Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Affogato or Café Glace

The French chef on public TV is making an affogato, which apparently in Italian means “drowned”.  It is a tall glass filled with a scoop of vanilla ice cream dunked in espresso coffee.  At first I am fascinated by how he makes the vanilla ice cream right on the spot with liquid nitrogen but then I realize:  I know this drink!  It is no affogato; it is café glacé and it was my favorite treat when my father would take me to the movies as a child.  And a bittersweet sensation brings back a slew of memories.  Sweet, because they are reminders of a happy childhood, bitter because my Dad passed away eight years ago.

My father was a hard-working man.  As long as I can remember, he worked two, sometimes three jobs at a time.  He was the chief appraiser for the government’s mortgage lending bank in the country.  He did that job from 7:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.  Then in the afternoons, he free-lanced for two or three other banks, surveying and appraising.  He was an honest man and people knew that he would give them the fairest estimate possible, no matter who they were.  His client ranged from simple blue collar workers trying to get a loan to buy their first home in the capital, to the most powerful men in the country trying to buy and sell their properties and gain the highest profit.  He worked on weekends and late into the nights.  But somehow, he was always there to help with homework, stock the refrigerator with the best fruit in season, make up bed-time stories, prepare a bowl of pomegranate seeds on cool autumn night so our hands wouldn’t get stained, take us to the beach every summer and on short outings to watch daredevil motorcyclist jump off dirt hills outside of the crowded capital. 

Born and raised in the countryside of Khorasan, he had to get his country fix every weekend, so he would drive us on hikes and picnics on a regular basis.  In the winter, it was tubing on a snow-covered hill using the floor mats of our VW bug.  In the spring, a day on the banks of the Karaj river, sitting on Persian rugs and drinking tea.  A hard-core trip involved carrying pots, pans and a camping stove across a rickety rope bridge to make lunch on the other side of the river because it was less traveled and more idyllic. 

Another treat and a weekend ritual was chelo kabab for lunch.  To give my mother a break from cooking, my Dad would take one of our cooking pots and bring back food from this hole in the wall restaurant that catered to the working men but wasn’t a place you took your family to.  The kabob would sit on top of the basmati rice, which would sit on top of a layer of bread at the bottom of the pan.  By the time that pot would arrive at our house, the juice from the meat had seeped through the rice, carrying with it the flavor of saffron from the rice, and soaked that bread to an exquisite deliciousness.  My brother and I would fight over that bread, as my mother would set the table.

Every summer, we would go to the Caspian coast for a week.  Sometimes my father could not stay with us the whole week, so he would take us to Darya Kenar, drive four hours back to Tehran and return the following weekend to pick us up.  It was enough for him to dip into the grey waters of the sea a couple of times to let go of the stress of his drive and his work.  A creature of habit, you could set your clock by when he ate, when he took his obligatory afternoon nap and when he went to sleep at night.  But at the beach, he would take off his watch and just enjoy the few days of relaxation and time with his family and friends.

Anything I know about math, I owe it to him.  When I would get stuck with geometry, trigonometry, or algebra I would leave my unsolved problems on the dining room table at night before going to bed.  Sometime between getting home from work that night and the next morning, he would have solved the problems and given me the most clear explanation that no high school or college math teacher ever could.

And on those occasions when my mother had a volunteer committee meeting or a get together with her friends, my father would take me to Cinema Cinemond, a theatre dedicated to showing Disney movies dubbed into Persian. It was right next to Cinema Paramont and in between the two was a little café.  That is where we would sit while waiting for the movie to start and he would order me a tall café glacé.  More than the exoticness of the treat, it was the rarity of the opportunity to be alone with my father and have his full attention that makes this memory so precious. 

All that my father had built materially disappeared practically over night when the Islamic Revolution confiscated his belongings because of his Faith in the Baha’i religion.  By then we were living in the United States and there was no going back.  But the spiritual and moral inheritance that he left my brother and me are immortal and no earthly power will be able to diminish them.

The vanilla ice cream and the coffee in Café Glace, or Affogato, treat your taste buds to this contrast of the bitter and the sweet. And isn’t that what life is?  Aren’t we all a contradictory bundle of opposites?  But how wonderful that when all is said and done, what I remember are the sweet moments that my father spent loving me and showing me what really matters in this life.

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