Happy (belated) Ayyam-i-Ha!

Ayyam-i-Ha is the period of 4-5 intercalary (between calendars) days in the Bahá’í calendar.  It is a time for generosity, hospitality, and fellowship.  Here, there is an opportunity to host “Special Dinners” in celebration.  You sign up for a type of cuisine and a date, then get assigned a guest list.  Sergey and I decided to host one of these dinners (Tex-Mex themed, because I have no idea what Wisconsin-Moldovan cuisine would entail) for two reasons.  One was to extend hospitality to our colleagues and friends.  The other was to study our behaviour under pressure.

It proved to be a great test for that latter point.  From a beginning guest list of ten, we eventually inflated to 25.  Now, I’ve done most of the cooking for 15 before (Thanksgiving dinner), and had 25 people over (for the weekly study meeting), but this was my first time cooking solo for so big a crowd.  Calculating how much food I would need to feed 25 people bulking up for the Fast, I began to mildly panic.  Would polvorones and tres leches cake (which was almost autocorrected to the less appetizing “tres leeches cake”) sate the many sweet teeth?  How many gallons of horchata to brew?  Four kilos of chicken?  Ten avocados for guacamole, twenty tomatoes for salsa?  And how much caffeine for me?

And then there was the cleaning and organisation to be done.  Sergey recently moved into a flat that was previously occupied by an artistic nature lover.  Therefore, scattered around the flat were odd arrangements involving bamboo poles, rocks, houseplants, and an iron tub.  My favourite was in the dining room, where in a corner several bamboo poles and rough white rocks sat on a dais of tree trunk, with a lamp and a houseplant nestled in the middle.

Eventually we got the place looking less like an eccentric’s greenhouse, and I merrily went about watering the many plants.  One giant plant seemed especially thirsty, so I kept watering it.  Several minutes later, I noticed a yellow puddle spreading under the refrigerator from the plant saucer and realised that I might have been overenthusiastic in my plant care.  While mopping it up, I thought of an incident years ago during my toddling days when I had also overestimated my green thumb.  In our living room, we had some big potted jasmine plants.  In my childish ignorance, I guess I thought soil contained seeds, and all one had to do was sprinkle dirt around and, poof, plants would grow.  So, after enlisting poor Jasmine in my plan, we scooped handfuls of soil out of the pots and sowed a mess on the carpet and couches.  Our harvest was two peeved parents.

Anyway, despite our nerves–mine manifested in excessive baking sprees–and obstacles like a contrary oven, the night was a success.  (There were a few jalapeño issues, but no trips to the ER.)  After eating, we had an anonymous gift exchange, and then a musical portion with sing-alongs and call-and-response.  Although by this point I was collapsed on the floor, I really enjoyed hearing the voices of our guests joined in song.  People were happy.  There’s a quote of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá about how a gathering can transform a home into a house of heaven, and indeed, it was one heavenly flat.

Mysterious calcareous encrustations

Haifa in the morning

Haifa in the morning

It’s been a busy week.  Sergey and I went up to Nahariyya, a seaside town on the border with Lebanon.  After a ride on a public sherut, we stood on the pier, watching schools of skinny fish and a line of fishermen lackadaisically dipping their lines into the Mediterranean.  In what is typical of our relationship, I got suddenly hungry before we reached a restaurant, and demanded that we stop for ice cream.  I decided to wait for the frozen yogurt line, while he went for ice cream.  He got his before I was helped, and I proceeded to “safeguard” the ice cream while he put his wallet away.  Then I ate most of it, all the while apologizing for my greed.

“It’s okay,” he said as I contritely attacked the chocolate ice cream.  “Really, I’m letting you eat it out of self-defence, because I know how you get when you’re hungry.”

Once I had consumed my pre-lunch dessert, we sat down in the restaurant, Penguin.  Then suddenly I felt a strange sensation, a slackening around my neck.  One of the strings of my beaded necklace had broken and beads were cascading down.  I clutched at my neck, but already a number were spilling onto the floor.  Our server approached and wordlessly handed me a doggie bag for my accident.  While I managed to slip off the necklace, some rogue beads slipped down the front of my dress.  Observing my discomfort, Sergey suggested I “want to go to the washroom.”  And stand up like a maraca with beads pouring out of my skirt in front of all the nice families around us?  No thanks.  So I sat primly paralyzed until the barista started grinding coffee… “Now!” Sergey said.  I stood up, releasing my incubated cargo beneath the din of the grinding, and scooped up the beads from my chair like a clutch of tiny eggs.  It was the sort of thing that would have had me blushing myself ablaze on a first date, but luckily now it just sparked laughter.


