A narrative interview by Nina Coomes. Or, everything you need to know about Juliet's six years of iteration in designing Nowruz: A Persian New Year.
Find the rest of this story in Of Juliet Volume 1, Part 1, Winter 2018
When I make my way to Juliet, it is early evening in early December. Though it is only 5:00 pm, it feels much later. It is dark, the street lights creating pale spotlights ahead of me on the sidewalk. Through the large windows of 257 Washington Street, I can see Katrina Jazayeri, co-owner of Juliet, bent behind the counter, working at something in the kitchen. Her hair is piled on top of her head instead of in her signature braids usually neatly coiled. The lighting in the empty dining area is a mellow, lazy amber. It is not quite the golden romantic lighting of Juliet during dinner service, nor is it the sunny bright whites of brunch hours. I push open the door fogged over in the cold feeling as if I am heading backstage before a run of shows, about to speak to a performer in the green room before they enter stage right to resounding applause. Around me, music swells briefly, which is not a part of my imagination but instead, Katrina explains, is the Aurora Birch record she was just listening to.
As she hurries to turn it off, I make a mental note to later listen to Birch’s album while asking Katrina what she was doing at the back counter. She gestures to an open table near the windows, and tells me that she was starting the process of making the croissants and babkas they sell on weekends. “And besides,” she smiles, “If I’m home I just want to do home things so I’m putting those off.” She makes two tall glasses of mint tea and sets them on the table, easing into the chair next to me.
I’ve come to Juliet to speak to Katrina about Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which Juliet celebrates with a special menu in March. Briefly summarized, Nowruz marks the vernal equinox, or the beginning of spring, and finds its origins in the Zoroastrian tradition. It can sometimes be called the Iranian New Year, but as Katrina notes in our conversation, is actually celebrated all over the region, ranging in influence from Afghanistan to Georgia. Nowruz is pronounced like “no ruse,” meaning literally “new day”, and though the holiday itself has been celebrated for centuries (the Christian tradition of painting eggs for Easter even finds its roots in Nowruz!) Katrina’s introduction to the holiday has been a gradual one. “We didn’t grow up around a lot of other Persian families as all my dad’s family is in Los Angeles. We would visit them every couple of years maybe,” she says, “but my dad wasn’t really big on traditions. He’s a tomorrow man.” Aunts would call to wish them a happy new year, but beyond that, Nowruz’s presence in the Jazayeri household was subtle: “I’m realizing all the ways the holiday and cooking made it into my life but it never came with the narration. It was only when we started thinking about a Persian New Year menu for our events that I was like, wait a minute! All these things my dad made, these are what we ate as children.” She recounts to me the differences she has observed in the cuisine of Iranians who fled before the revolution versus those who might still be in Iran, adding “though I don’t want to make it too binary because it’s more subtle than that.” Later, she would tell me of her mother, an “Air Force brat”, who traveled to Iran and married her father because she couldn’t stand to be apart from him, only for the Iranian hostage crisis to occur the day after their wedding. “Their lives changed a lot,” she remarks wryly, speaking about the need for her father’s family to then flee to the United States.
Hearing of her family’s flight to the USA, I ask Katrina what, if any, intention she might have in constructing a Nowruz menu while the United States has listed Iran as a country under the newly upheld Travel Ban. Earlier in the evening we had spoken briefly about how feeding people can be a political act, citing Juliet’s no-tipping policy and advocacy for a living wage. Katrina pauses for a moment, thinking. “One of the great things about food is there are so many entry points.” She continues: “you could be excited about farm to table culture and that’s what gets you to pay attention, or you could be interested in a culture that broadens your understanding of a people.” She goes on to detail an Arabic phrase that provided the name for her and co-owner/chef Josh Lewin’s hospitality company, Bread and Salt Hospitality; “‘between us, bread and salt,’ and it means once you break bread with a person and have a meal you can’t be adversaries...When food can get people to the table and be that gateway to talking or learning about people who are not like them, that’s the best entry point into a discussion.” As Katrina finishes her sentence, I find myself briefly skeptical. Can food really foster some sort of sense of understanding or mutuality? Does the simple act of eating truly harbor the potential to bring people together, past racial, political, and socioeconomic lines? I shelve these questions in my mind for later, and our conversation moves on.
