, in all cooking, is a flavor vehicle; it’s a carrier, a conduit, and it works here to give these potatoes an edge, a funkiness that might induce American butter-and-cream mashed potatoes to have an identity crisis.
A week later, in my own apartment, I recreate these potatoes (without the curry leaves, I couldn’t find them) and I conclude that Pakistani Mashed Potatoes are superior to all other mashed potatoes: they are now my mashed potatoes of choice.
* * * * *
At last, the big dinner—the Sacrificial Feast without the sacrifice—begins.
First: the women. Shaheen’s admonition to Nayela to “dress up for your husband” by dressing for the holiday is colorfully brought to life when all the women emerge, around 6 PM, dressed in bright red, orange, green and purple outfits, replete with jewelry and make-up and sashes.
It’s really quite a sight—a parading painter’s palette—and, if Shaheen hadn’t complimented me earlier in the day on my very conservative, atypical khaki pants, buttoned-down shirt and greenish-brown sweater, I’d be as intimidated as Anne Hathaway facing Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Second: the guests. First arrives Shaheen and Suraiya’s brother, Hafiz, who lives in Athens with his wife Naheed and daughter Hiba. The big news is that Hafiz has gout; he walks with a cane and immediately takes a seat on the couch. Hiba will tend to him the rest of the night.
Soon afterwards come Pari and Mo, an Iranian couple who live just down the street. Mo is an engineer who, appropriate for Elberton, devises new machines for cutting granite. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that he later gets the job of carving the leg of goat at the table.
Another guest arrives: Katherine, an antiques gallery owner who sells some of Suraiya’s jewelry in her store. She seems slightly nervous—it’s clear that she’s never been to this house before and, like me, she’s probably never celebrated Eid. I’d like to say we formed a quick alliance, but already having spent a day in the Jalil Family kitchen, I look down on her with contempt. I’m an old pro at Muslim Holidays, thank you very much.
One taboo subject which Shirin warned me about on the ride to Elberton from Atlanta is the subject of alcohol. “Drinking isn’t allowed in Islam, although many Muslims do, but my family doesn’t and you shouldn’t ask for a drink out of respect,” warned Shirin.
Secretly, I’m hoping Katherine will ask for a drink—just to watch the fall-out and to feel even more superior—but Katherine never caves. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m a bit disappointed.
Finally, Chachajan—Anri Corfino—and Fika come to the door and the full group is assembled. We stand for a bit in the living room—a bit awkward without alcohol, I must admit—and then journey, en masse, into the dining room.
The 92-year old Anri urges us on our way, warning, in his thick, Bulgarian accent: “Cold meat is like a cold woman.”
Lucky for us, we get there while it’s still hot.
* * * * *
When I have friends over for dinner, we usually consume a bottle or two of wine and by the end of the night—after the dessert, lingering at the table—a happy delirium sets in that can’t be readily attributed to any one element (the wine, the food, the company) but is a happy combination of all three.
Here, at the Eid-Al-Adha feast, it’s an intriguing experiment to see how a dinner party without alcohol evolves.
I’m happy to report: it evolves quite exuberantly.
Food, it turns out, is an intoxicant of its own. Set out on a wooden cabinet beneath a painting of two turbaned men stirring a pot of rice, are all of the dishes I saw Shaheen & Suraiya prepare: the Keema (ground beef kabobs) that are cooked inside in a pan, rather than outside on the grill; the Allo Bhurta (Pakistani potatoes) heaped into a bowl; the goat chops (which Shuja grills outside—an acceptable American reversal of the “women cook, men eat” rule: Muslim men, in the spirit of Tony Soprano, are allowed to grill) and, finally, the goat—the giant leg of goat—that is colorful and aromatic and, very clearly, falling off the bone.
There’s also a chutney that I watched Shaheen make quickly in a food processor: just mint, cilantro, and lemon juice whirred until pulverized.
Also on the buffet are two dishes brought by Pari: a salad with Romaine lettuce and Balsamic dressing; and, more interestingly, an Iranian dish called Pulao that features rice, carrot, orange zest, almond, pistachio and sweet potato that gets caramelized at the bottom of the pan. Pari goes to great lengths to explain to me how it’s made, but I must miss every other step because she’s talking so enthusiastically.
In fact, most of the guests at the dinner party relish the opportunity to talk to me about food. Hafiz, for example, expounds passionately about the medicinal properties of the Muslim diet. “If you have low blood pressure,” he says. “You take one tablespoon of honey. If you have a dry cough, dissolve honey and lemon juice and drink that down.” (These seem less like Muslim techniques rather than universal techniques, but I appreciate them nonetheless.)
Fika, who frequently plays second fiddle to the performative Anri (who interrupted the meal, at one point, to ask me, across the table: “Why doesn’t Adam have an Eve?” I opted to keep that answer to myself) gave me her beloved recipe for Russian salad. “This is the best Russian salad,” she said, passionately, and then went, step-by-step, through the process of boiling the potatoes, boiling the carrots, and draining the can of English peas. “This is just how my mother made it in Bulgaria.”