Hey, maybe you can help me with my homework.  Last week, I hosted my orientation group’s weekly deepening.  Wait, let me clarify.  My orientation group in the Serving the Divine Plan program has embarked on a three-month study of a course called “A Discourse on Social Action,” and I managed to cram 23 of these souls into my tiny flat for dinner.  It is at times like this that I know I owe Chandu, who taught an Indian cooking class, a great debt of gratitude; because of him, I learned how to make the most delicious dish known to man (butter chicken) with zero chopping and minimal prep, allowing me to feed a crowd on short notice.

Anyway, tackle these and send me your answers to these questions from the Discourse on Social Action material:

What is the purpose of friendship?

The purpose of certain things is truly complex.  Yet it is often possible to find a sentence that expresses this complexity in a beautiful and profound way. Consider, for instance, the statement that “The purpose of our lives is to know God and to worship him.”  How does this statement embrace all the praiseworthy aims of our lives, for example, to acquire knowledge, to find true happiness, to serve others, to love and to be loved?

To engage in a process of societal transformation requires faith–the assurance that such transformation is possible.  How does one acquire this faith?


In recent days my work has taken me into a chilly room with two objects conservators who share a number of interests, from archaeology to beading to Dr. Who.  My total ignorance about such topics makes me feel like a bit of a third wheel–they sympathetically apologized for my situation trapped in a room with the two of them–but by the same token, I’m learning a great deal about old things, for which they have unbridled enthusiasm.

One of them is a metal conservator.  She looks like she stepped out of an Orientalist painting, with a long black braid that flows down her back, glittering jewellery, and striking features, an appearance counterposed by her Californian accent.  From her I’ve learned some of the poetry of metal conservation–terms like “mysterious calcareous encrustations.”  Suddenly, everything has a “healthy patina,” from relics to lab coats.  The other, a collection specialist, has bright red hair, and pert British accent that perfectly complements her sharp wit.  She described how, in “uni,” she spotted the top of a skull sprouting in her flower garden and was immediately filled with excitement.  What being did this belong to?  To the horror of her “mainstream” roommates (“I think we call them ‘muggles'”), she excavated the skeleton, which turned out to be a cat.  A few more credit-hours with these two ladies, and I expect to earn my own degree in conservation.


My extended family

My extended family

For the weeks leading up to the fateful day of 30 November 2013, my life revolved around one thing: Thanksgiving.  You see, there was never any question in my mind that I would host Thanksgiving.  It is, as a recent New York Times article put it, the most important meal of the year.  And I think that’s all the more true for expats like yours truly.

First came the invites.  Once I had fussed over sending the most beautiful Outlook invitation I could make to fifteen friends, I realized I needed some food.  I asked my Moldovan friend Sergey to help me go grocery shopping.  He was puzzled by most of the foods on my list.  Squash?  Currants?  Celery?  Worcestershire sauce?  But mostly by French-fried onions, which I struggled to explain.  I mean, explaining them as, “The crispy onions that go on the green bean casserole, along with cream of mushroom soup and milk,” would surely cast doubt on American cuisine.

Well, I could not find those special onions, nor could I find the turkey, or breakfast sausage for the stuffing (solution: kebab with maple syrup).  Nor could I find whipped cream or pumpkin puree.  My dear American readers, I want you to appreciate how lucky you are to be able to crack open a can, dump in some cream and eggs, and basically have your pie, as opposed to chopping, then boiling, then blenderizing fresh pumpkin.  And don’t even get me started on trying to manually whip cream.

Nura’s World-Famous Spicy Pumpkin Pie, post-sampling

Oh, I did find butternut squash.  When I cut it open, I found that all the seeds had sprouted, giving the inside the look of a nest of white worms.  I stuck it in the fridge and haven’t looked at it since.  I probably should go deal with that…

There was a turkey leg for sale, but somehow, that did not seem right.  First, I considered going to Haifa Zoo, hoping they might display some American fowl.  Alas, I didn’t get a chance.  So I went to the butcher shop to buy some whole chickens.  A truck was being unloaded out front, and when I entered, there were crates full of apparently recently deceased chickens.  I bought three, and nearly fell over when the clerk handed me the bag.

