Cooking with My Persian Grandmother for Rosh Hashana Meant Much More Than Just Learning Recipes
When I walk into her apartment, it's dark. The only light coming in is from the sun filtering through the tall, dusty kitchen window behind her. She is smaller than the last time I saw her, or maybe it just seems that way because she's hunched over a cutting board. She has thick short silver hair and weathered brown skin that is deeply lined. She is wearing a loose dress made of blue cotton that hangs below her knees. A cigarette dangles from her mouth, a clump of ash ready to fall. She still smokes Merit 100s—long, thin, brown cigarettes that look like skinny cigars.
She doesn't hear me until I'm almost upon her. At somewhere north of 80 years old, her hearing is not really that sharp. But soon she must notice me, because she looks up, and her smile is wide, and tears start rolling down her face. "ANDY! Oh, I am so happy to see you, darling!" Her voice is hoarse and gravely from years of smoking. Between the fact that I can't see her and she can't hear me, communicating with Bibi is often the stuff of rare comedy.
Bibi is my grandmother. She lives in Kew Gardens, Queens, in a mammoth post-war two-bedroom apartment she's been renting since my grandfather, Baba, died and she sold the house on Mowbray Drive. It is the day before Rosh Hashana. I have come to cook with her. It's been a long time since we cooked together. I feel my time with her is running out. I want to learn from her. I want to be with her. I hug her tightly.
I realize as I am standing in the kitchen that the reason the apartment is so dark is that all of the lightbulbs in the kitchen fixture are out. Well, all but one that's pushing out its last watts as we speak. "Bibi, where are your lightbulbs? Let me put new ones in for you," I scream at her so she can hear me. "Thank you, darling, they are in the bottom drawer of the hall closet," she chokes out in a raspy-voiced English accent. Bibi lived for years in London after fleeing her village of Mashhad, in Persia, the late 1920s. Her accent is slight, but it is strong enough to know that once she was from somewhere else.
When I open the hall closet drawer I find what appears to be the world's largest collection of expired lightbulbs. They are tossed on top of each other like some sort of cruel lightbulb graveyard. All of them rattle when you shake them and they each bear the dark spot of a busted bulb. I pull out dozens and finally find a set that looks new. I return to the kitchen with the broken bulbs in a bag and the few I believe are alive in my hand.
Bibi looks at me. "What did you do? What is in the bag?" she asks.
"Bibi, you have a lifetime supply of broken lightbulbs in there. These don't work. I'm throwing them out."
"NO, YOU ARE NOT! Those are good. They are fine. They work. Don't throw them out!" she says in a hoarse scream.
Who was I kidding? She wasn't about to let me throw anything out. She is a grandmother. They don't toss anything.
"But Bibi, these are broken bulbs. You don't need them anymore. You can't use them." As I say this, I get up on a chair, and to demonstrate my point I screw in about a dozen lightbulbs, one at a time, one after the other. Nothing happens. They do not light. They stay gray and dusty. I have now clinically shown her that the bulbs don't work, but she does not care. She will not stand for me throwing out her old bulbs. I surrender and return the old bulbs to their corpse closet. But I do manage to find a few bulbs that actually still work, and screw them into the fixture, lighting the kitchen with a slight glow. As I screw in the last bulb and climb down from the kitchen chair, I wonder why she is so adamant about those dead bulbs. And then I think, maybe she is afraid to toss them away. Maybe when you get older you don't want to be reminded that lights go out and never turn on again.
And then, we start to cook. Well, more accurately, I start to peel and chop onions with a dull knife she has given me that is about as sharp as a spoon. There are dozens of onions. I feel like I'm in the army. I am peeling and dicing onions with tears streaming down my face, for at least an hour. Bibi supervises with a fresh cigarette in her mouth. Then she moves me onto the carrots. And then scallions—diced—the green and white parts. Some of the onions and the carrots will be tossed in with the gefilte fish. The scallions will go in the chelo galeyeh—a spinach soup served with fat moist meatballs called gondee, chicken and eggs, which are dropped in raw and poached in the soup. The soup—the galeyeh—starts with a pot of salted water with marrow bones and is finished with chopped spinach, bunches of dill, cilantro and parsley. The soup simmers, covered, and the kitchen fills up with the aroma of my childhood. We serve the soup over the chelo—basmati rice, cooked on top of the stove, with a layer of thinly sliced potatoes lining the bottom of the pot. When the rice is done, we turn the pot over, and bang out the potato crust—a pizza-pie-shaped flat of golden crisped potatoes.
