Dinner in Tehran

Persian food Zoolbia_Bamieh
Does not come with calorie count.

Nothing reminds me that we live within a dysfunctional food culture so much as a dinner with people from another country.

My good friend from Iran, who is also a dietitian, invited us to a party at her apartment recently. Her brother (also from Iran) was there, as well as her husband and cousin who are also Persian-Americans. She is a great cook and put on a lush spread which included many hors d’oeuvres, two lasagnas (meat and vegetarian), quinoa salad (she is such a good cook I even liked the quinoa), and later, cupcakes and a Belgian chocolate cake. Lordy, I love a lady who can appreciate a quality chocolate cake!

We all ate heartily of both lasagnas and salad over good conversation (which was the true centerpiece of the meal, really). Afterward she showed us photos of their recent trip home to Iran. Being an amateur food anthropologist, what interested me most were the pictures of food. Food at all the family get-togethers. Exotic foods that involved pomegranate syrup and other ingredients I’ve never tasted. Big spreads that did not look low carb/high protein or low fat/high carb or low protein/low fat or anything remotely resembling a diet. Obviously family members coming home from long distances is a big deal and deserves some serious food celebration, but I also got the sense that eating well on a regular basis is not uncommon for my friend and her countrypeeps.

We started talking about food and eating. My friend’s brother told us with a sly smirk, “The thing that accompanies a Persian meal most often is guilt.”

“Guilt??” I said. Of course — the dieting guilt!

“Yes, like when you’ve eaten so much already and are full and then your aunt says, ‘You didn’t try my tahchin! I know it isn’t as good as your mother’s…’ and then you have to eat it so her feelings aren’t hurt.”

I had to laugh as I imagined someone getting a guilt trip in here in the U.S. for not eating enough. I think it used to happen. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t happen much now.

My friend has always been a hearty enjoyer of good food. While she naturally likes many “healthy” foods, I have never heard her talk about eating for weight or feeling guilty for eating anything (and one time, after a “small plates” dinner concluded at a restaurant, she leaned over and said, “I’m starving. When can we get some real food??”). I have never known her to skip dessert. She once looked at me forlornly and said, “Glenys, if I ever gain weight, I will just have to be fat because I like food so much I could never go on a diet.” A woman in her 30s that had never even contemplated some sort of food restriction during her lifetime struck me with surprise – I know almost no one like that! (In all honesty, I know exactly two other people who are like that. Also not originally from here.)

She is the kind of eater I had always wanted to be: an appreciator of good food who eats and then doesn’t worry about it. She once told me she must have an afternoon coffee with a pastry – it just wouldn’t be right to have one without the other. In a world without dieting, this seems like a normal desire. Having spent years in the dieting trenches, it is still hard for me to not think of this as pure decadence that will lead to weight ruin (don’t worry, I’m more or less over that). A pastry with coffee or tea is the most normal thing in the world for many people, as it should be.

Back to the party. I asked, “Is there a word in Farsi that means ‘diet’?” “No…” both ladies said. A few seconds went by and one of them said, “Wait, yes…rejim…it’s a French word.” Indeed, the word for “diet” in French is régime. I love that Farsi doesn’t even have its own word for self-induced-starvation. That it literally is a foreign concept.

After that, we all had a slice of cake and a cupcake. None of us except my (self-named) Remorseless Eating Machine significant other could finish the dense, rich cake, but no one felt deprived. No thoughts of rejim even crossed our minds.

Now, contrast this with a scene in my partner’s workplace the following week. He had brought in some donuts and was offering them around to his co-workers. The first person took one and pleaded, “Please, next time, don’t even stop to offer me one because I can never say no.” Another person took one and said, “I can have this because I worked out last night!” A third said, “You’re going to get diabetes from eating that.”

Dudes, it’s a donut. It does not have the power of The Dark Side of The Force to strike you dead on the spot, or even just kinda ruin your life a little. It’s. One. Donut. I’ve addressed this before: within a balanced, satisfying diet, one donut will do nothing more than simply serve as a delicious treat.

