Not too long ago, our newly-elected president barred refugees and citizens with green cards and visas from several countries from entering the United States. My feelings about this are so hard to express. I feel most of us have forgotten that our ancestors came to this country from somewhere else. Some of them came to escape persecution or war. Others came just to be in a place with better opportunities than they would ever have in their homeland. Many of our ancestors who came to this country to make a new life were refugees; they left everything behind to create a new destiny for themselves. All people are deserving of this opportunity.
This entry is the beginning of a series I am very passionate about. My father came to this country legally, fleeing war in Lebanon and looking for a second chance in life. Had there been any reason for this country not to give my father this chance, both of my parents lives would have been drastically different and my sisters and I wouldn’t be here today. When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I grew up with people from all over the world. I was surrounded by people of different religious beliefs and life experiences from my own. I never felt afraid of any of them, and was curious above all else. I asked questions about their culture or their faith and they were happy to answer. Through our friendships, they let me into their world as much as I let them into mine. I'd like to get back to my childhood culturally diverse roots, and marry them with my adulthood passions in taking on this new endeavor.
My hope for this project is to learn about and share with all of you the amazing diverse culture of this country through food. I would like to come visit you, interview you on your cultural heritage, get a perspective on how you see the world, and share a meal at your table. I hope to get the answers to questions about culture that maybe as a reader you are too nervous to ask. I also hope to show you the humanity in every person I meet. Though the world perceives us as different, one thing we all can agree on is food. It’s the fuel that keeps us going; a connection to our past that can be passed to the future.
I thought I’d start this series off with a bang! A couple weeks ago, I spent some time with Cheryl Holbert of Nomad Bakery and her family. I met her daughter, Kara, in college and grew close to her and her parents over the years. It was a great opportunity to catch up, eat delicious food, and discuss our feelings on everything going on in our country and the world beyond. My love for food has grown over the years, and it was really wonderful to watch Cheryl take her passion for bread baking and turn it into a successful and amazing business. She was named one of Dessert Professional's online magazine’s top ten bread bakers in North America 2016.
When I arrived at the Holbert household and the headquarters for Nomad Bakery, it felt just like when I was eighteen years old driving up the the house on a weekend night to enjoy a meal together. The main difference from those college days was the large cob oven in their backyard. It was handmade by friends of theirs about a year and a half ago. Fun fact: it’s actually the only cobb oven in the town they live in! A knock on the door and I was back into a familiar place. There was a beautiful spread of food on the table. I think I said more than once that Cheryl should also be a food stylist, she puts so much care into the presentation of her food it’s almost too gorgeous to eat!
The menu for our lunch together was chosen based on Cheryl’s Iranian heritage: Persian Barbari a dense wood fired flatbread accompanied by two dips, Borani-e Bademjan and Adasi, Quince Jam, cheese, herbs, and vegetables to accompany. Since these dishes aren’t familiar to everyone, a brief explanation is definitely in order! Borani-e Bademjan is a yogurt dip with eggplant and garlic topped with walnuts and saffron. When I finally did get to taste it I really loved it for it’s creamy thick texture with the taste of garlic throughout. The garnish of walnuts also gives it a crunch that I particularly enjoyed too! Adasi is a lentil stew that we used as a dip for the barbari. It is extremely similar to a Lebanese dish I haven’t eaten for years, called mahjudarah. After eating Adasi and enjoying it I feel I have no choice but to give my childhood foe a chance again. Quince jam was my absolute favorite out of the three. The quince itself is part of the apple and pear family and it grows in Iran, Turkey and Armenia. The jam is made with cardamom and rosewater to flavor it. I grew up with rosewater in my life, and in some way the smell alone is something that relaxes me.
I took a few seconds to admire the perfectly curated table while Cheryl went outside to test out the dough in the cob oven. She came back with a beautiful barbari, and was pleasantly surprised that the January weather was cooperating. I hurried down to the oven to meet her as she started shaping the dough and preparing it for the 600-700 degree wood fired oven. Watching Cheryl, there's no doubt she's definitely a pro: very quick and precise, but also carefully explains the process. She creates lines in the elongated dough so that it keeps its flatness in the oven, she then glazes each quickly, alternates sprinkling sesame and nigella seeds on each loaf, then quickly gets them into the warm oven to bake.
