One of the joys of Facebook is hearing from old friends, especially for someone like me, who's hopscotched her life across the sidewalks of three countries: Iran, England and America.
One of the pains of Facebook is once you're connected -- in my most recent case with an Oxbridge-era acquaintance turned author in Australia -- there's no graceful way out.
So when my friend's publicist sent me a heavy package this past Christmas containing a coffee-table book to review and/or to promote through my American media channels, I periodically surveyed the sealed box with equal amounts of guilt and grievance, until I finally took the plunge in 2012 and ripped it open.
Inside the box was a Polish cookbook, Rose Petal Jam, by Simon Target (my half-English, half-Australian pal) and his wife Beata Zatorska, whom I have never met, a Polish family doctor who had immigrated to Sydney twenty years ago.
Now I'm not an overly nostalgic person -- call it survival after all my moves -- but in the kitchen, a certain amount of nostalgia is required, even essential. I mean why would you bother to cook, if not seeking to recreate a comforting dish from your childhood, or to emulate an exotic dish that blew your taste-buds on a romantic getaway?
If we don't yearn for food, however short-term the memory, we would cook whatever... and sometimes do. But then, those meals become our blandest.
Think about it: craving best describes why we choose what we eat.
So it makes perfect sense to me that a longing for one's roots put the displaced Beata, and Simon, a willing mutt by virtue of his own Anglo-Australian background, on the arduous trek back to Poland, with an inevitable trajectory toward food.
In addition to being a serious cookbook with more than 50 Polish recipes (from pierogi to poppy-seed cake) taken from Beata's grandmother's handwritten notes, as miraculously preserved as preserves, Rose Petal Jam is also part memoir and part travelogue, the story of Beata's idyllic childhood in the rural Karkonosze Mountains and her later day adventurous travels with Simon in Poland today.
But there's more.
Rose Petal Jam's cover took my breath away with an exquisite photograph of rose petals, sugar crystals and a wooden pestle. (Simon's mother is the Australian landscape painter Pat Prentice. The photography in this book is numbingly beautiful; No doubt in my mind that Simon has his mother's eye.)
Turns out rose petal jam meant something deeply personal to me as well. My Iranian grandmother Ekie Joon, like Beata's Polish Mama Druga, also raised me for a chunk of my childhood, and she also loved to cook. She spent hours in a housedress in her Tehran kitchen, hand-rolling tiny cinnamon-infused meatballs for her soups; making sweetly pungent garlic pickles set aside to mature for years at a time; and preparing a variation on rose petal jam with sugar loaves, rose water, a squeeze of Persian lime plucked from our orchard, and dried wild rose petals.
Food and memory are so intertwined. That's why Rose Petal Jam is such a clever book, because it takes you down both paths at one time, yet adds the ingredient of travelogue to ground it in the present.Of Beata, the narrator writes,
"When she finally returned to Poland, the first thing she did was leap into a wild rose bush to smell the petals--the scent of her Polish childhood."
The Iran I knew is long gone. I cannot go back, not yet, so I'll keep my memories and cook for now. But for anyone with a Polish background or with a trip planned to this intriguing country, this book is a must buy. It puts you right there.
And I naturally love the fact that it takes a multicultural couple to search desperately for, hanker after and finally create a sense of home...