But that’s how screwed up our national food culture is. In fact, we don’t have a food culture – we have a diet culture. It has become harder and harder to find people whose lives have not been touched by dieting in some way. And not only is it boring as hell, it’s damaging to our mental and physical well-being too.

Our media gives plenty of lip service to the U.S.’s high rate of metabolic-type diseases (diabetes, heart disease, hypertension), especially when compared to other countries, yet we are obsessed with eating less and “being healthy” (read: being thin). Can we put two and two together here and get that our obsession with weight loss and restriction is not helping?! (it’s not even making us thin never mind healthy)

Eating at my friend’s party let me imagine what it would be like to grow up in a culture with almost no familiarity with dieting. A culture that experienced food with gratitude and pleasure, not fear. A culture that provided an abundance of food, when it has it, for its children to learn to honor their appetites and trust their bodies to guide them in their eating so that as adults they can approach food in a completely relaxed way.

We shouldn’t have to imagine that. We shouldn’t have to leave where we are to experience this kind of food freedom. We can start to create it here and now.

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5 thoughts on “Dinner in Tehran

  1. jodietitian October 19, 2015 / 2:06 pm

    That is the greatest thing I have heard in awhile….a culture that does not have a word for dieting….LOVE IT! I also, like you, totally enjoy discovering different kinds of dishes from other cultures, and also trying to recreate them… So much fun!

  2. watchheremerge October 19, 2015 / 7:22 pm

    Loved the podcast, looking forward to more! This brings me back to my bff in high school. I used to go to her house, and she was Persian. The food was always so amazing and comforting and EASY and I never realized it until you made me think about it here, but what a different environment at her home after coming from mine, so full of weight watchers points on every box, and sneaking snackwell cookies when no one was home, and learning to drink diet coke as part of puberty. Sigh. Diet culture indeed and twenty years later, not much has changed except the diet demon of the day (it was fat then, and now its a revolving door of gluten/sugar/dairy/legumes/alltheinflammatorytoxins).

    • GlenysO October 19, 2015 / 8:39 pm

      What a great memory! So true that not much has changed. I also grew up in a diet house, and even though I was never put on any sort of restriction, it really normalized dieting to the point that of course, eventually, I would do it too. But…at least some of us are talking about it. I think that might be different.

  3. vnp1210 April 23, 2016 / 6:41 pm

    I think a big problem in the west is the reliance on fast food/restaurants rather than cooking at home using good flavorful ingredients. Just the smell of fast food is enough to drive one to salivate and desire it. The pull is so strong, and then when a culture already leans towards convenience and saving time, eating fast food seems like the best option. Then it becomes difficult to break that cycle, and understand what is actually healthy for us. The first focus is on calorie restriction. Later down the line, one may come to realize that quality food in normal quantities according to our physical hunger cues are important. This was my experience too.

    I grew up in an Indian household and my mother cooked everything homemade all the time. She never used any prepackaged or frozen meals. Everything was always from scratch. I enjoyed eating and ate whatever I wanted until about age 25. I was thin and exercised and was happy with my body. The all of a sudden something changed and I put on weight. I was unhappy, and started calorie restricting and then carb restricting. Obviously without results. I long to eat the way I used to and enjoy food and not be overweight.

    • GlenysO April 23, 2016 / 9:43 pm

      Many of us cook at home regularly and are fat. Fat people who cook at home exist. Thin people eat fast food – they exist also. I’m not so quick to put blame on fast-food meals; I ate fast food regularly when I was much thinner. I think a big problem with our culture is to deny the natural existence of fat bodies, or that bodies can become fat naturally throughout a lifetime; the prevailing thought seems to be that they are somehow pathological and not natural. Then dieting follows, which creates even more fat bodies. I do think American food/eating culture is lacking an emphasis on joy, relaxation, shared meals, and taking time to eat. But I am a firm believer that what we eat on a day to day basis is not nearly as important as how we eat – ie having a relaxed, positive attitude toward meals, getting regular meals, having good food acceptance skills so that a variety of foods is ensured – all of this usually produces healthy (if not necessarily thin) people, which many studies have shown.

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