“Um, do these have guts?” I inquired.

He shook his head, not understanding.  I shrugged and resigned myself to my fate.

I staggered up the hill back to my flat under the weight of fifteen pounds of meat, feeling like the Demon Barber with my cargo of carrion.

The day of Thanksgiving, I pulled out the birds, hesitantly grabbing them by the legs.  There…was…blood.  Ew.  I brought the first bird to the sink to rinse its cavity, and noticed the cavity wasn’t entirely deserted; two tiny kidneys dangled, and beneath, something dark red that I assume was the liver.

“Dear God, please give me strength,” I said.  If I were more in touch with nature, I probably would have said a prayer for the bird with whom I was enjoying intimate communion.  As it was, I grabbed a knife and started sawing away, thinking back to the cat dissection I did in high school.  I did poorly, but not because I was grossed out by the formadehyde-drenched feline.  I’m just not very good at cutting things.  But I do remember one thing: fasciae.  So much fasciae to slice, and here was fasciae once again.

Eventually, after submerging the chickens in olive oil and tethering their legs, I stuck them in the oven.  Actually, I crammed them in.  And then I bleached the entire kitchen.

Two and a half hours later, after I had manically swept, mopped, dusted, and decorated, the guests began to arrive.  The first one pronounced my cooking skills “legit.”  I told him he should wait to actually try the food.  The next guest I dragooned into carving up the chicken.  “How do I do this?” he asked.  “Here’s a book that tells you how,” I said, thrusting Betty Crocker and a knife into his hands.  I hovered nervously nearby, hoping the juices would run clear, as Mommy said.  The juice seemed clear.  The flat was filling with friends.

And then there were two.

And then there were two.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, even if the greenhorns (your usual World Centre mix of South African, Dominican, Ugandan, Kenyan, Norwegian, Mauritian, and Moldovan) were a little puzzled by all the strange dishes.  “So what is with the orange food?” the Ugandan asked, poking at the candied sweet potato.  “You Americans like orange, both on Halloween and Thanksgiving.”  Hm.

All I can say is, I broke only two glass items and nearly started only one fire, and I am very thankful for that.   Happy Thanksgiving!

The carnivore

I just killed a fly.

See, with insects and really all creatures, I usually follow an ideology close to the Jain tenet of non-violence.  I remember hearing about how Jain priests sweep the ground in front of them as they walk so they won’t harm any little animals in the dirt.  Ok, so I’m probably guilty of accidentally crushing a few ants as I walk, but there was a time when I couldn’t even bring myself to slap the mosquito indulging in my O-negative.

Those days are over.  I grab a pack of baby wipes, which is the best flyswatter I can locate in our kitchen, and smack that fly hard.  The fly gives up the ghost and falls into a pan soaking in the sink.  After staring at the floating corpse and muttering “ew” repeatedly, I fish it out and dispose of it sans eulogy.  I’m just not cool cohabiting with flies.  Besides their dirty little feet, I’ve heard too many horror stories here about maggots found growing in jars of Nutella.  The Haifa climate is a great nursery for all sorts of bug babies.

This willingness to murder flies must be connected to my recent forays into the world of meat.  While I’m not a vegetarian, I usually eat meat only a few times a week, and almost never beef.  I read Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats when I was eighteen, and that turned me off to the meat industry.

Plus, I’ve been warned about the chicken here, which reportedly has preternatural powers to expand one’s waistline.  “Stay away from the chicken,” they say.  “My sister came here, and she gained 25 kilos in a year.  It was the chicken.”  Apparently Israel pumps their birds full of hormones.  I shrug, a little insulted that Israel is trying to outdo the States in unethical meat practices.

Love handles?

Love handles?

Yet chicken is the only raw meat I’ve brought myself to cook.  I’m still terrified I’ll poison whoever I’m feeding by thawing or cooking it wrong.  Honestly, I don’t think I’d ever fully observed chicken being cooked before I attended an Indian cooking class here.

Now I find myself preparing  butter chicken for eight guests, wondering if eight departments will find themselves one staff member short tomorrow morning.

Butter chicken


Please note that not only did the chicken turn out to be non-poisonous but also delicious.  Can you see the almost-tadik on the right side?

