a bowl of peeled cucumbers next to a knife and the slices of cucumber skin
Persian cucumbers on an auntie's counter. Courtesy Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel

“If you finish the pickles, I’ll teach you how to make them.”

I was sitting at my auntie’s breakfast counter surrounded by a Persian feast of cheeses, fruits, toasted barbari, and nuts, but I was most drawn to the gallon jar housing the homemade spears. It seemed like a fair deal, and I locked eyes with a cousin seated beside me. We shrugged, grabbed forks, and each chased more pickles out from their vinegar abode.

These moments in June at the counter were the softest, among my most treasured, as I convinced my auntie that “yes, I can prep” and “yes, I can cook,” earning her trust so that I could help, not just witness. I had grown up different from my cousin next to me, at a distance from the half of me that felt most like home.

When my dad Houshang Mikhaiel emigrated from Tehran, Iran, in the late 1960s, he made a home in Chicago. Although the middle child, he was the first to leave home, and his four siblings later settled in Los Angeles. He called himself the black sheep of the family, and from what I can gather, that means the one most committed to assimilating. He didn’t teach me Farsi, he converted from Judaism to Catholicism when he married my Italian-Hungarian mom, and he shrugged off the family business of real estate in favor of electrical engineering. (In a twist I don’t quite understand, he ultimately charmed his way into the antiques business.)

What my dad couldn’t kick, however, was Persian cooking, even if made with American substitutions or alongside doctored frozen foods. He tried escaping the culture, but the flavors lingered, and I loved them. Sweets and savories existed together in the way of the iconic burned rice, tahdig, which he’d make with cranberries (instead of barberries/currants). Or in what my little sister and I knew of as “lulu” (instead of “luleh”) kebabs he’d dress with honey barbecue sauce (instead of alongside shirazi salad).

When my dad’s appetite lessened in April, that was the first sign that something wasn’t right. I had been caregiving on and off for him for years, as I navigated my early 20s. I cherished the time I spent brunching with him, sometimes snapping photos of his ring-adorned hands as we shared a meal before errands. I’d always give him my orange slices.

A decades-old print of Houshang Mikhaiel grilling for a family meal. Courtesy Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel

Dad was a fighter, a bionic man, despite a life of medical emergencies, two cancers among them. But by May his appetite was gone and now diabetes emerged even with his birdlike eating habits. Caregiving now wasn’t just buying the groceries, but cooking them, and I was stumped.

The list of possible ingredients dwindled as the flavors I’d grown up with now caused him physical pain. I leaned on a friend to brainstorm simplified meals. She was a godsend and sent a Google doc of options. I spent a weekend at his apartment cooking through the list, and although they weren’t his recipes, I recognized him in my movements, the multitasking, the tasting, the timing. He looked on from the couch, too weak to join me, telling me I was making too much food, that I was doing too much. (Both points he always said when it came to caring for him.) But I thrived and loved poking through cabinets and using the oven for its intended purpose instead of as storage. Cooking was something I could have agency over. I couldn’t change my dad’s growing fatigue, but I could switch up the dressing on our cucumber salad and lessen the seasoning on his salmon. 

The following week we received his stage four cancer diagnosis. I googled the survival rate and immediately drove back to his apartment. He had put all the food I made in the freezer. And now, I defrosted it for us to share and talk through what came next.

We took an emergency trip to Los Angeles, where his miracle doctors practiced, where my Persian family lived. A couple of my aunties picked us up from the airport and drove us the hour to Duarte. The entire way there, they gave us the rundown on the food they made us, how to prep it, how to plate. They lovingly interrogated me on what I’d been feeding him, how often, how much. My dad sat stoic in the passenger seat, praising me and convincing them he had what he needed.

My aunties made a beeline for the mini fridge once I unlocked the hotel door. It was then stuffed with soups and fruit for my dad and, impossibly, my favorites (homemade pickles among them). My mind wandered to the prior summer, where such a spread existed atop my auntie’s mahogany dining room table instead of a chipped hotel desk. But I was grateful for them, for the food, for showing up.

Food has been the thread, through hope and grief. The stories of my dad center on his cooking, his jokes, his charm, his love for his daughters. He died during a high Jewish holiday, Shavuot, which means we couldn’t sit shiva, the week of mourning where family would come and visit us. Rather, I drove my sisters from family house to family house, from table to table, across Los Angeles in a journey we dubbed Sisterhood of the Traveling Shiva. With each spread an auntie or cousin pointed out my dad’s favorites, dishes I knew and dishes I didn’t. But pickles could pair with each one, and those were also among his favorites.

The Food Issue