TIME Culture

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Persian Food

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

My Iranian mother wanted me to cook recipes from the motherland. I wanted to be independent

My cavalier cooking practices have been a cause for shame and concern for my Iranian mother. To me, eating is just something you do to stay alive; for her and her legion of friends and family that grew up in the Motherland, cooking is a rite of passage to womanhood, the foundation of family and all things good in the world.

You know, everything a ready-made, heart attack-inducing Doritos Locos Taco is not.

So it comes as no surprise to find my mother one day standing by my open fridge grasping a small jar between her index finger and thumb.

“This is hell. I will put it on the side of the fridge, you know, in case you need it,” she says.

It’s just a coincidence that the name of this Persian staple spice—cardamom—is the same word for eternal fiery doom in English.

My mother has been sneaking in her favorite ingredients next to the Hershey’s chocolate syrup and the blue macaroni and cheese box in my kitchen ever since I began dating the man of her dreams, now my husband. Having grown up with his own Persian mother’s everything-fresh-from-scratch cooking, he wouldn’t mind eating a meal that’s not from a box. So the more serious we got, the less subtle her hints. She graduated to telling me, “You seriously need to learn how to cook. It’s not funny.”

Because her comments implied that cooking meant keeping a man, I was very adamant about never lifting a pan. Cooking in this cultural context seemed primitive, sexist, and totally un-American. Where did I get this idea? From my mom who, ironically enough, preached to my sister and me the importance of women procuring financial and personal independence and security through education, privileges she didn’t have growing up in Iran.

Still, I understood where she was coming from. In my mother’s Tehran, it literally “took a village” to raise and maintain a family. The older generation provided food for the burgeoning family, and food was a community affair where everyone helped with the preparing, cooking, and eating. One of my distinct memories from childhood in Iran in the late 1980s is the women in my family cleaning and stemming herbs for rice and stews at our house. Sitting around with their fingers plastered with wet dill and their mouths running with the daily gossip, they were a less sexy version of Sex and the City.

My family moved to Los Angeles in 1991 after a pit stop in Austria for a few months to get our papers together. Or, more specifically, we moved to the enclave known as Tehrangeles where Iranians—especially Iranian Jews—settled after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

But in L.A., I saw less and less of the chattering relatives, partly because they probably got sick of my mom giving them chores. But also because no one has the luxury or time to sit around stemming herbs all day when there are errands to run, e-mails to send, and nails to be manicured.

The idea was to adapt to American life enough to get by, but still speak, breathe, act, and eat Persian. Which led to a lot of awkward conversations at the school cafeteria explaining my pungent green stew to my friend with the crustless PB&J. And every Friday night, we always had to have the Thanksgiving-size Shabbat dinner, complete with the angry drunk uncle who asked the same questions every time (“How much money are you making writing? That’s horrible. You should go into real estate.”)

Starting a family of my own, I’m trying to reconcile this need to connect through food with the American notion of independence and can-do-it-all attitude. While I do need some guidance and appreciate when my mom brings over the occasional leftover split pea stew or herb quiche, I don’t want to come home to a tower of Tupperware in my refrigerator. The constant parade of handouts from my mom make me feel as if I’m failing as a nurturing wife and mother, roles I had totally been reluctant to take on yet will be damned if I don’t succeed at them.

So I decided it was time to add cooking to my repertoire. I mean, how hard would it be to buy some ingredients, mix them together, and throw them in a pot to cook if it meant so much to my family? Between Google and the TV, I was confident I could figure it out. I announced to my mother that I was cooking a traditional Persian meal for my husband. “That’s great, azizam,” she said, in a sort of God-I-hope-you-have-a-fire-extinguisher-handy sort of tone. “Let me know how it goes.”