When I ask what it’s been like to try to translate Nowruz into a menu at Juliet, Katrina tells me “creative license is what my dad taught me. He was always tinkering with older and more traditional recipes and flavors and turning them into what you expect to see at a French restaurant. That was a fun challenge for him. He expressed a lot of creativity with his rolodex of flavor combinations. This fish dish, sabzi polow mahi, it’s fried fish with lots and lots of herbs mixed into rice. My dad would take white fish fillets and make a spinach filling and roll the fish around the spinach and take all the herbs that were supposed to go in the rice and make an emulsified green sauce and to us, we just thought, oh, Dad’s making another great dinner.”
It seems both Katrina and Josh keep Katrina’s father’s spirit of tradition and creative license alive and well. In another example, Katrina tells me of a hearty stew that her father made, redolent with tomatoes, chickpeas, and lamb. Traditionally, the stew ought to be served mashed together in a sandwich, but Katrina recounts the way her sister, her mother and herself loved the brothy stage before the stew properly reduced, sneaking into the kitchen for bowls of just the thin soup. The Juliet Nowruz menu features two “very traditional dishes,” and two that have classical origins with interpretive takes. One appears to be that soup. According to Katrina, “Josh does a great job of turning a hearty stew into a tomato and saffron consomme and lamb roulade and little potatoes.” She adds,“We made it a full on soup, a brothy soup.” It seems this reimagined dish at Juliet is a victory for the younger Katrina stealing broth from her father’s stew pot. The menu also features an array of sides called sabzi khordan which Katrina explains as “a collection of fresh herbs, spring radishes, onions. They're kind of like palate cleansers as you’re eating your meal. We would do a version of [the sabzi khordan] as a way to introduce a style of eating to people that’s very different.”
At this point, I realize we have been speaking of Nowruz for a while but I have yet to understand what exactly Nowruz feels like, looks like, sounds like, or smells like. It will still be a few months before it is time to celebrate Nowruz at Juliet or in the outside world, and I’d like a better glimpse into the holiday. I ask Katrina to think about these sensory categories and how they might fit into the New Years celebration. She begins by speaking about her aunt’s home, saying “there’s always the smell of cinnamon, but it’s textural too, because there’s something inevitably bubbling on the stove somewhere. So the air in the house is always a little bit wet, steamy almost. There’s fresh herbs everywhere so you get, I guess to me, the smell of cooking. Cinnamon, saffron, and herbs are the first thing that meets you.” She closes her eyes, and goes on. “There’s always really soft carpet and you take off your shoes. Somewhere near the entryway one of the first things you’ll see is the haft-seen, or the table that gets set with auspicious icons. There’s some kind of sprouted wheat pudding, a wheatgrass plant, vinegar, garlic, apples, and our family does a goldfish. Painted eggs, gold coins, a mirror and candles.”
Katrina continues, smiling, “There’s never silence in an Iranian house. Even at the end of the night when people are full and some are falling asleep on the couch and others are milling around there’s always the sound of tea being poured or nuts being cracked at the coffee table. There’s always a happy chaotic sound of gossiping and laughing. I love that sound. If I could bottle the sound of a Persian dinner party that would be great.”
As Katrina describes the many sensory elements of Nowruz, a slow joy begins to spread across her features. The matter-of-fact expository answers to what Nowruz might be, her careful consideration of political landscapes at the table, even the mirth of childhood remembrances---all of these suddenly make much more sense in the context of the glow breaking across her face. Katrina paints a picture of relaxation, of community, and perhaps most importantly, of home. The tight knot of skepticism I had carried earlier begins to unravel. Of course food could bring strangers around a table. Of course a once-impossible discussion might become possible in the carpeted, cinnamon-haze chatter of a loved one’s house. Of course there is potential. Of course, optimism. Of course, hope. I begin to understand that the act of Nowruz, and perhaps Juliet broadly, is to begin the fresh year by inviting people in from the cold, and giving them whatever warmth you can muster. On Nowruz, you are gracious, putting aside your labels and grievances, letting hospitality speak instead. Though the year before and the year ahead may be cold, harsh, cruel even, on Nowruz everyone is full and content, allowing for the glimmering possibility of something better. Later, I ask Katrina what kinds of themes drive Juliet, and what she says next sums up what I felt from her discussion of Nowruz perfectly: “This is all I have to give you. Everything that I love.”