March 20, 2009
Iranians Know How to Throw a Party
A friend of mine came into town recently for an engagement party - his niece who is half Pakistani and half Iranian is marrying his nephew who is Indian. What an amazing blend of traditions for a party. It starts with drinks upon arrival but before you know it, someone's aunt is pulling you onto the dance floor.
You notice this incredible fruit platter on the table in the distance - no, its not quite a fruit platter, its a fruit mountain as you look more closely and realize its about 3.5 feet tall. You're not on the dance floor for long when you see plates of appetizer food and salads fill the kitchen table, including giant shrimp that is begging to be eaten. You then remember that you barely just arrived when you're given an unusually flavored punch.
There are heat lamps outside and those fabulous looking water pipes on the tables. They've had similar ones at nearly every Egyptian, Iranian, Turkish and Kenyan coffee bar I've gone to over the years. Since the 16th century, men in Persian culture have assembled in coffee houses, play chess and backgammon and discuss politics and business. It is there that they smoke these fabulous pipes (Kalian).
The age range is as expected - two weeks to 97. I move off the dance floor knowing I'll be spending a lot of time there later on. I marvel at the what I now see as three massive fruit mountains in the kitchen and while some party hosts may put a vase or two of flowers on a table, there seems to be fresh flowers on every side table, fireplace mantel and counter. And in all the bathrooms. Roses and wild flowers weave in and out of every visual image as I make my way from room to room.
There is a piano in the living room where at some point during the night, a thirty something year old nephew, uncle or cousin starts playing a few traditional songs while far too many aunts, great aunts and grandmothers for me to keep up with, start tapping their feet. When I smile at this, they give me that look that says, "we'll be dancing with you later after the first round."
Little did I know that it was the first round of food since the kitchen table and fruit platters were sufficient to feed the 80 or so family members and friends who had arrived by then. Round one complete. Round two of dancing begins.
Like every family affair regardless of culture, women's bags and shoes are scattered under chairs which were specifically brought out for the party - they lined the fireplace on one side with a couch and two soft chairs facing them. There was another string of them in the TV room and 8-10 large round tables outside atop a massive Persian rug Dad must have put out on top of the grass as a godsend for all the women who wore heals. And they all did, mostly pumps in vibrant colors.
These women were not afraid of color or glitter although the latter was tastefully and simply added, just enough to call attention to their outfits and remind us all that this was an engagement celebration. No American jeans and sneakers at this event and the little ones were in flowered dresses and shiny shoes, just like my grandmother used to subject me to in the seventies.
I learn quickly that a third have been here for about a generation, another third arrived within the last ten or so years and another third arrived in the last three or four. The accent divide reflected the arrival in America split, the strongest ones of course being the newcomers. Regardless of whether they worked in a plant or just graduated from Harvard, they all seemed to look after each other regardless what path they took.
Even though it isn't the big event (its the engagement party not the wedding remember), family flew in from Canada, New York, southern California and the midwest. It's not unlike the early days of my childhood when there still seemed to be a connection to a heritage far away through a great grandmother or father. Are we all losing this connection too soon?
I was surprised at how committed they were to keeping family events alive, ensuring tradition moved from the oldest relatives there to the two year olds flying around me with my pant leg as their only stable rope to keep them from falling down.The mother of the bride to be took four days off work to cook. All of it I'm thinking? I grew up with incredible cooks in our extended family but couldn't imagine any of them taking this much time off work in 2009. They'd likely cook a few dishes, ask family members to bring some and cater the rest.
And so, the second course arrived which was no less than 30 platters and casseroles of yummy looking meat, chicken, veggie and potato dishes all surrounded in various shades of gravies and sauces. Saffron rice with raisins sat in the middle next to yet another large vase of flowers. Each dish looked and smelled so good that you had to try them all. Each dish tasted so good you found yourself back for more. Did I mention that at least six tables if not more had large bowls of Iranian pistachios, cashews, almonds and Brazil nuts just in case there was nothing you could find on any of the three other tables or kitchen counter?
And now you want me to dance I thought? I could barely move as I shuffled my way back to the kitchen for some diet coke. Another little one came flying around the corner and stopped in front of my bright orange and brown gouchoes which were heavy with sequins, beads and more. I thought to myself - if she grabs the material in the wrong place, they're all coming off and I'm going down.
She just gave me a big smile and her hand and you guessed it, wanted to pull me onto the dance floor. Had she not come along, Aunt X, Aunt Y, Aunt Z or Cousin J would have gotten to me a moment later. When I'm at a predominantly white/european party, I'm often the one on the sidelines trying to drag people on the dance floor. Please, I beg. C'mon, I say. I wave my arms like a lunatic.
People smile but rarely do they come until the alcohol starts pouring and even then, its hard work. Not at this party. Every woman in the place except for the very elderly who sat on the couch and neighboring chairs, dragged people onto the floor. And guess what? They came. The men came. The elderly women with very little coaching eventually came.
Nearly all of the music was Iranian. God knows whether it was modern or from forty years ago since nearly everyone knew the words except for the five or so European guests who had long figured out we were lucky to be invited. And so we danced. And so they sang. And so the children ran. And so the piano played. And so the massive cake, twice the size of the fruit mountains arrived.
There were fresh flowers on each layer and several women including myself walked up to the table to insert more into the nooks and crannies so that the lavender glazed frosting would ooze with the fuschia flowers and the fuschia flowers would ooze with the lavender. And then a pause. I stood back and admired. You can't cut that I thought.
Don't you just want to stare at this thing for a few days? We'll all understand, I mean, its not as if I'm hungry. Surely no one else can be? We'll understand - don't cut this masterpiece just yet. But cut they did, and then the ice cream came, followed by custard and chocolate. More nuts and tea....lots of it. No coffee interestingly enough. One urn had tea, the other hot water to reduce the caffeine for the older folks.
Man, do Iranians know how to throw a party. And they live here. Imagine the parties at home without the Wal-Mart and Costco influence. If you get an invite from an Iranian friend or colleague, you must go. And after you do, write to me and tell me how it went.
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