Some of my favorite cookbooks are the ones that share a personal story, and some of my favorite books are ones that share stories about food. In Maman's Homesick Pie, author and chef Donia Bijan weaves the two together perfectly, as she shares the story of her childhood in Iran, her family's exile in America and her journey from culinary school and through the kitchens of France and California, and finally opening a restaurant of her own.
In the introduction, Bijan says, "I am a cook, not a reporter, I have told the story as I remember it, through the prism of food." But Bijan is a vivid storyteller. She writes about peeling and eating persimmons for a simple dessert as her family did in Iran, and making a pancake of shredded potato with a piece of cheese inside, which she subsisted on with her meager budget while studying at the Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Even when describing some of the most simple dishes, Bijan is able to evoke a sense of time and place, and how food has always played an integral role in her life.
The story begins during Bijan's childhood in Iran. It was an Iran different from conservative nation we know today. Her father was a well-respected obstetrician and her month a British-trained nurse. She attended an international school and was exposed to various cultures, foods and languages from a young age. Her mother prepared food for the family and the hospital, the top floor of which served as the family's residence.
With each chapter of the book--and Bijan's life--recipes recall momentous occasions, be they sad or joyous. There is the simple braised chicken and plums, Bijan's father cooked for himself when he and his wife were fighting, and a sour cherry compote with cardamom upside down cake that recalls the sour cherry tree Bijan climbed as a child in Iran. And towards the end of the book, when Bijan's parents--her father already trembling with Parkinson's disease--dined for the first time at the acclaimed kitchen she headed at the Sherman House in San Francisco, there is roast duck legs with dates and warm lentil salad. A recipe that draws from Bijan's background and time spent in the kitchens of Persia, France and America.
Maman's Homesick Pie is as much a memoir about the life of a woman working her way through the great kitchens of France and San Francisco as it is a story of an expatriate trying to find her true home, through the language of food and cooking. Through it all she reconciles her own feelings of inadequacy, as the former premed student and daughter of a physician. While her father never completely supported her career path, her mother quietly funded her culinary education by working overnight and night shifts at U.S. hospitals. It was at her mother's side afterall where, as a young girl, she learned how cooking transformed ingredients, but also how that food in turn transformed the people it fed.
Meet author Donia Bijan when she visits Seattle this week. She'll be at Book Larder in Fremont, December 7 from 6:30-8 p.m. to share stories and read from Maman's Homesick Pie, and sample a few flavors from its 30 recipes.