I searched “dinner recipes,” then “easy dinner recipes” and finally “really super duper easy dinner recipes” and was overwhelmed by the number of ingredients, steps, and verbs. How do you zest a lemon? Dredge individual mint leaves with sugar? What the hell does dredge mean, anyway? Just doing the measurements alone seemed to require a Ph.D. in calculus. It occurred to me that I had never seen my mother use a measuring cup or an oven mitt.

I was not going to solicit help from my mother, so it was fortunate I remembered that someone had once given us a beautiful Persian cookbook called Food of Life. I swiped the dust off its cover and was delighted to find that it was a literary nerd’s dream come true. Besides recipes, there were pieces of Persian poetry, art, and stories.

“If wheat springs from my dust when I am dead / And from the grain that grows there you bake bread, / What drunkenness will rise and overthrow / With frenzied love the baker and his dough—” is Rumi’s erotic take on baked goods.

Excited at seeing my favorite recipe in English, I braved the long list of at least two dozen ingredients and committed myself to making rice meatballs.

It took me two days to prepare and make these meatballs. I shopped at Trader Joe’s for ingredients I recognized (eggs, rice, tomato paste). I headed to “Persian Square”—an area of Westwood Boulevard where the Iranian version of every business has a storefront—for those I did not.

At Sun Market, the couple running the place was happy to see “a young person” take interest in her native food. They helped me find everything I needed and threw in some unsolicited advice while they were at it (“You really should learn how to read Persian”).

So finding advieh—a mixture of cardamom, cinnamon, rose petals, nutmeg, and cumin—green plums, and summer savory was not really an obstacle. Putting them to use was.

When I was done chopping, slicing, rinsing, boiling, and whatnot, the kitchen was a CSI murder scene. There were grains of rice and petals of herbs on every exposed surface, including the stove, tiles, floor, and sink. Dante’s “Inferno” would have made a more suitable excerpt than Rumi’s poetic fancies.

My husband was grateful for the effort. He ate carefully, as if to detect poison before it was too late. Having taken one look at my disheveled exterior, he couldn’t fathom why I’d go through all the trouble. But it wasn’t really about him.

I wish this experience had made me fall in love with cooking. But at least I no longer found it synonymous with the Dark Ages. I had now tried on my mother’s shoes and saw what an ungrateful brat I’d been. I understand there’s an art driven by love for family and the incessant desire to feed and nurture them. I’m happily going to taken them up on their offers to bestow leftovers and swallow my pride until I get the hang of basic kitchen measurements.

That’s the paradox my mother embraced all these years slaving over elaborate meals while preaching the importance of prioritizing education, career, and independence: You can strive to have it all. Doesn’t mean you will, or that you’ll be good at it, but you can and should try because you have the freedom to do so. And that’s the luxury of being an American: not settling for one identity, especially if you’re a woman.

She was beyond amused when I recounted to her the tale of the rice meatballs. One day, to encourage me, she came over with a new bottle. “This is zaferoon. In America it’s called ‘saffron.’ It’s originally from Iran, where the best zaferoon in the world comes from. Ask anyone. Even Americans.” She pauses to make sure I’m watching her. “I’ll put it right here, you see? Next to the string cheese.”

Orly Minazad is a freelance writer and essayist in L.A. covering arts, culture, and everything in between. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME relationships

Woman Goes Into Hospital for Back Pain, Gives Birth One Hour Later

The baby was 10 pounds

Weymouth, Mass., resident Katie Kropas thought she had put on some extra weight over the holiday season. But after going to the hospital Wednesday with complaints of severe back pain, the 23-year-old was surprised to learn that it wasn’t a food baby but, rather, a baby baby.

“They told me that I had a full term baby, ready to come, now,” Kropas told a local CBS affiliate. “So I found out at 10:15 and I had her at 11:06.”

Well, at least she had a full 51 minutes to process. The baby girl, named Ellie, weighed 10 pounds.

Kropas told NECN that she and her long-term boyfriend were shocked by the news. The new mom was reportedly on birth control and had a “pretty regular” menstruation cycle. She experienced no morning sickness and attributed her swollen feet to her 50 hour a week catering job.