Once the soup is simmering we start on the chopped liver. We hard boil a half-dozen eggs and fry the livers on the stovetop and then mix them with some onions that we have caramelized. To the liver mixture, Bibi adds salt and pepper and her secret ingredient—cinnamon. She takes the eggs off the stove and tells me to peel them. They burn my fingers and I drop one to the table. "Ouch," I say. "These are hot." "Nonsense," she says, scolding me for being such a princess. She pulls one from the water and peels it with her bare fingers. She doesn't flinch at all. She goes through the rest of the eggs and once she is done, she sets up her Hamilton Beach meat grinder. This is a routine I seem to see in a flashback. I am 6. I am standing on a step stool beside her. She fills the grinder's metal chute with liver, onions and eggs, and I reach up on my tippy toes and push the wooden piece down the metal tube, forcing the livers, eggs and onions down through the grate. In seconds, squiggly worms of ground liver, onions and eggs fall out, writhing like living creatures that land motionless in a big bowl.
Thirty years later, I look down and Bibi is the one in need of the step stool, but our routine is the same. She fills, and I push the wooden piece through. The livers squiggle out. I still laugh. It is a laugh I have not heard in some time. It's a giggle, kind of. Once we are almost done with the livers, she adds a few piece of challah to the mix. "It's a trick. It will absorb some of the grease," she says.
When we are done with our grinding. she sits down with the bowl of warm chopped liver, and asks me about the seasoning. "What do you think, darling? Some more salt or pepper?" she asks, looking up at me from her seat. I taste a forkful. It is warm and livery and lovely. But yes, it needs a bit more of each. We sprinkle away. We taste again, and add a bit more pepper. Then we are happy with it. "Get me the box of crackers from the cabinet," she says, softly. "Let's have some." I reach up and get the Ritz and pull out a sleeve for us to share. And then we sit quietly in her kitchen under soft new lights, huddled over the bowl, scooping out warm chopped liver onto salty crackers.
As we grow full, she turns to me.
"Darling, I need a fish head," she says to me, wiping liver from her lips. "Huh?" I reply. "Did you say you need a fish head?"
"Yes, for the blessing."
Oh, right. The blessing. You see we have these blessings we say before dinner on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The first, most of you probably know, is to dip the apple in honey for a sweet life. But we are Sephardic. We are Persian Jews. We have about 10 more blessings that we say, all over food and all related to food. It is the one of the only ways I relate to my religion.
We bless big bowls of kidney beans to pray to have children like the number of beans in the bowl. (Fertility is huge where I come from.) We pray for bitterness to end over bowls of sharp scallions. And the final blessing of the night is that we will behave like the head (the Rosh, in Hebrew) and not the ass (the Zona, the rear end). We say this blessing over the head of some sort of an animal, which we then must eat. Over the years the blessing has always been said over the meat from the head of a cow. We've really been the trailblazers for nose-to-tail chefs who love cow's brains and cheeks and all that. I was eating them back when I was a mere baby. praying to be like the head and not the ass and scarfing down head meat to make sure I made it to the right place in the world. I hated that head meat. But guilt is a powerful tool.
Bibi tells me that cow's head meat is not that popular at the dinner table anymore. I tell her that it has never been popular. She laughs. She tells me that this year she wants to try a fish head instead. She asks me to go to the fish store on Lefferts Boulevard. She tells me she prefers the head of a cod, haddock or carp.
I arrive at the fish store on Lefferts Boulevard, and it is crowded. I take a number. Soon my number is called by a young guy wearing a Mets cap and a bloody apron. "Hi. How are you? I need a fish head. Do you have any?" I try to ask as nonchalantly as possible. There is a line of people behind me. "We only have salmon fish heads," the young guy offers, unfazed. "No carp, cod or haddock?" I ask hopefully. "No, just salmon." I don't know what to do. I wonder if it is OK to say the blessing on a salmon head. I am panicked. I make a bold move. I decide to call Bibi on my cell phone. I just hope that she hears the phone ring. She does, and she answers: "Hallo?" she says. From the fish store line I scream: "HI BIBI, IT'S ME. I AM IN THE FISH STORE. HE ONLY HAS SALMON HEADS. DO YOU WANT A SALMON HEAD?" Bibi answers in a barely audible rasp: "What about carp, cod and haddock? He doesn't have those heads?"
