Donia Bijan is an award-wining chef whose résumé includes the kitchens of Fauchon and Georges Blanc in France, the Mark Hopkins and Campton Place in San Francisco, and her own restaurant, the now-closed L’amie Donia, in Palo Alto, Calif. With “Maman’s Homesick Pie,” a combination of memoir and recipes, Bijan proves she’s also a gifted a writer.
A mother’s journey
The book is inspired by a cache of recipes Bijan came across after the death of her mother. Atefeh Bijan, the Maman of the book’s title, had been an accomplished woman, a nurse and an elected member of Parliament in Iran before the overthrow of the Shah in the mid-’70s. After the revolution forced the family into exile, Atefeh, or Amy as she came to be known, did her best to embrace America, in part by tackling its culinary customs.
In her mother’s kitchen drawer, Bijan found recipes for casseroles, lemon bars, eggnog pound cake. “Thumbing through her eclectic compilation,” she writes, “I knew I had stumbled upon something far more revealing than an avid cook’s recipe file or even a box of old letters. In my lap, I held her story.”
Her mother’s story was in large part Bijan’s story too, one of an Iranian family forced to leave everything they knew to start over again thousands of miles and a cultural chasm away. Bijan was 16 when the revolution hit, vacationing with her parents and sisters in Mallorca and dabbling in being a grown-up. One night, for example, she “drank vodka and orange juice then slow-danced to Julio Yglesias with a Spanish boy who smelled of Chaps.” Word came via an uncle that the Shah had been deposed and it was unsafe to return. Bijan’s father, a doctor, had to turn his back on the Tehran hospital he’d built, where he and his wife both practiced. The family’s assets were frozen.
A world away from Iran
Theirs is, unfortunately, not an uncommon story, but Bijan’s quiet telling is riveting, poetic in its distillation of a family’s immediate and generational history. Her memories of Iran’s gracious culture revolve around the preparation and enjoyment of food, and she re-creates moments with the same intensity, clarity and restraint that a fine chef employs in a dish. “My parents nourished us with lavash bread from the oven wrapped around sheep’s-milk cheese with fresh walnuts and just-picked tarragon,” she writes. Bijan and her two sisters spent idyllic times in the garden of their home: “In the summer my mother would serve afternoon tea there with cream puffs or custard-filled doughnuts. She would get up to shake the mulberry tree and we would dance underneath, holding the corners of our skirts, catching the creamy white berries, sweeter than sugar cubes.” Her parents threw elaborate parties with lambs roasting over fire pits, and lantern-lit tents lined with Persian carpets. In America, Bijan discovers her first brownie (“I wanted desperately to decipher it”), as her mother wrestles with stuffing and other expectations of a Thanksgiving table.
Despite the family’s devotion to food, her father was furious when Bijan decided to give up pre-med and become a chef: ” … he refused to speak to me for months. The idea of his daughter’s becoming a cook was preposterous. Cooks are domestics, he would spit out.” Dr. Bijan had a few trademark preparations of his own, including a chicken dish that he ritually burned when feuding with his wife. It earns a recipe in the book — although the bird’s skin is caramelized rather than charred in his daughter’s version.
Bijan’s mother, who became recertified as a nurse in the U.S., supported her daughter emotionally and financially in her pursuit of being a chef. She flew with her to Paris when Bijan enrolled in the Cordon Bleu, installed her in an apartment and took her to her first French market.
Bijan brings readers into her kitchens as she progresses from student to line cook to, finally, the chef-owner of her restaurant. It becomes apparent she has inherited her mother’s spirit and drive, along with her love of food. Through the triumphs and fiascos, the romances and the breakups, regardless of the geographical distance, Bijan is never far from her family.
She concludes each chapter with a handful of recipes, 30 in all — Saffron Yogurt Rice With Chicken and Eggplant, My Mother’s Pot Roast, Braised Chicken With Persian Plums, Salmon Gravlax With Meyer Lemon and Tarragon, Roast Duck Legs and Warm Lentil Salad, Rose Petal Ice Cream and Purple Plum Skillet Tart among them. Culled from her times in Tehran, Paris and Northern California, they tell the story of Bijan’s life, just as her mother’s recipe collection told the story of hers.
Zester Daily contributor Margot Dougherty, the food editor for Los Angeles magazine for many years, is a freelance writer and Zester contributing editor living in Venice, Calif. Her work has appeared in Saveur, More, Town & Country and Conde Nast Traveler among other magazines.
Photo: “Maman’s Homesick Pie” book cover. Credit: Margot Dougherty