Regardless of the surprising conditions, Korpas was very positive to the Patriot Ledger.

“It’ll be fun,” she said. “I’ll have lots of help.”

TIME psychology

10 Scientific Insights About Happy Families

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME health

These 8 Household Items Have Tons of Germs

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Turns out, bacteria tends to linger on some of the most frequently used household items

Turns out, bacteria tends to linger on some of the most frequently used household items. Here, a list of germ-laden places—and how to tackle those trouble spots.

TIME Family

How Long You Can Store (Almost) Anything in the Fridge and Freezer

This infographic includes expiration dates on items in the pantry, too

They can feel like life’s greatest mysteries: Is that chicken breast at the bottom of the freezer still safe to eat? Or is that mustard jar in the back of the cupboard still any good? We’ve de-mystified the process with this handy chart, which incorporates advice from the USDA, food scientists, and food manufacturers. (Scroll down for downloadable, kitchen-ready versions.)

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Graphic by Onethread Design

 

Download and print out your own versions to stick up in the kitchen:

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

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Read next: These 8 Household Items Have Tons of Germs

MONEY medical debt

Couple Gets $200K Medical Debt Forgiven, But Some Aren’t So Lucky

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Half of all unpaid bills on credit reports are medical bills, but the median amount is relatively small. Here's why it's a problem for so many consumers.

It’s lovely that the now-famous British couple who made the mistake of having their preemie baby born in the U.S. won’t have to pay their potential $200,000 in medical bills. That doesn’t help anyone else, however. America is teeming with unpaid medical bills. How do we know? The nation’s top consumer financial regulator just published a study showing that half of all unpaid bills that land on credit reports are medical bills, and a stunning one in seven Americans with a credit report have an unpaid medical bill as a blemish.

You don’t have to look far for stories of billing red tape or insurance confusion that causes lead life-threatening consequences. In fact, even while social media and European press rallied behind Lee Johnson and fiancée Katie Amos as they were stranded in the U.S. with their 11-weeks-premature baby, a grieving mother in Ireland warned that lack of health coverage in the U.S. killed her immigrant daughter, 31-year-old Katrina Hennigan. Katrina, who had lived in the U.S. since she was 11, was advised to see a cardiologist, but as a non-insured hospitality worker, she was unable to afford visits with a specialist. She was found dead in her Rhode Island apartment last month. Had Hennigan moved back to Ireland, as her mother had urged, her cardiology visit would have been free.

But stories of maddening red tape and confusion are even more common. In fact, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says that most unpaid medical bills are relatively small. The median amount is $200. And 15 million Americans with credit report blemishes have only unpaid medical bills on their reports. Those small bills can have major consequences, however. An unpaid bill of as little as $100 can lower a consumer’s strong credit score of 780 by as much as 100 points, according to the CFPB. Consumers should check their credit reports regularly to look for collection items or mistakes that could be dragging down their credit scores — they can do that for free once a year, and can get a free credit report summary every month on Credit.com.

Why do all these small bills with big consequences remain unpaid? One reason: Billing practices cause massive confusion. Patients frequently receive two, three or even four bills from different entities after a simple doctor’s visit.

Here’s an example provided by one reader:

“For one doctor’s visit I’d pay a copay, and then get billed separately by the doctor, the lab company, and the practice,” she wrote. “Often these bills came months after the original visit. And their accounting codes made it difficult to understand what was covered in each bill. Hospital visits were even worse. For a dislocated finger, I had separate bills from the hospital, the ER docs, the radiology team, the pharmacy, and the lab.”

The CFPB cited billing confusion as a major cause of unpaid medical debt in its report, blaming “indirect affiliation with the debt (that) introduces potential sources of error in collections reporting.”

And another reader put it more bluntly:

“I would love to know what percentage of those bills aren’t paid because the insurer and provider are fighting, with the insured member stuck in the middle. I know I have some of those, and it’s maddening,” he wrote.

Have you suffered a medical billing red tape nightmare? As part of our Debt Collection Files, we look at why bills slip through the cracks, and how even a small paperwork error can have major life consequences. Leave your comment below, on our Facebook page, or email me directly at bob@credit.com.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

TIME psychology

The Science of Why Your Kids Can’t Resist Frozen

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

A preschooler’s emotional world is reminiscent of 'Frozen' heroine Elsa’s internal struggle

Disney’s Frozen, which earned more than $1.2 billion at the box office, is not only the first “princess” movie to make the list of top 10 grossing animated films, but also the number-one animated film of all time. Its songs and characters are culturally ubiquitous.

Little girls have long been drawn to princesses. But what is it that makes Frozen so much more appealing than previous princess movies—and why does it enrapture young children in particular? As psychologists (who happen to be sisters just like the heroines in the film) and the mothers of princess-loving daughters, we decided to consider this question.

First, a preschooler’s emotional world is reminiscent of Frozen heroine Elsa’s internal struggle: Her emotions are strong, passionate — and seem uncontrollable. Preschoolers too, are driven by their impulses. When Elsa laments that she’s afraid that there’s “no escape from the storm inside of me,” it resonates with young children (and perhaps their patience-tested parents, as well).

Second, preschoolers’ imaginations can make the world a wondrous place filled with the possibility of excitement and adventure. Children respond to stories that employ magical realism, so Elsa—as a superhero with what one of our daughters (Maryam’s) and her friends call “ice powers” (the ability to create a whole castle of snow and ice using only her fingers)—has special appeal. Perhaps because they are so in awe of her magic and power, children are less likely to get caught up in Elsa’s experience of isolation and desperation when she is locked away in her room as a girl and hides herself in a remote castle as a woman.

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But with the allure of magic and the sense that anything is possible comes a high potential for terror. Maryam’s daughter particularly liked that there isn’t a witch in Frozen. Though she adores other Disney princess movies, the witch-like characters (like Mother Gothel in Rapunzel) are all too real. The scary parts in Frozen are minimal and temporary, and the villain is an ordinary guy who sings a catchy love song.

Thirdly, Elsa has a genuine connection with her sister, Anna. Despite Elsa’s repeated rebuffs to Anna’s attempts to develop a friendship throughout most of the movie, their bond underscores dedication to family above all. Preschoolers are deeply entrenched in their families and tend to demonstrate a strong in-group attachment, meaning that they favor members within their social circle. Even when Frozen viewers are rooting for Anna to form a relationship with her love interest Kristoff, the love between the sisters is much more appealing. The heroines of Frozen are authentic and real, and no longer solely focused on finding a prince. They preach sisterly love and girl power.

Finally, the sing-along music seals the deal. Maryam’s 4-year-old daughter and her friends love to sing the anthem “Let it Go,” wagging their fingers at each other: “Be the good girl you always have to be!” They stomp in unison, pretending to be Elsa stomping on the ice to create her castle. Even Maryam’s 1-year-old son gets into the act, mimicking their behavior.

When asked what she thought the song was about, Maryam’s daughter smiled and put it succinctly: “It’s about Elsa being happy and free, and nobody bothering her.”

So there it is, the crux of the matter: a universally appealing desire to be happy and free.

Perhaps understanding the perspective of a preschooler can help us appreciate some of what draws us all to this movie: We all feel internal struggles with our impulses. None of us really wants a (too) scary villain. Most of us are pretty loyal to our families, despite their eccentricities and the emotional challenges that we face at times. And all of us want to be happy and free.

Maryam Kia-Keating, Ph.D. and Yalda T. Uhls, MBA, Ph.D. are sisters, psychologists, and, most importantly, moms. Maryam is an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Yalda is a senior scientific researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA at UCLA and the Regional Director of the non-profit Common Sense Media. They wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

Read next: Frozen Director Now Apologizes to Parents for ‘Let It Go’

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

How to Help Your Kids Keep Their Resolutions

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...and learn some persistence, darn it

New Year’s resolutions. We’ve all broken so many that they serve more as a punchline for jokes than a way to actually change.

But setting goals, and plugging away at them, is a crucial part of life. So we talked with Dr. Laura Markham, expert in child development and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, for tips on how to start conversations with kids that will help them set and meet their goals.
For all kids, Markham says it’s important to make sure we’re helping them meet their goals—not ours. “Parents have goals for kids,” she says. But meeting a goal always takes effort, and “if you’re trying something hard, you need to have some motivation to overcome. And that can’t just be to please parents.”

Parents can help elementary age kids start to think about their goals by having low-key conversations, Markham says. “Ask questions like, ‘What do you like doing? What do you like about your life?’” And listen, Markham adds. Often, kids will spontaneously express interest in anything from a sport to an instrument to helping pick up trash at the park.

By the time kids reach middle school, most of them already know what it’s like to miss a goal, Markham says. And it bothers them at least as much as it bothers their parents. So instead of focusing on what’s gone wrong, parents can help kids focus on what’s right, with questions like, “What am I good at? What is good in my life?” A focus on the positive, Markham says, can actually set kids up for more success. “People shift into a positive frame of mind when they feel they’ve been successful,” she says. “It allows us to rise to the situation and fight.”
High school kids are in a position to get practical. For older kids working towards a goal, “it can be worth noticing what got in your way,” Markham says. But parents can help them to stay practical even as they face tough realities: “Instead of beating yourself up about it, get the support you need to do it.” And think small, Markham advises, by breaking big goals down into manageable pieces, with questions like, “What’s gotten in my way? What support do I need to move forward? What’s the next step I can take?”

But setting a goal is only half the battle. What can a parent do when kids get discouraged?
Markham says the research shows that perseverance in children doesn’t come from a “get tough” approach. It comes from empathy. Kids of all ages are less likely to give up when they feel that someone listens and understands their feelings.

So at every age, acknowledging all the feelings kids have as they try, fail, and succeed, is key. In fact, giving them room to talk about how they feel may be just as important than strategizing the next step.

“Your job as a parent is to empathize and hold the light so kids can see the way out of the box they’re in,” Markham says. “You can never see the whole road, but you can see the next step to take. And whether it’s learning to play the violin, or feeding the hungry, when you take one small step, then you’ll be in a new place.”

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MONEY Kids & Money

New Year’s Money Moves for Kids

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These steps will get your child’s finances off to a strong start in 2015.

It’s never too early to start teaching youngsters about personal finance. Here are three tips from financial planners to help your kids become more savvy about spending, saving, and understanding the value of a dollar.

1. Prepare to spend. Is a prom or class trip on the horizon? Have your kid take owner­ship of the budgeting process, says Marguerita Cheng, a financial adviser in Rockville, Md. Regularly depositing babysitting money or other earnings in the bank for a big-ticket purchase will help your child understand how much things cost and what it takes to reach savings targets.

2. Sock money away. Putting money in a Roth IRA lets your child take advantage of both tax-free investing and many years of compound returns. She can contribute some of her earnings (the theoretical limit in 2015 is 100% of earned income up to $5,500); meanwhile, you can encourage her by agreeing to match her contributions, says Cheng.

3. Give a little bit. Plant the seed for charitable giving by showing your kid the positive impact firsthand. “If children are being honest, they don’t want to share,” says Shannon Ryan, who blogs about kids and money at theheavypurse .com. Seeing animals at a humane shelter or volunteering with you at a soup kitchen can help change that mindset.

Related:
How to Avoid Paying for Your Kids…Forever
What Smart Parents Teach Their Kids About Debt
Teach Your Kids Financial Values…Via Cellphone

 

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