The Gift of Saffron and Spices
The preparation for the meal began two weeks earlier. I started preparing the chicken thigh meat for the kabobs. I mixed my own spices together to get the aroma and flavor I wanted; turmeric, cardamom, coriander, cumin, garlic, onion, and other spices until the combination of the spices smelled just right.
I felt a sense of nostalgia when the aroma of the spices filled my house, and my mind wandered away to my life before the pandemic. Although I was a poor single mother and couldn’t buy expensive gifts for my kids like other families, nor could I afford to take my children out to dinner at nice restaurants. My expression of love for my children was to treat them to good food, which meant I had to master the art of cooking good food at home—and I did. My Friday night dinners usually comprised multiple salads, fresh bread, fish, a meat dish, and enough leftovers for the weekend. The aroma of saffron and various spices, such as cumin, cardamom, clove, cilantro, and mint, lingered in the air. Rose or orange blossom water from the washing bowl lingered on the hands long after the hand-washing ceremony was over.
I covered both sides of the chicken thighs, packed them in my food preservation bags, and put them away in the freezer (I would pull them out for thawing four days prior to cooking). I spent the next two weeks hunting down the remaining grocery items needed for the dinner.
Several months earlier, I had volunteered to be the guest chef to raise money for the American Legion. I spent two weeks preparing the meal for the American Legion. The morning of the big day was chaotic. I looked at my list: chicken kabobs, yogurt dipping sauce, tabouli made with traditional bulgur, Persian soup, and saffron rice were the items on the menu—although simple dishes; they were quite complex and required the seasonings to be just right to avoid overwhelming the palate. I checked to see if I had all my ingredients, loaded my car, and set off for the American Legion.
This was the way I could give back to the organization that had helped me in a time of need over a decade before. Despite my busy schedule, the event couldn’t fall at a better time. The recent talks of war and uprisings always took me back to 9/11 and my mind wandered down the paths of memories that led me to the place I am now – like fractals of pain, joy, sorrow, anguish, and suffering in colorful hues that somehow collectively paint a picture of the person I am today.
The last few weeks have been hard. Talks of war, the rise of social unrest, the deaths of family members and friends—it was hard to turn on my television or phone without being blasted with more bad news, tragedy, or stories of crazy people doing baffling things—chaos and darkness can feel overwhelming. However, I believe amidst the darkness and chaos, there are people who remind us that there remains goodness and hope. I also believe that when there is an outpouring of hate, so too is there an outpouring of love; though it can be harder to see. If we can’t find the light or hope, it is up to us to become the light and hope for others. I believe people give themselves to others differently and their languages of love, kindness, and affection are as unique to a person as they are to the cultural and religious backgrounds they encompass.
My mind wandered to a time after my military service when I became a homeless veteran living in Los Angeles. I had been homeless for several months when I met a Vet Hunter who helped me find housing and a job. We didn’t have any furniture in my apartment after I moved in. My kids and I ate and slept on the floor. Honestly, we were just happy having a roof over our heads. The American Legion stepped in, pulled together furniture, and moved it into my apartment. I remember six men sixty to seventy-five years old carrying heavy furniture up two flights of stairs—wouldn’t even let me help. I thanked them for their kindness and they said to me, “That’s what us veterans do. We take care of each other.” After I received my first paycheck, which was maybe $350.00 dollars, I taped it to my refrigerator as a reminder of where I came from. It remained there for as long as I lived in that apartment. I never wanted to forget the people who helped me and I always wanted to give back. I never forgot the difficulty, and I never forgot the people who helped me. I wanted to return the favor but never had the means (being a single mom working multiple jobs at a time while going to school full time) to do so.
Life was hard after my military service was over, but moving back home was far more complicated. And somehow, amidst one of my periods of darkness, by some happenstance, a few Korean and Vietnam Veterans and a Vet Hunter became light in my darkness and pointed the way forward.
The drive to the American Legion that fall morning was quiet. The colorful trees of gold, red, and brown methodically passed by, as did my thoughts.
I came from a very poor and very large family. My parents were so poor, they could only afford to feed us two meals a day. When my parents had guests over, they didn’t honor their company with elaborate gifts because they couldn’t afford them. My parents honored them with their best meal. Preparation, presentation, and quality meant everything. Despite my mother being a horrible cook, what she brought to the table was her best. I never appreciated this beautiful aspect of my mother until I had children of my own and wanted to give them my best, but had no money to buy them expensive gifts. When there is no money, a person can only give from their heart.
I arrived at the American Legion and began preparing meals for 30-plus people. Together with the American Legion Post 104 commander and his son, we slowly and steadily prepared the meal. Peeling and seeding cucumbers, picking the leaves off parsley, separating the juice from the tomatoes. The hours went by and the meal slowly came together.
Perhaps this was why I clung to cultural customs that not only spoke a love language through actions and deeds that were woven through the fabric of daily living; from the greeting and parting to the preparation and presentation of the meal and the ritual of washing one’s hands.
Most of my friends say hello and goodbye with a hug or a handshake. This wasn’t like this for me until the pandemic. At one time, my loved ones and friends (before the pandemic and before my many moves) greeted and said goodbye to people we care about with a kiss on the cheek or three kisses (kissing alternating cheeks) depending on who you were and the feelings that were shared. One or three? What is the difference? One, you are okay with the person and on talking terms. Three, you are deeply fond of them and they are dear to your heart. Some say one is because you tolerate them, and you must. Others say three is for completion. The real meaning? I am not sure. To me, one kiss says, “I care about you.” But three meant, “It was a sign of endearment. It said to the person, “You are dear to my heart.”
With the salad complete, I began to sauté the onions, garlic, and spices, and the aroma filled the kitchen.
I loved to share meals with friends and loved ones. During my Army days, I remember inviting soldiers over once a month for dinner on Friday night, where I’d spend hours preparing elaborate dishes and we’d commune over dinner. These encounters were nothing less than beautiful, not because we ate good food, or because we had pleasant conversations—although I cannot deny those elements were not part of the equation. It was all of this and more.
Although sharing a meal is a common occurrence in households around the globe, the preparation and presentation of a special meal in my home was more than just common. It had to mean something. I believe that when I prepare special meals for those I love; particularly meals during the holidays or special events—I prepare them with the thought in mind that all elements of the event should linger. It should linger in our thoughts, hearts, spirits, and on our tongues. Therefore, food preparation is not just about how it looks but also about how it tastes – it must stay with the person after they leave. Not only do we say we care about a person when we say goodbye, I hug them; I thank them, or whatever I do when I leave a special event. Each spice should linger—like the hug, the conversation, the memory of a person replays in the mind long after the special event is over. A good meal cooked on a special occasion should linger on the tongue like the spirit of the special occasion.
As the soup cooked, I began preparing the last dish — the Kabobs.
When I cook with spices, they are meant to linger on the tongue like the conversations and laughter in our minds long after the conversation is over. When spices from foods combine with other foods, it is meant to be like the memory of a conversation and the laughter or smile that comes when you think about it. The hardiness of a meal brings fullness to our bodies as our relationships with self and God bring fullness to our souls. And all the elements of the presentation, from preparation to the setting of the table, bring honor and appreciation to those who commune and dine together. When this occurs. Life, the meaning of life, and the purpose of life are complete. Everything that is needed, wanted, and desired is fulfilled.
At 5:30 PM dinner rush began, and the dinners sold out with the last Kabob dinner selling at 7:00 PM. This was good news!
What is so significant about saffron and spice? Saffron is a very expensive and very special spice. It comes from a flower that grows in very particular climates and has to be hand-picked. To buy good quality saffron is very costly for a very small amount. Therefore, as a poor single mom raising children in Los Angeles, buying saffron was a luxury; it was like gold to me. When you live poor but you can afford an expensive spice like saffron and you share it with someone you care about, it is like telling them, “I am giving you a meal equal to diamonds.” At least, this is how it was for me when I cooked meals for my kids, loved ones, and friends. How does the saying go? “Diamonds say I love you?” So does saffron and the spices that linger after a dinner are like the loving conversations that replay in your mind long after the conversation is over.
The aroma of the spices, the taste of the kabob dipped in saffron-laced yogurt sauce, a sip of the soup, and a bite of rice and tabouli made with bulgur, took me back to the special dinners I had with my loved ones. For a moment, I was home – I relived the most meaningful and beautiful years of my life, and the gifts of saffron and spices are forever etched in my memory. Although I was poor and didn’t have money, I gave my loved ones and friends the best of what I had. Time passes, life goes on, and things change and this is the way of life.
Nevertheless, it is from these memories that I worked tirelessly for the Veterans at the American Legion that autumn evening. I made the dinner for the veterans with these traditions in mind – they encapsulate how I honor family members and guests. I want the Veterans and their families to know that each spice was intentional. It was my way of symbolically telling the Veterans who participated (and those who didn’t participate) that their service to their country is not forgotten, and their membership and service with the American Legion serves an important and impactful role in helping other Veterans, their families, and members of the communities. Being a guest chef was not just about giving back to an organization that assisted me and my family, but it allowed me to be a light to others when I felt darkness encroaching.
PS. Little did anyone know that the kabobs, yogurt sauce, tabouli salad, Persian soup, and saffron rice in my culture were gifts of diamonds, greeting them with my cultural hello and goodbye in the form of saffron (in the yogurt sauce, soup, and rice) and spices.