Mountain View Voice

News - October 21, 2011

Finding a place at life's table

Former restaurateur Donia Bijan's new memoir traces family's exile and quest for belonging

by Renee Batti

At the time former restaurateur Donia Bijan began writing down memories of her parents' lives, she was wracked by grief over the unexpected and gruesome death of her mother, Atefeh "Amy" Bijan.

Bijan, the owner and chef of the highly regarded L'Amie Donia restaurant in Palo Alto, now closed, felt compelled to leave a record for her son and her sisters' children about their grandparents, who immigrated to the United States after being exiled from their homeland in 1978, at the beginning of the Iranian Revolution.

The project of remembering through writing germinated as Bijan sorted through her mother's possessions, eight days after Amy Bijan, still vital and fit at 75, was struck and killed by a car while walking in a crosswalk on Menlo Park's Santa Cruz Avenue in January 2004.

Entering her mother's home a few days after the funeral, Bijan worked somberly amid the scent of tea and roses, "sorting and packing the boxes I had lined up by her cabinets like little coffins, filling them with cups and saucers wrapped in newspaper, and spoons, spatulas, and whisks," she would write later.

During the course of packing up, Bijan came across a collection of papers tucked into a kitchen drawer — newspaper clippings from food sections and loose pages from notepads with recipes written, in English and in Farsi, in her mother's hand. They were recipes for American dishes, dating back to the year her parents arrived in this country, leaving behind all their possessions, including the hospital they built and operated, to be looted in the frenzy of revolution.

It was then that Bijan began musing about the connection between food and belonging — the link between the ritual of the table and the ability to find one's place in the world.

"I knew when I found those recipes that something was there, and that I was going to find that something — I was going to find the key to open the door," she says during a recent interview in the sunny backyard of the Menlo Park home she shares with her husband, artist Mitchell Johnson, and their 10-year-old son, Luca.

Her mother, she says, "had Persian cuisine down," but when she lost her homeland, she had an instinctual understanding that embracing the cuisine of her adopted country would allow her to find a place in the new, sometimes baffling world in which she found herself transplanted.

"She found that you can lose everything, lose your home even, and find a sense of place in the kitchen," Bijan says. "It doesn't matter where that kitchen is. ... It's the power of food: You can hit rock bottom and a taste can cure you — give you something sensory to hold on to. It's what will bring you comfort at the end of the day."

As grief clouded her days and memories of her mother overwhelmed her, Bijan wrote. "There was nothing else I could do," she says. "I was incapacitated."

She also closed her restaurant that year after 10 years, finding that continuing "was just too much" — particularly with a 2-year-old son whom her mother had helped care for during Bijan's long days in the popular bistro's kitchen.

The writing project consumed several years, but she had no intention of publishing the work. It was the relentless encouragement of her husband, she says, that led her finally to seek a publisher.

The result is "Maman's Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen," which is being released next week. Bijan will be reading from it at Books Inc. in Mountain View at 7 p.m. on Oct. 25.

The book is billed by publisher Algonquin as a memoir, and each chapter concludes with recipes, some reflecting Amy Bijan's culinary passions and skills, others developed by Donia Bijan as she melded flavors of Persian, French and other cuisines.

Its narrative moves back, forth and beyond geographically: from Tehran, where Bijan was born and lived until she was 15. The family left for a vacation in Spain but was unable to return home after the country exploded in turmoil; and moved to the United States, where the entire family eventually settled and Bijan earned a degree in French from the University of California, Berkeley. From there she went to France, where Bijan was trained at the Paris-based Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School and years later interned for months in two eminent restaurants in French villages.

Bijan explains early on in the book that she had written "in an attempt to find answers to the questions I never asked my parents, such as 'How did it feel to start your life from nothing?'" But as she calls upon her memories to delve into that question, another critical element of the book emerges: The writer is compelled to examine her own experiences and complex feelings as an exile — remaining devoted to her parents, honoring the culture they thrived in for six or more decades, yet knowing she must find her own place at life's table.

That quest proved a challenge for the naturally shy Donia, the youngest of the late Dr. Bijan Bijan and Amy Bijan's three daughters. But the writer describes the journey with penetrating insight, reflecting on her experiences with a sometimes jarring honesty.

"I didn't want the book to be sentimental," Bijan says. "A lot of memoirs can be like country music: 'I lost my love, I lost my pickup truck, I lost my dog ...' It's tricky — it's easy to fall into the sentimental trap."

Regarding the book's title, Bijan explains in an email: "Homesick pie is the sum of the longing and hunger I feel when I make my way to the kitchen, almost like sleep walking! And if someone were to look through our kitchen window, they would see a pair of busy hands peeling, chopping, mixing flour, butter, eggs for our dinner, but also finding other nourishment in bringing us to the table to share that meal. ... There is more than just eating when we break bread."

Food as an essential that satisfies and nurtures far more than our physical beings is a theme returned to again and again in "Homesick Pie." Referring to the kitchen in the Bijan home soon after her parents immigrated to their new country, Bijan writes: "Slowly we had been stocking our pantry with turmeric, cumin, saffron, cinnamon, allspice, dried fruit, lentils, fava beans, and basmati rice.

"In Iran, I had climbed onto the kitchen counter to look at my mother's cooking spices, opening them one by one, taking in their prickly scent. Now, it reassured me to see them lined up again like stepping stones across a vast ocean."

Info: Donjia Bijan will read from "Maman's Homesick Pie" at Books Inc. in Mountain View on Oct. 25, as well as in bookstores across the state and around the country. Go to http://doniabijan.com for more about the book and events.

Renee Batti is the news editor at the Almanac, one of the Voice's sister papers.

Comments

There are no comments yet for this post

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Email:


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Choose a category: *

Since this is the first comment on this story a new topic will also be started in Town Square! Please choose a category that best describes this story.

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields