27 July 2008

Memories: Picnics in New York, Teheran

Bill West at West in New England is hosting the Genea-Bloggers' Picnic, and inviting us to remember family cookouts and picnics, traditional foods or family recipes.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I don't remember any city picnics. However, my grandparents' Kauneonga Lake bungalow colony, about 10 miles from Monticello, was the scene of great 4th of July and Labor Day weekend picnics, the summer season's official opening and closing holidays.

My grandmother made her own cole slaw and potato salad - enough to feed an army - cooked and sliced corn beef, turkey and roast beef for deli sandwiches - the meat purchased from Mendelson's kosher butcher in Kauneonga.

There were perfectly ripe fragrant tomatoes and delicious just-picked sweet corn from Grandpa's friend up the road (whose farm would become the future site of Woodstock). Crisp sour pickles and cans of Charles' potato chips rounded out the menu, along with sliced cold watermelon.

The grills, manned by relatives, produced prodigious numbers of kosher hot dogs tucked into lightly toasted buns, slathered with relish, mustard and ketchup.

No one requested chicken or tofu hot dogs back then - we had never heard of a vegetarian, cholesterol or trans-fat. If we had, we would have thought they were strange - not eat Grandma's corn beef or those juicy hot dogs? Blasphemy!

Fast forward a few years to our time in Teheran 1970-78, when Fridays were picnic days at the family's huge garden in Karaj.

At that time, Karaj was a separate village with its main claim to fame the Karaj Dam, where one could boat or visit a trout farm (pick out a fish and grill it) on the river. Today, Karaj is a city and a bedroom community for the much-expanded city of Teheran.

In the old days, the whole family would spend the day at the very large garden - named Kazemabad - which featured a pool (mainly for irrigation, but we also swam in it), a pomegranate orchard, greenhouses, mulberry trees, sweet miniature grapes called yaghouti (ruby) a house where we could retreat if it rained or snowed (as once happened in April).

The garden's owners included my late father-in-law, his brothers and another family, so Fridays could be rather busy with groups ranging from great-grandparents to great-grandchildren, but it was large enough to accommodate everyone.

Stored in the garden house was my mother-in-law's huge copper samovar, fired by charcoal, which held enough water for 100 cups of tea. At least we didn't have to bring that back and forth.

Family cars were filled with Persian carpets (even the "garden" ones were beautiful), huge pots of rice and stews, fruit, dishes (no paper plates!), silverware, glasses, sheets and pillows for after-lunch naps, bikes and toys, radios, soft drinks, sweaters for the evening chill. It was a real expedition to a then-rural location, even though the drive was only about 30 minutes long.

We would arrive about 11am to arrange the carpets under the trees, get the fire started for the samovar, arrange the pots wrapped in blankets to keep warm (the food had been cooked early that morning).

The menu may have included rice with carrots and red kidney beans with chicken (polo-havij), rice with tomatoes and small pieces of beef or lamb or even tiny meatballs (polo-estamboli), rice with dill and baby lima beans (polo-cheved-e-baghala).

An aunt would bring fried white fish, someone else the chicken. Another cousin would have brought the watermelons and other fruit, stored in the pool to keep cool.

Sometimes we brought saffron-and-lime-juice marinated chicken (jujeh-kabab) or seasoned ground meat (kubideh) to grill.

Baking was my contribution, and I often made a huge tray of fudgy brownies (a la famous cookbook author Maida Heater) - What's a picnic without fudgy brownies?

After lunch, elders would play cards or backgammon, smoke gheilyun (water pipe), then nap under sheets on the carpets, shaded by trees. Younger kids climbed the mountain to the pomegranate orchard or, if the mulberries were ripe, they would climb the trees to eat the sweet berries and come down completely covered in purple juice that never quite washed out.

In the afternoon, preparing for a quick dinner before heading back, we'd drive into Karaj to buy fresh-baked breads right from the oven and delicious village yoghurt in green-glazed bowls; we ate half the warm bread on the ride back. The women would make mast-e-khiar - cucumber-yoghurt salad - with the fresh tangy yoghurt, nothing like today's supermarket variety.

Leftovers devoured, belongings and supplies gathered and packed, we headed back to the city at dusk.

Thanks, Bill, for suggesting this topic. That's the beauty of these Carnivals of Genealogy - they help us remember and share these important memories.

Now I'm hungry after this posting ... time for lunch!


  1. Wow. Great post with great memories. And guess who else grew up not far from Kauneonga Lake? I grew up in Liberty - and the corn farmer you speak of is none other than Max Yasgur of Woodstock fame.

    At the new Bethel Woods Center for the Performing Arts, I believe there is a memorial plaque in Max's memory.

  2. I'm hungry too, but using the Internet in the library means it will be some time before I can get to food. Not that it will be as nice as you have described!
    Yes lovely memories beautifully and generously shared.
    PS Fantastic sounding carpets which would put our picnic blanket to shame.