I ask the guy again: "You don't have any carp, cod or haddock?" He shakes his head. I relay the news to Bibi on the cell. The line of people behind me looks like they are ready to deck me. Bibi asks me to ask him what he does with the heads of the other fish. Does he throw them out? If so, can he get one out of the garbage?
I cannot believe this. It's like the lightbulbs all over again. "BIBI! I DON'T THINK I CAN ASK HIM TO TAKE A FISH HEAD OUT OF THE GARBAGE. I DON'T THINK HE CAN SELL IT TO ME FROM THE TRASH. THERE ARE HEALTH CODE LAWS. DO YOU WANT ME TO GET THE SALMON HEAD?
People on line are now starting to talk about me. I am mortified. Bibi continues: "Well, have you seen the head of the salmon yet?"
"NO I HAVE NOT SEEN THE SALMON HEAD YET."
"Well, ask to see one!" she demands, condescendingly. "If it looks good, get two."
If it looks good, get two? I wonder if I have ever seen a salmon fish head to determine whether it looks good or not. I know if a guy in a bar looks good or not, but a salmon head in a fish store? Not really a clue. As I am contemplating how I will determine whether the salmon head is good-looking or not, she pipes in again: "Wait, how much is it?"
"How much is the salmon fish head?" I ask the young man, who is now starting to chuckle at my conversation.
"$1.50 per pound."
"$1.50 PER POUND, BIBI!" I scream.
I'm ready to inspect a salmon head. I can figure this out. But as he disappears into the back to retrieve the head, Bibi is going ballistic. "A DOLLAR FIFTY?! IT SHOULD BE FIFTY CENTS A POUND!!"
As she rants, the young fish clerk comes out with a bodiless head of a salmon—a big pink head with clear eyes and floppy gills. It looks nice to me. He weighs it in at 2 pounds. "BIBI! IT LOOKS GREAT TO ME. I MEAN I HAVE NEVER SEEN A SALMON'S HEAD BEFORE BUT IF I WERE A SALMON HEAD I WOULD WANT TO LOOK LIKE THIS ONE, REALLY, I THINK IT'S QUITE NICE. IT'S 2 POUNDS, SO IT WILL BE 3 DOLLARS."
"THREE DOLLARS????!?!?" She screams. She's horrified. "You can't spend that much money on a fish head. Come home. We'll use the cow's head."
I can't believe this. "LOOK BIBI, THE FISH HEAD IS ON ME IF YOU WANT IT. JUST TELL ME IF IT'S OK."
She's already hung up.
I decide to buy the fish head anyway. I cannot have just wasted this guy's time and not buy it. I mean I feel guilty if I don't buy an eye shadow at Bloomingdale's if someone approaches me. So I pay for the head ($3 on the nose) and walk back to Bibi's apartment with a black bag stuffed with the head of a salmon.
When I get back to the apartment, it is dark again. She is in her armchair smoking and watching Celebrity Poker Showdown. I hate to disturb her, so for a few minutes I just sit there and listen and watch. I think about how much time I have left with her. I think about her life, and how many different lives she has lived in her almost 90 years—from a little girl in Persia, to a teenager in Turkey where she married my grandfather, to a young woman in England where she had my mother, my aunt and uncle, to America where she would eventually lose a husband to Parkinson's disease, a sister to a heart attack, and a daughter to a fire in a New York City apartment building. I am amazed at her strength. I feel humbled by her life and how she has lived it, without an ounce of self pity, with an abundance of grace, love, courage and, of course, food.
The TV cuts to a commercial, and then I scream: "HI BIBI!!! I AM BACK FROM THE STORE!!!!!"
She hears me (so do people in the neighboring boroughs), and she turns off the television. She pulls herself out of her chair and joins me in the kitchen. "Hi, darling. What did you do? You got the head! YOU SPENT ALL THAT MONEY ON THE HEAD!" She seems ready to kill me. But then she opens the satchel.
"Andy, this is a nice head. You should have gotten two."
And I think, Yes. This is a blessing.
Andrea Strong is the executive director of the nonprofit ROAR NY, founded in March 2020 by a group of industry professionals impassioned to fight for unemployed restaurant workers facing financial hardship and to advocate for an industry in crisis. Prior to joining ROAR, she was a journalist covering the intersection of food, business, policy and the law for The New York Times, Food & Wine, New York Magazine, Heated, Eater and more. Her most recent cookbook is Good for You: Bold Flavors with Benefits, written with chef Akhtar Nawab. Andrea lives with her kids in Brooklyn. She spends her free time reading, running, loading and unloading the dishwasher and wondering where she left her phone.