Out & About

EAR TO THE GROUND: A Persian New Year in Macon

By LEILA REGAN-PORTER -- Telegraph columnist

Moving to a small city in the Deep South, I was concerned about standing out like a sore, purple-haired thumb. But, as I stressed previously, this couldn't be further from the truth.

As for my Persian (Iranian) background, which had often been met with derision in my childhood, it was greeted with warm, enthusiastic curiosity. It doesn't hurt that I (well, my talented mother and dedicated husband; I'm mostly relegated to dish-washing duty) cook delicious Persian cuisine for friends on occasion.

By the time it came to throw my first Norooz party on my own last year, I had a solid list of people who were interested in the culture, history and food of Iran.

For those who haven't heard the word Norooz (meaning "New Day," also spelled Noruz, Nowruz and other variations, depending on your interpretation of the Persian alphabet), here's a short introduction.

Norooz is the Persian New Year that has been celebrated as part of the Zoroastrian calendar for more than 3,000 years. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion, whose traditions still prevail in Iran, despite it being an Islamic republic. While Norooz falls on different days depending on how the Persian calendar lines up with the Western calendar, it usually is around March 20 or 21, with the former also being the first day of spring.

Having New Year celebrations in spring is an utter joy. Traditions of Norooz include setting for the Haft Sin ("seven S's"), a table set with items symbolizing the New Year and awakening of spring:

Sabzeh: wheat sprouts, symbolizing rebirth.

Samanu: a sweet pudding made from wheat, symbolizing affluence.

Senjed: dried lotus tree fruit, symbolizing firmness and tolerance.

Sir: garlic, symbolizing health.

Sib: apples, symbolizing beauty and love.

Somaq: a spice, symbolizing patience.

Serkeh: vinegar or wine, symbolizing development and evolution.

We also have other items such as eggs, gold coins, goldfish, mirrors, candles, water (fire and water symbolize purity), and photos of loved ones, especially those who have passed.

Spread out on a beaded tablecloth, with hyacinths and other flowers, it's a gorgeous display of color that practically sings celebration and renewal.

Food and gatherings are at the center of Norooz celebrations, as with any Persian tradition.

Last year, my mother cooked up special dishes like Kookoo (an omelet of herbs), Dolmeh (rice and meat wrapped up in grape leaves), Reshteh Polo (a rice dish with raisins, noodles and dates), and a plate of Sabzi (a collection of herbs like basil, mint and tarragon, plus feta cheese and walnuts). My husband whipped up some stunning Persian ice cream, with glorious flavors of rose water and saffron that have had my friends literally groaning after tasting a bite.

I was delighted in the reactions from our guests -- the questions, the compliments and the quest for knowledge. I also learned that a surprising number of people already had knowledge and appreciation for Persian culture -- some even understood more of the language and history than I, giving me cause to cringe. Not for their knowledge, but for my lack of it.

I'm raising my daughter without a strong foundation in the language of my mother, as I refused to study Farsi (the Iranian language) as a child, which I regret. My husband has made valiant efforts to learn the language, often overtaking me, but it's difficult to keep up with a skill when you are unable to practice.

In the meantime, as we strive to teach our daughter the basics of Farsi, we can always count on her having a love for Persian food and culture.

Leila Regan-Porter is the administrative assistant at the Otis Redding Foundation, the marketing co-chair for Bragg Jam and president of the MainStreet Macon board. Follow her on Twitter@theleila.com.

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