For a Sunday afternoon in January it was surprisingly mild. I spent the time out there with Cheryl, with interjections of lighthearted jokes from her husband Jerry, enjoying the fresh air and being thankful for friendships that can pick up wherever they left off. Not too long after we got started outside, Kara and her boyfriend Scott arrived and once again we all picked up as usual. I was pretty excited that they showed up to have lunch, as it became a reunion for me. Once we finished with the Barbari, there was one more item to put in the oven. Jerry had prepared some bone in chicken to roast in there while we ate inside. I felt spoiled!
There is truly nothing more wonderful about breaking bread with friends. However, even if you’ve known someone for several years, there will always be something new to learn about them. After eating and enjoying some quality time together. I sat one on one with Cheryl and asked her a few questions.
J:Could you give a little history of your family's cultural background?
C: Okay so I have a very diverse cultural background. My mother's side is from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. the only reason I know about the Mediterranean part is from doing in ancestry search that turned out to be even more than the Polish side, which surprised me, but we never knew my mother’s father so it's not totally surprising. I grew up with a lot of Polish tradition, bread was a major part of that. My grandmother baked babka, and bread is a huge staple of the polish culture. My father's side: my biological father is Persian and he actually in 1979 and became a U.S. citizen. Like many people from Iran did at the time. So that is a culture that has been really fun for me to explore and unearth because I've never been there. I was not raised in Persian culture and yet I felt deeply connected to it upon finding out that this was my heritage. It really is by and large most of my biological heritage, with him being born in Iran and his parents being from the Tebriz area of Azerbejan.
J: What part of your heritage do you strive to learn and understand the most?
C: Iranian and I think so yeah I think I just right there is a very small percentage of Jewish on my mother's side that it was still very drawn to conceptually and philosophically. So that is something that has grown for me as well. I think the thing I strive for the most is my Persian culture. I live in a region where there are not a lot of Persian people and I don’t have a lot of access to the culture, so everything is sort of exciting and a struggle. I have done a lot of cooking and try figure out “Am I doing this right?” and “What is this really supposed to taste like?”. So it’s an exciting thing but it also I feel is the one that eludes me the most because it’s so much a part of me and I don’t have a direct access to that culture. So yes, it’s definitely more of a striving.
J: You state in your “about me” that your desire is to interpret “time honored breads of diverse heritage” in your home bakery. When did you find that this was a passion you wanted to pursue?
C: You know what, when I left my parents home and had an apartment right after college. I grew up in a family that honestly bread was very important. Bread was a spiritually connected food; something that you knew who you were from it. There were a lot of great independent bakeries in this new Jersey area, and it was something I took for granted. I always loved bread, my grandmother would say “I could live on bread!” it was always something that was there. When I left my parents house and had my own place. I moved to an area where the small bakery was dying out and the bread was mass produced from a grocery store. It tasted kind of soulless to me, but I couldn’t quite articulate that at the time. Then I had this one day when I opened up my refrigerator and there was just a bottle of water in there and it just hit me. It was such an important part of me, the food we had that were our traditions. A lot of it centered around bread so I decided to try to learn how to bake bread, even just on my time off from work. I felt an immediate connection, it just filled this need for home, Though I was glad to be out on my own, that missing piece, it filled it. From that point I started this journey of teaching myself to bake bread and talked to my grandmother trying to find out how she did it. When my kids were little, I stayed home with them and that’s when I really became an obsessed bread baker. I started milling grains, whole grains, baking everyday, reading bread books til 1AM; it was a very natural,visceral passion for me. I just felt whole and excited, and of course I love feeding people. There’s few things that really feel that way to people than bread. I just really loved sharing it with others at our table, in my family, beyond our house. It kind of just fit with who I am, because I am a person that likes to do what I’m doing and share it and bread was the perfect medium for that.
