This was a post from May but I am reposting it since it fits so beautifully as followup to last week's post, "Are Muslims Barbarians?".
In Aprils I visited a monastery for a retreat. One generally doesn’t find Afghans frequenting monasteries but the Monastery of Christ In The Desert has had several Afghan visitors recently, well, mostly my family. My brother Farid lived here for the last 20 years among the contemplative Benedictine monks as a civilian caretaker of the monastery. He dedicated his life to serving the brothers and searching for the meaning of life. He passed away on February 25, 2012.
His loss was a tragedy for my family since Farid was estranged from us for many years; he re-joined our family in June of 2010. As you can imagine, losing him has been heart breaking for all of us. Even though I went to the monastery shortly after Farid’s death, I decided to return there to mourn his loss. I am grateful to the brothers at the monastery who accepted my brother 20 years ago despite the fact that he was raised as a Muslim and did not plan to become a monk. The brothers embraced him as part of their community and accepted him with love.
This was my third visit to the monastery. I have gotten to know the brothers well and I am on joking terms with a few of them. We discuss life, love, acceptance, monastic life, Afghan culture, politics and of course Afghan food. I never thought I would have so much to chat about with a monk. The brothers were intrigued by my blog and asked me to cook an Afghan meal in honor of Farid on this trip. I was honored but also terrified about cooking the Sunday dinner for 37 people.
I was told that the brothers are very protective of their kitchen and rarely let outsiders cook for the community. I was anxious but my 10 year old Sofia noted that if the dinner turned out bad they will never know the difference. This was a very good point.
The monastery is deep in New Mexico desert, tucked away in a canyon surrounded by gorgeous red cliffs. To get there one has to drive 13 miles on a narrow dirt road far away from the rest of the world. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world and I should know, I have been to 35 countries.
I quickly realized that the remoteness of the monastery called for good planning. I made a meticulous list of ingredients, quadrupling my recipes. I landed in Santa Fe with my suitcase stuffed with hard to find ingredients like 10 lbs of Afghan rice, various types of Afghan sweets and spices. In Santa Fe I picked up 12 lbs. of frozen spinach, 4 very large winter squash, 5 lbs. of raisins, 3 lbs. of slivered almonds and various other ingredients, which the brothers didn’t have in their pantry.
The brothers cook in a professional kitchen that is fully stocked with huge pots, pans, four stoves, five refrigerators, several freezers and any kind of kitchen appliance one would need for a feast. The brothers take turns cooking for 35-40 people twice a day, but as the Abbott noted some are better at reading recipes than others. I have enjoyed every meal that I have had at the monastery.
My cooking assistants were the Prior, Father Joseph Gabriel, and brother Frances who are both accomplished cooks. We started peeling, chopping, and dicing at 6:45 am. I also made one of the desserts, firnee, in the morning so it would have time to cool. Unfortunately the Monastery only has powdered milk. Firnee calls for fresh milk. Thank goodness despite the powdered milk this dessert turned out creamy and delicious.
Around 8:45am we took a break to eat breakfast, attend mass and join in the Sunday light meal. We resumed our cooking session at 12:45 pm. I was nervous. The brothers eat Sunday dinner at 4:10pm on the dot. Everything had to go like clock work.
I had imagined that our cooking time would be a fun bonding time where we would chat and share stories. Instead, we rushed around madly to get everything ready on time. During this rush Brother Frances cut his finger, I splattered hot oil on my eyelid and my hand and Father Joseph Gabriel was not only cooking but also frantically washing dirty pots. He kept repeating, “The brothers in charge of clean up will be horrified if they see this mess”.
Fortunately my brother’s sweetheart Rosy (who also lives in the monastery) popped in at the right time and started making dessert plates. Rosy divvied up the firnee in small bowls, which were set on plates filled with rhot, noqul, khasta e shereen anddried mulberries with walnuts. I wanted the brothers to try a variety of Afghan delights.
We somehow got the qabilipalau, kadoo, sabzi and the salad ready by 4:10 pm. I even managed to comb my hair and change my shirt. Sunday dinner is very special at the monastery. When I was seated on the side of the refectory with the brothers I felt honored. As we ate in silence, I looked to the other side of the room where the guests of the monastery were seated. I felt very proud to be part of this wonderful community that has loved my brother for 20 years and now me and my family.
So, Farid if you can hear me, thank you for sharing this little peace of heaven with me, The Monastery of Christ In The Desert, where I can transcend religion, culture, gender and life style among loving people and love them back unconditionally.
Monastery of Christ In The Dessert
Sunday April 15, 2012
Rice with Chicken, Carrots and Raisins, Qabili Palau
Braised Squash, Kadoo
Slow Cooked Spinach, Qorma e Sabzi
Afghan Salad, Salata
Flat Bread or Pita Bread
Afghan Delights Platter:
Sugar covered almonds and chickpeas (noqul)
Afghan sweet bread with nigella seeds (roht Fred’s favorite)
Homemade cardamom almond brittle (khasta e shereen)
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