However, it isn’t until the very end of the meal that I witness the demonstration of a dish—not even a dish, a drink—that, for me, embodies everything that this experience has been about, both mysterious and beautiful at the same time.
* * * * *
“Aunt Naheed,” calls Shirin, as we linger at the table after eating lots of meat, “Will you make your pink tea?”
“That takes a long time, Shirin,” says Shaheen.
“It’s ok,” says Naheed who, for most of the meal, has been very quiet.
She gets up and Shirin beckons me to follow them into the kitchen.
“Have you ever had pink tea?” Shirin asks me.
“Nope,” I say, very curious what all this pink tea business is about and why it takes such a long time.
The answer, it turns out, is as much scientific as it is cultural in origin. The process works thusly: green tea leaves are placed in a pot of water with a tablespoon of baking soda which is then brought to a boil. Immediately, a ladle is placed in the pot, the tea is lifted high above and poured (carefully) back down into the bubbling hot liquid. This goes on and on and on until the green tea—through a process of oxidation—turns red. Only after adding milk does it turn pink.
“Do you have the right kind of tea?” asks Naheed, looking through Shaheen and Suraiya’s tea selection.
“What kind do you need?”
“Kashmiri Chai,” she answers. They look and look and can’t find it; so they settle on a different kind of green tea leaves.
The process begins: the leaves and the baking soda are added to cold water, the water is brought to a boil, and Naheed begins ladling.
“This could take a long time,” warns Shirin.
I don’t care: I find the process mesmerizing.
She dips the ladle into the boiling water, lifts it high and slowly tips it so the hot liquid pours back down in a steaming hot stream. She does it again. And again.
Various family members and friends enter and exit the room while Naheed makes the pink tea. After 20 minutes go by, things grow a bit frantic: “It’s not changing,” says Naheed. “Something is wrong.”
Indeed, after 20 full minutes of ladling from on high, the tea doesn’t change color. It’s still green.
“It must be the kind of tea,” she says, “or maybe it’s the tap water. Maybe I should’ve used bottled water?”
“Maybe the baking soda wasn’t fresh?” suggests Shirin.
After 30 minutes: still no change. Family members—including Shaheen and Suraiya—suggest calling it quits. “It’s ok,” says Shaheen. “We’ve already had our tea.”
But Naheed, abetted by Shirin, is unflappable. She’s determined to start again.
She empties the pot and cleans it. She finds a different brand of tea—one perhaps closer, in origin, to Kashmiri Chai; she grabs a large bottle of bottled water and she finds a fresher box of baking soda.
She adds her ingredients, patiently waits for the pot to come to a boil, and starts her ladling again.
Up goes her arm, up goes the green liquid, down it comes into the pot, and here we stand waiting for it to turn red.
Echoes of other religious stories—Jesus turning water into wine, Moses turning the water of the Nile into blood—occur to me as we wait. What is it about transformation, both religious and secular, that humans find so compelling? Sure, like a magic trick, there’s an element of spectacle that we enjoy. But on a deeper level, what does our obsession with transformation say about us?
Why do we love movies where dowdy girls in glasses become fairy tale princesses overnight? Why do we watch shows where dilapidated homes become palaces with the help of over-caffeinated builders and designers?
Could it be that as we watch the material world change, we’re reminded that we ourselves are capable of changing? If green tea can turn red, if Ishmael can become a ram, couldn’t two Pakistani divorcees transform themselves into beloved fixtures of a small Southern town? Couldn’t the town itself transform itself from a rural redneck outpost into a haven for Iranians and Bulgarians and Pakistanis? Couldn’t a child of that town transform herself, upon leaving, into a successful lawyer, an urban Brooklynite?
The promise of transformation is what makes me love cooking; the transformation of a raw, slimy piece of poultry into a crispy, bronzed chicken; the transformation of a bubbly, yeasty mound of dough into a loaf of crispy, crackly bread. To me it’s as much a miracle as any transformation in any religion, but—more importantly—it serves the same purpose. It reminds me that we’re all capable of change just as this green tea—which has been ladled now for another twenty minutes—is starting to turn red.
“It’s working!” I yell out.
Naheed smiles. “Watch, it’ll get much deeper.”
She continues to ladle and Shirin takes a mortar and pestle and grinds up some pistachios and almonds. “I like putting nuts in the tea,” she says. “Some people don’t like it, but I do.”
After another 10 minutes, the tea is a deep, profound red. Sugar is added, along with some crushed Cardamom, and then a healthy dose of milk. It turns a phosphorescent pink.
“It’s beautiful,” I say.
The nuts are added and then the tea is strained into mugs.
I stare down at the pink liquid and I see my face staring back. Look how I’ve been transformed these past 48 hours: my own naiveté about Islam—its traditions, its people, its food—vanquished, like the green tea, through persistence and good ingredients (namely: Shirin’s family.) I’ve watched green tea turn red, red tea turned pink; a magical transformation on a holiday celebrating transformation in a place, itself transformed: a “red neck town” called Elberton, Georgia.