J: Do you have a particular bread that you enjoy baking more than the others?
C: Oh my gosh, I have to tell you my favorite bread to make is live fire flatbread, the Persian barbari. It was kind of exciting because it was a discovery for me since I had not grown up with it. I felt like I knew how it was supposed to taste like and I tested it on a couple of Persian people I knew to see if it was accurate. So there was an exciting journey with it but I love the live fire. I love going to the most basic elements and using technique, time and natural fermentation to create real bread. It’s kind of exciting because there’s a rhythm of baking where there’s one after another and it hits the deck of the oven. There is something in the rhythm that almost feels like a dance to me. I also love making challah bread because I love the shaping and braiding as well as the sweetness. It reminds me of Babka which is a bread my grandmother made so they’re rather related. So yes, the Barbari, Challah, and Babka would be my favorites. I also enjoy wood fired pizza since it’s closely related to wood fired flatbreads.
J: What is your favorite Persian dish?
C: My favorite persian dish… it might be Fesenjan. It’s made in a sauce of ground walnuts and pomegranate. I usually make it in the winter months around the holidays and it’s very warming and has a nice combination of spices. That said my favorite sort of Persian thing to make is advieh which is a spice mixture and you make it up fresh. Making it is a transformative experience, i have a little herb garden. I like the feel and the smell of even just weeding that garden. There’s different ones for different dishes. You buy these different elements like dried limes and you grind them, or cardamom, rose petals and it created a heady intoxicating mixture that is a base for a number of different persian dishes. My favorite dish would be.. how could I forget this, the persian rice with the tajin, the crusty top. How I missed a carb I don’t know!
J: Do you have a goal for the next year for your business and/or your craft? Is there anything in particular that you are looking to explore?
C: Yes, Ido. I have some regular customers that I wholesale bread too so it’s a nice consistent income. I’m still a solo baker but have help from my husband to deliver or wash dishes. I am looking toward expanding what I’m doing in a sharing artistic way. To me weaving is another side of baking, it may take a form of classes. I’ve done woodfire classes and classes where we weave while the bread rises. I’ve also thought about doing more writing and start a blog. I’d like to take it beyond bread whether it be classes or writing.
J: What are some of your other hobbies and passions?
C: I really do love being outside and love to walk. At one point I was pretty good with my herb garden but with the past couple of years starting the bakery it fell by the wayside. These days I’m interested in growing, I have friends who are starting a business called Front Yard Farms. One of them is a nurse in Boston who has a farm here in town, she and her husband want to start an alternative landscaping where they will work with what’s there to make a sustainable garden. We’ve decided we’re going to grow a patch of grain. Not sure if it will be rye or wheat, but I’m just interested in time and growing cycles so I’d like to get into it more.
J: Where can people find you if they’d like to order bread or see what you’re up to?
C: I would say the best thing to do would be to go to my website Nomadbakery.com. There’s a contact/buy bread page and you can email me through that. You can always find my bread at A-Market on Thursday afternoon, Concord Food Co-op Thursdays at 5 and Benedikt Dairy in Goffstown on Tuesdays. I also have customers close to my house come over for scheduled pickups. I have so much fun with instagram. I was nervous at first but once my kids taught me I loved it. It’s become a major part of the process and a great way to connect with bakers. My daughter might be visiting a baker I’ve contacted from London! It’s a great way to connect with people who love local and good food!
After finishing the interview, Cheryl and I continued talking about food and what makes it so important to both of us. We were both inspired by our ancestors, who made these dishes with what they had before them, and when coming to the United States they brought that piece of their culture with them and shared it with others. Cheryl’s desire to explore a part of herself she didn’t know of until later in life has really ignited a fire in me to figure out my full genealogy and explore it. Her exploration through bread and food is truly something worth following and aspiring to.
I'm so thankful to Cheryl for helping me kick off my project. If you're interested in following her, please check out the links below to her business! If you are interested in sharing your culture and a meal with me, please reach out! And stay tuned for more culture and food to come.