Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Review of "Maman's Homesick Pie" [84]

Maman's Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen by Donia Bijan
Algonquin Books,ISBN 978-1565129573
October 11, 2011, 272 pages

In the past, I have mentioned my dislike of memoirs. I find most of them whiny and self indulgent and usually pass them up. Happily, due to a number of positive reviews, I made an exception with this book and I am very happy that I did, because I must admit, I just loved this book. Loved it.

Ms. Bijan grew up in Iran, her father a successful and prestigious doctor who had built his own hospital and her mother, a nurse who had trained in England and was later involved in a number of political movements in the country, especially related to woman's rights. Theirs was a rather Westernized lifestyle, sending their daughters to international schools, holding elaborate parties and spending their weekends with fellow doctors in the country, reading poetry and plays, full of music and an endless buffet of food...delicious, exotic Persian food, rich meats and grains full of spices and fruits and nuts.

But when the Iranian Revolution happened, that life came to an end for her family. Her family was on vacation on a Spanish island at the time, but soon learned from friends at home that their property, the hospital that was their life's work and family home, had been taken, most of their money confiscated. And worse, because of her political involvement, if her mother ever returned to Iran, she would most likely be arrested and shot. So ultimately, they all ended up in California, where they had some family living. But it was a very different life. Bijan's mother was able to get her license and get work as a registered nurse, but her father, because of language issues, was never able to pass the medical boards and practice as a doctor. No longer was he a man of prestige, no longer was he the bread winner, no longer could he do the work he loved, being a doctor.

Then, as if that is not bad enough, he finds out that his youngest, Donia, was not going to become a doctor as he had always hoped, but a chef. And while he loved food, in his mind being a cook was no better than being a servant, something that estranged father and daughter for years.
Now, in lesser hands, all this could be very negative and yes, whiny, but in Bijan's, while it is important to her, it is not dwelled on. No, she is so caught up in her passion, her calling if you will, to be a chef, that the reader can't help but also be caught up in her enthusiasm. When she is working endless hours in a small, hot restaurant kitchen and yet has never been happier, we understand why. When she agrees to work for free in some of the best restaurants in Europe for the experience, she makes it seem so reasonable, a great adventure. When she talks about opening her own restaurant, we share the joy of her dream.

And along the way she shares with us, at the end of each chapter, some thirty recipes, from the simple cardamom tea that would great every visitor to a home in her youth to the Duck a la Orange of her Cordon Bleu training and finally ending the book with her Mother's Apple Pie and the Cherry Slushy she now makes for her own son. Every one of them sounds delicious and I have already had to buy some cardamom pods and check my spices to see what I will make.

And speaking of Bijan's mother..what a woman. Honesty, her husband, Bijan's father was not the easiest man in the world to live with, especially after the move to the US, but she seemed to just deal with it all and carry on, working hard, swimming her laps in the pool and taking her long walks. Not only did she pass on her love of food and cooking to her daughter but I am not sure a child could have had a more supportive parent. Here was a woman who, at an age when most people would be retired, volunteered to go to Bosnia during the war there to train nurses, as significant danger to her own life. Happily, before her tragic death, hit by a car on one of her morning walks, she lived long enough to see her daughter do the one thing her mother thought might never happen, get married and provide her with another grandchild. Hey it is hard to meet someone if you are in a kitchen 16 hours a day!

So, why is this memoir different from the ones I so often dislike?
Well, because it tell a very interesting story, exposes the reader to a different view of a country, Iran, about which many of us only have a negative image, a country that as seem through the author's eyes as a young girl, was almost magical. Then, it moves on to tell the story of a family that lost almost everything and had to take refuge in a new country, starting over and did it quite successfully.  While they suffered some real difficulties, overall it is a story of a close and loving family, supportive of their children, even a daughter who took up a career they had serious issues with. And lastly, it is the author's own story of become the chef she wanted to be, finally being able to tie together her Persian origins, her American upbringing and her classical French training, being true to each. I don't know that I can remember ever reading a writer who could better describe food, it's aromas, it's textures, the process of creating it..simply lovely.

This is an excellent book that I can not recommend highly enough.
In fact, unusual for me, I can not find one flaw with it.
It is a delightful book, very well written, and I read it straight through in one day. You will meet some fascinating people and visit, from a different perspective, some fascinating places. If you are a foodie you will love it and if you are not, this book may make you one. And there are those great recipes...I challenge you not to want grab the pots and start making at least one.

My thanks to Algonquin Books for providing me with a copy of this book. Now the idea was that I was going to take part in the Book Club hosted by Devourer of Books and Linus's Blanket that started on 12/10. Of course, I was on vacation last week and missed the whole thing...bad, bad blogger.
But better late than never!!!


  1. I normally shun memoirs like the plague but this one does sound very interesting. If you endorsed it so heartily with nary a quibble, it goes on my list.

    Wonderful review, Caite!

  2. Great review and I know just the person to get this for .. thanks!

  3. I think it means more coming from you, since it takes an extraordinary memoir to get your attention. I generally love them, but there are always a few stinkers that are nothing other than a person that likes to hear themselves talk about themself. I'll keep my eye out for this one.

  4. Wow … that is unqualified YES!! I'm happy you found a memoir you loved. It all depends on the writer I think!

  5. I adore memoirs so I'm really looking forward to this one after your review!

  6. Whoa....if this is a memoir that you liked, I'm running right out to get it. I love memoirs, and am planning to read at least a dozen during 2012.

  7. Gosh...now I have to hope you all liked it as much as I did...lol


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