Maybe I should learn to cook tofu–or better yet, seitan.  I like seitan, I think, despite it consisting of “high protein wheat gluten,” which sounds like “nutritional yeast” and other weird vegan products I’m not alt enough to touch.  The word is Japanese, and I don’t really know how to pronounce it, so I call it “satan.”   As in, “I bought satan today.  I put satan in the freezer, and later, I will cook satan.  Have you tried satan before?”  Well, have you?


Maybe I just need a cute apron.

Maybe I just need a cute apron.

There’s nothing like baking to make a place feel (and smell) homey.  I was so proud when I successfully baked banana bread, despite the inscrutable dials on our oven and lacking measuring spoons.

Best served with coffee

Best served with coffee

Too proud, it turns out, because the goddesses of domesticity decided to punish me for my hubris.

It began with good intentions (which I hear pave a certain road).  I wanted to bake oatmeal raisin cookies for my Serving the Divine Plan group, which meets every Monday night to get our spirituality on.  By the time I started, I was already tired from cooking several pounds of my special peanut noodles, but I was determined.  Three mistakes ensued.

  1. THE EGG. The batter seemed too dry.  “Hm,” I thought to myself, “maybe the eggs here are smaller than at home.”  I stared at an egg.  It looked small. I cracked a third egg into the batter. Now, I know cooking can be an art, but baking must be a science.  Exact proportions of ingredients are key to success.  I knew it was wrong to add that egg, but knowing and knowing are very different.
  2. THE COOKIE SHEET. After dolloping my gooey, lumpy batter onto a cookie sheet, I ran into my second obstacle.  The  sheet did not fit into our oven.  Now, why we have a cookie sheet that can never be used is way beyond me.  My flatmate Deirdre, amused by my consternation, helped me to transfer the batter to two smaller sheets.
  3. THE HEAT. I had been preheating the oven for an hour (yeah, I know).  This was unintentional; I’m just a very slow baker.  By the time I was ready, the oven had reached a temperature somewhere between a kiln and foundry.  The racks inside had turned a threatening red.  In fact, even the oven dials were scorching hot.  Concerned about burning down my apartment building, I shut it off to let it cool down.  And then tried to turn it back on.  Nothing happened.  I tried again.  Nope.  Desperate, I sunk to my haunches, fiddling madly with the dials, a protective dishrag wrapped around my fingers, to no avail.

“I broke it,” I whined to Deirdre. “I told you I break everything I touch.”  When she tried to comfort me but couldn’t help but chortle at my fiasco, I played stoic.  “There are worse tragedies in the world than me not being able to make my cookies,” I said.  She paused to genuinely consider this point, then convinced me to use the neighbors’ oven.  I did.  She recommended putting all the dough on two sheets to make two giant cookies.  I did.

This was the result.  Please keep in mind that I was aiming for 30 cookies.


In the words of Prospero, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.”  I’m still trying to figure out what utensil to use with my thing of darkness.  A small jackhammer would be useful.

Seriously, who else sets out to bake cookies and ends up breaking the oven?

Postscript:  No worries, the oven has been repaired.  I plan to bake some brownies soon–at a very low heat.

Procrastinating roosters

In the mornings when I wake up, I hear distant crowing. It must be roosters. Yet all of my chicken knowledge says that roosters crow punctually at the crack of dawn, which is before 5:00 AM. So what’s going on? Am I actually hearing roosters? Where are these roosters living–in the middle of the city? And why are they procrastinating?

I had my first day in the office today. I work with four Persian ladies. I’m not sure if I count as an honorary Persian lady because of my quarter ancestry, which was in fact our first topic of conversation, probably because of my name. At my one previous office position as an intern for a ballet company, I ate lunch at my desk and my breaks involved sitting at my computer reading New York Times articles. So imagine my delight when I found out that my officemates take two short breaks daily, during which they convene in the kitchen to chat and share fruits, nuts, and fragrant Persian tea. Even as I adjust to living in Israel, I’m surrounded by all things Persian, especially the food. The lunchroom is the first (and most likely the last) cafeteria I’ve encountered that serves heaping trays of saffron chicken, steamed rice with plentiful tadik, and yogurtlu patlican (technically that last one’s Turkish, but still delicious). Maybe learning Farsi would be just as useful as Hebrew! I’ve already learned to read the numbers in Persian–I think five is my favorite. Two and three confound me.