Finding a place at life's table

Former restaurateur Donia Bijan describes in a new memoir her family's journey of exile and quest for belonging

At the time former restaurateur Donia Bijan began writing down memories of her parents' lives, she was wracked by grief over the unexpected and gruesome death of her beloved mother, Menlo Park resident Atefeh "Amy" Bijan.

Ms. Bijan, the owner and chef of the highly regarded L'Amie Donia restaurant in Palo Alto, now closed, felt compelled to leave a record for her son and her sisters' children about their grandparents, who immigrated to the United States after being exiled from their homeland in 1978, at the beginning of the Iranian Revolution.

The project of remembering through writing germinated as Ms. Bijan sorted through her mother's possessions, eight days after Amy Bijan, still vital and fit at 75, was struck and killed by a car while walking in a crosswalk on Santa Cruz Avenue in January 2004.

Entering her mother's home a few days after the funeral, Ms. Bijan worked somberly amid the scent of tea and roses, "sorting and packing the boxes I had lined up by her cabinets like little coffins, filling them with cups and saucers wrapped in newspaper, and spoons, spatulas, and whisks," she would write later.

During the course of packing up, Ms. Bijan came across a collection of papers tucked into a kitchen drawer -- newspaper clippings from food sections and loose pages from notepads with recipes written, in English and in Farsi, in her mother's hand. They were recipes for American dishes, dating back to the year her parents arrived in this country, leaving behind all their possessions, including the hospital they built and operated, to be looted in the frenzy of revolution.

It was then that Ms. Bijan began musing about the connection between food and belonging -- the link between the ritual of the table and the ability to find one's place in the world.

"I knew when I found those recipes that something was there, and that I was going to find that something -- I was going to find the key to open the door," she says during a recent interview in the sunny backyard of the Menlo Park home she shares with her husband, artist Mitchell Johnson, and their 10-year-old son, Luca.

Her mother, she says, "had Persian cuisine down," but when she lost her homeland, she had an instinctual understanding that embracing the cuisine of her adopted country would allow her to find a place in the new, sometimes baffling world in which she found herself transplanted.

"She found that you can lose everything, lose your home even, and find a sense of place in the kitchen," Ms. Bijan says. "It doesn't matter where that kitchen is. ... It's the power of food: You can hit rock bottom and a taste can cure you -- give you something sensory to hold on to. It's what will bring you comfort at the end of the day."

As grief clouded her days and memories of her mother overwhelmed her, Ms. Bijan wrote. "There was nothing else I could do," she says. "I was incapacitated."

She also closed her restaurant that year after 10 years, finding that continuing "was just too much" -- particularly with a 2-year-old son whom her mother had helped care for during Ms. Bijan's long days in the popular bistro's kitchen.

The writing project consumed several years, but she had no intention of publishing the work. It was the relentless encouragement of her husband, she says, that led her finally to seek a publisher.

The result is "Maman's Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen," which is being released next week.

The book is billed by publisher Algonquin as a memoir, and each chapter concludes with recipes, some reflecting Amy Bijan's culinary passions and skills, others developed by Donia Bijan as she melded flavors of Persian, French and other cuisines.

Its narrative moves back, forth and beyond geographically -- from Tehran, where Ms. Bijan was born and lived until she was 15, when the family left for a vacation in Spain but was unable to return home after the country exploded in turmoil; to the United States, where the entire family eventually settled and Ms. Bijan took a degree in French from the University of California, Berkeley; to France, where Ms. Bijan was trained at the Paris-based Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School and years later interned for months in two eminent restaurants in French villages.

Ms. Bijan explains early on in the book that she had written "in an attempt to find answers to the questions I never asked my parents, such as 'How did it feel to start your life from nothing?'" But as she calls upon her memories to delve into that question, another critical element of the book emerges: The writer is compelled to examine her own experiences and complex feelings as an exile -- remaining devoted to her parents, honoring the culture they thrived in for six or more decades, yet knowing she must find her own place at life's table.

That quest proved a challenge for the naturally shy Donia, the youngest of the late Dr. Bijan Bijan and Amy Bijan's three daughters. But the writer describes the journey with penetrating insight, reflecting on her experiences with a sometimes jarring honesty.

"I didn't want the book to be sentimental," Ms. Bijan says. "A lot of memoirs can be like country music: 'I lost my love, I lost my pickup truck, I lot my dog ...' It's tricky -- it's easy to fall into the sentimental trap."

Regarding the book's title, Ms. Bijan explains in an email: "Homesick pie is the sum of the longing and hunger I feel when I make my way to the kitchen, almost like sleep walking! And if someone were to look through our kitchen window, they would see a pair of busy hands peeling, chopping, mixing flour, butter, eggs for our dinner, but also finding other nourishment in bringing us to the table to share that meal. ... There is more than just eating when we break bread."

Food as an essential that satisfies and nurtures far more than our physical beings is a theme returned to again and again in "Homesick Pie." Referring to the kitchen in the Bijan home soon after her parents immigrated to their new country, Ms. Bijan writes: "Slowly we had been stocking our pantry with turmeric, cumin, saffron, cinnamon, allspice, dried fruit, lentils, fava beans, and basmati rice.

"In Iran, I had climbed onto the kitchen counter to look at my mother's cooking spices, opening them one by one, taking in their prickly scent. Now, it reassured me to see them lined up again like stepping stones across a vast ocean."

Author events

Donia Bijan will read from "Maman's Homesick Pie" at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 11 -- the book's official release date -- at Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park. She also will be at Book Passage in San Francisco on Oct. 13, and Books Inc. in Mountain View on Oct. 25, as well as in bookstores across the state and the country. Ms. Bijan also will give a cooking demonstration at Draeger's in Menlo Park at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16. Go to Donia's website for more information about the book and events.

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