Every culture has its weird foods. I remember watching the Beijing Olympics, and it seemed that about 15 minutes out of every hour was devoted to the outrageous foods that populated Chinese cuisine — fried scorpions on a stick, duck feet, grasshoppers.Â You could practically see Matt Lauer and Al Roker peeing in their pants with excitement as they held these exotic edibles up for all the world to see. It was the wet dream of a news correspondent who relies on shock value to sell a story.
This showmanship wasn’t exactly surprising. American cuisine is not exactly devoid of the strange — Rocky Mountain oysters anyone? — but when you think of American food, you think of safe and often bland foods. White bread sandwiches with the crust removed, tuna casseroles, meatloaf slathered in ketchup, iceberg lettuce salads. And this is the food I longed for as a child.
I remember watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding and having a revelation when there was the scene where Toula is shown being ridiculed for the “weird” Greek food she took to lunch at school. That right there summarized my school lunch experience all the way until high school when I had the option of ditching the lunch period. Sometimes I just wondered why my mom had to send me to school with ghormeh sabzi or ash-e shalgham. I mean, couldn’t she just make me a grilled cheese sandwich or pb&j like the other moms? Even my fruit seemed weird to the other kids. Now I love to chomp on a good cucumber as much as any self-respecting Iranian, but could we save the cucumber-eating for home? Why couldn’t my mom just give me an apple?
I think the huge disparity between my parents’ and my relationship with food can best be illustrated by what I have fondly come to remember as the Kaleh Pacheh Incident of 1990.
I was a junior in high school. My father had a surprise. A real treat. Oh boy was I in for a treat. He couldn’t wait for Sunday morning. On Sunday morning, he invited family to our house for Kaleh Pacheh and Haleem. It would take him all night to cook these dishes. Literally. He had to stay up all night and regularly stir the pot. But he was up for the task and really excited about it. I mean bubbling over excited. My dad is never excited about anything.
So my curiosity was obviously piqued. “What is kaleh pacheh? What is haleem?” I asked repeatedly. The response was always the same “You just wait and see. It is a real treat.”
So I waited. And waited. My father’s excitement was so infectious that I didn’t sleep either. I waited in my bedroom all night while my dad cooked these mysterious dishes in the kitchen, which we were banned from until the morning. I tried to deduce from the smells what exactly was being made.
And then morning rolled around, and it felt like Christmas. My father had spread a giant sofreh in the middle of our family room. My uncle and aunt came over and some other family, although I can’t remember who. Want to know why I can’t remember who?
Because when my father ceremoniously placed a giant, steaming pot in the middle of the sofreh, two eyes were staring me down. And, was that a hoof sticking out of the middle of the pot? I think I nearly fainted, but it was the logic of it all that prevented that from happening. See, “kaleh” means “head”, and “pa” means “feet.” I knew this going in to the whole experience, but I kind of thought the name was a euphemism.
I mean, Iranians, especially those from Shiraz like my father, really love poetry. I assumed that kaleh pacheh referred to a warm glow this dish would impart from your head to your toes. Or maybe it referred to an artistic interpretation of the shape of a pastry. Or something. Something other than actual sheep heads and feet.
“Thank God,” I thought when my dad brought another steaming pot to the sofreh. There was no way I was going to eat something that could stare at me. So I loaded my bowl with the oatmeal that my father kept referring to as “haleem.” I added a ton of butter and sugar and cinnamon, and I took my first bite.
Wait. What’s this chunk in the oatmeal? What’s that weird taste?
Ladies and gentleman, want to know what haleem is? It’s basically oatmeal laced with chunks of meat. And it tastes as gross as it sounds. And that’s the Kaleh Pacheh Incident of 1990, otherwise known as the day I went hungry.
It’s also the day that I realized that my family was part of the “rest of the world.” The part of the world that ate weird stuff. The part of the world that was entertainment for Americans in the same way that the naked ladies in National Geographic are — we are the people you stare at in amazement and shock. We eat heads and feet, apparently. Heads. And feet. And we think they are delicacies.
Now you know not only why I became a vegetarian but also why I never invited any friends over for dinner.