In 2008 I developed rheumatoid arthritis and because of the ensuing disability found it difficult to live alone. Since then, to decrease my responsibilities, I have rented rooms from a series of people. My current sojourn with the Iranian family is the best of all my experiences.
They are warm, friendly, funny, intelligent and kind. I have found the cultural differences between my Italian-American/Catholic heritage and their Persian/Moslem background interesting and educational.
One characteristic that I noticed from the very first day is the importance that the dinner table and sharing meals have in their daily life. I had read in various books that Middle Eastern people placed a high importance on hospitality and I have found this to be true.
Although I was only renting a room (with kitchen and laundry privileges) I was treated as a guest and have often been invited to share dinner with them. At the table I am always served first and encouraged to take another helping. There is no TV or music playing in the background; instead it is conversation that takes center stage. It is not unusual for a meal to last two or three hours in which stories were told and reminiscences shared.
Another aspect of dinner is the exotic dishes I have tasted. Wonderful chicken stews with plums, tasty lamb kabobs, rice and saffron, toasty flat bread and fresh leafy herbs like cilantro and mint. Today my epicurean adventures unexpectedly took me into hither unexplored realms when the Mother knocked on my bedroom door to ask if I wanted to join them for Sunday lunch. Sure, I replied. What are we having? Tongue, she answered.
I instantly realized I had been too impetuous in my easy agreement to share their repast and also knew that to back out now would be rude. So I held my tongue – pun intended – and sallied forth – which is like sauntering but with more fear.
As I approached the long dining room table (easily seats 12 – another indication of the importance of eating) I remembered the beef tongues I had seen in the local supermarket – mysterious slabs as long and full as a loaf of French bread. I pictured one of those tongues in its pre-delicatessen state, lolling out the side of a mouth stuffed with grass and vibrating with contented moo’s. A slight shudder passed through my stomach and shot down my walking cane – a slight stumble as I pulled out my chair.
At this table, however, I saw a large round bowl in which small, dark brown lumps bobbed in a fragrant broth. I was handed a small bowl and told to help myself. I took the smallest lump I could find and lots of the broth. I was instructed to cut some of the tongue and place it on a piece of warm flat bread. I then had a choice of extra flavorings – cinnamon, garlic powder, salt, pepper, vinegar or a twist of lime.
I took a tentative bite and swallowed as quickly as possible to bypass my taste buds. It had a salty, sort of beefy flavor. But it was not the taste – which was enhanced by the cinnamon and lime – but the texture of the meat that took some getting used to – soft and crumbly in a way, or was it stringy? No need to chew.
As lunch wound on other tasty delicacies were planned for future repasts. Sheep brains (after cooking they looked like cottage cheese, said Mother) and sheep cheeks and lips (a rare and memorable taste treat, said Daughter) and sheep tails (almost pure fat until it was boiled off to leave little ‘bacon-bits’ of flavor, added Father).
I was hard pressed to match those offerings with any of my own. The Italian kitchen of my childhood had only brought forth such mundane fare as tripe (cow stomach), snails (boiled, then sauced) and chicken feet (skip the toenails).
As I remembered these long ago meals, my stomach rumbled, once, twice. An unbidden a burp floated up from those nether regions. From behind the napkin that I pressed to my lips issued noises that sounded like … Baaa! Baaa… Good grief! Had I started to speak in tongues?