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I think back to 1998 when my husband Jim and I hosted our first Christmas holiday get together. We had been married for two years at the time, were living in a tiny apartment, and I worked a busy jobs which left no time to cook. Although I had spent a couple of holidays with Jim’s family, I had never played hostess
Looking back, Christmas dinner was a little over my head. Come to think of it, there were several things wrong with this plan:
1. I didn’t celebrate Christmas growing up, and frankly, knew very little about the holiday. Even though I came to the United States from Afghanistan at the age of 11, I didn’t know much about the American traditions of Christmas. My family took advantage of the Christmas sales and the days off work, but we didn’t do anything special around the holiday. Once in a while, my Dad would show up with gift, but that was at random and no one reciprocated.
2. I did not know how to cook.
3. I had no idea what one traditionally serves on Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, and Jim wasn’t much help in enlightening me.
Since our apartment was small the tree was sufficient decoration. Thanks to our landlord we had a wreath on the door. I worried about what to feed everyone. Afghans host by plying their guests with many meals, tea, snacks, and more tea, never letting anyone lift a finger. Considering I didn’t know how to cook, figuring out what we were going to eat was a challenge. I made up for this shortcoming by being a resourceful planner, which usually serves me well. But sometimes I plan too quickly and miss important details.
My game day plan was to serve fresh bagels, lox and cream cheese from Noah’s down the street on Christmas morning. For dinner, I called Mollie Stones, an upscale grocery store, and ordered the full line-up: “homemade” turkey, stuffing, potatoes, rolls, vegetable and dessert. It all sounded great and all I had to do was heat and serve.
As Christmas approached, I made many calls to my mom, Jeja, for advice. She was worried that I do a good job hosting my in-laws and supported my plan to order in dinner since she had no faith in my cooking ability. She even offered to cook an Afghan dinner one night and send it over from Fremont to San Francisco. I declined since I was not sure if Jim’s family would like Afghan food. I still don’t know if they like Afghan food.
On Christmas morning I woke up before everyone else, got dressed and walked to Noah’s bagels on Fillmore Street. It was a crisp San Francisco day. I noted how deserted the streets looked. “Maybe it’s still too early for people to be up,” I cautiously wondered. “Maybe people are sleeping in today." As I turned onto Fillmore Street it quickly sunk in that every shop on the street was closed, including Noah’s bagels. Not a single soul was in sight on this normally bustling street.
To my horror I realized that EVERYTHING is closed on Christmas. Not just Noah’s, but Mollie Stone’s too. After a cheerful greeting from a homeless person who seemed very happy to see me, I ran home and shook Jim to a quick state of wakefulness. “Did you know everything is closed on Christmas day?” I asked. “Yes, everyone knows that,” he said. Everyone, apparently, except Jeja and me.
Thank goodness I had enough bread, jam and cereal to offer for breakfast that day. Nobody seemed to care about the missing bagels, but I couldn’t work up the nerve to tell them about our missing dinner.
I called Jeja. She was panicked. “How could this be,” she said. “No food for guests? How horrible.” I could hear my Dad, siblings and even my young nephew Abe jabbering in the background, offering ideas, suggestions, and “tisk tisking” this bad fortune, shaking their heads all the while, I’m sure.
At noon my brother Waheed called with Plan B. He said Jeja had intended to roast a couple of chickens for their dinner that night. Instead, she’d send them over for our Christmas meal. At 5:30 Waheed showed up at my doorstep with a car full of food, still warm. Jim’s family was amazed that my family gave up their meal so we could have a special Christmas dinner, and that Waheed had driven an hour to deliver it to us. They couldn’t comprehend the importance my Afghan family placed on making sure my guests would get the royal treatment. In my country, not doing so would be considered shameful -- to our province, to our clan, to our qala (the family compound) and to our family.
I will forever be grateful to my mom for cooking, to Waheed for delivering the food, and to the rest of the family for their belief that it takes a village to host well. I am also grateful to Jim’s family for happily accepting what came to them without judgment or resistance.
I have since learned to cook, entertain and plan better. In honor of this rescue I share our Roasted Chicken with Afghan Spice Rub recipe.
Happy holidays to all of you!!!
Roast Chicken with Afghan Spice Rub
1 whole chicken, rinsed and patted dry
½ tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground paprika
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. turmeric
½ tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. Kosher salt
1 lemon, cut in half
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Set the chicken in a roasting pan, preferably on a roasting rack. In a small bowl stir together the 4 spices, the garlic powder and the salt. Squeeze both halves of the lemon over the chicken and then stuff into the cavity of the bird. Gently pat the spice rub evenly over the entire chicken. Roast the chicken until done, 45 minutes to an hour depending on the size of the bird.
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