Iranians Eating Pork in Kentucky by David Shams
Iranians Eating Pork
by David Shams
“Even though my dad never conquered kubideh, he was our neighborhood’s certified master griller. Rain, shine, sleet or snow, he’d grill outside—bourbon in one hand, tongs in the other.”
Iranians Eating Pork in Kentucky
by David Shams
“D avid-joon, what’s your favorite food?” asked Manou, one of my dad’s best friends from college.
It was one of the many times we were at his home in Louisville, about an hour’s drive north of Bardstown, our hometown. Manou was preparing kubideh, a simple-looking but, in fact, complex ground beef recipe that requires skewers as long as a small sword and as wide as a dagger along with a deft touch on the grill. Something that my dad never really tried to master.
But something my dad did master were grilled pork chops, especially the kind with the meat still on the bone. When I was a kid, we’d sit on the living room floor eating “Viking Style,” as my dad called it. We ate using our hands, our faces smeared with juice from the meat, sitting in a semicircle with the TV replacing a Viking bonfire.
So, when Manou asked me what my favorite food was, my seven-year-old self knew the answer.
“PORK CHOPS!” I shouted.
Manou immediately stopped delicately massaging the raw kubideh along the sword-like skewer. He looked at me, then at my father, then back at me, then back at my father. My father was behind me chopping onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers for a Shirazi salad. The chopping stopped. I could feel him staring at me too.
Almost instantaneously I knew I said something wrong.
“Shamu-lee,” Manou started, using the nickname he had for my father, “pork chops! You let your kids eat pork?!” He then switched to Persian, saying something I can’t translate. But I’m assuming it was something along the lines of, “Muslims don’t eat pork. It is haram. What kind of Muslim are you if you allow your kids to eat pork?”
“No. His mother makes it for them. David is mistaken,” my father responds, in English. This was always the way he conversed with Manou: Manou to him in Persian, my dad to Manou in English.
He was trying to cover his tracks by blaming his American ex-wife, but I was seven years old and unaccustomed to the nuances of Iranian culture where saving face can often be more important than direct honesty, even with one’s friends.
So, I blurted out, “No, Daddy, you cook it for us!”
Because this was a time before my dad had his supposed “Ph.D. in calmness,” I was about to feel his wrath. Not only had I challenged him as children often do when accidentally exposing a parent’s seemingly mild transgression, in this instance, I did it publicly in front of his Iranian friend.
The signs were clear—his face became tighter, his jaw clenched, and his underbite became more pronounced—think Bill Cowher, Hall of Famer and Super Bowl winning coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That’s all he had to say. I knew I had upset him, even if I didn’t understand why until much later.
Manou and my dad, along with a few other Iranian students, met while studying at Murray State University in the mid-60s. That motley crew formed an Iranian version of the Rat Pack, except instead of singing, they fought over pinball machines and kicked soccer balls into basketball hoops.
None of them knew each other before they arrived at Murray. When I asked my dad how they had found each other, he replied, “How do flies find manure? We just did.”
“Well, who were the flies and who was the shit?” I remember asking, curious about whether or not my dad actually thought that analogy through. He just laughed and never answered the question.
To be fair, Murray wasn’t a big school back then. So, it was probably pretty easy for my dad to pick out the other roughly twenty or so Iranians at this small state school in the far southwest corner of Kentucky.
Years later, in the most cliché of clichés, Manou owned a Persian rug store in Louisville. Whenever he found out a customer was from my hometown, he told them he and my father were college buddies. Relying on my dad’s stellar reputation in Bardstown, he normally sealed the deal.
“Manou, I’m expecting some commission from these sales you make to people from Bardstown. Using my name isn’t free,” my father still says every time he sees Manou. He tells me he’s joking, but I’m not convinced.
While living in Bardstown, my dad was able to insulate himself from the restrictions and judgments of the Iranian diaspora. If he wanted to drink, he could drink. If he wanted to eat pork, by all means, he’d eat pork. If he wanted to be a teacher instead of something from the preferred professional trinity of doctor, lawyer, or engineer (in that order), he could be a teacher. If he wanted to supplement his income by working at a restaurant part-time, he could. If he didn’t drive a BMW, it didn’t matter. There wouldn’t be another Iranian there judging him for not keeping up with the Jafaris.
Even though my dad never conquered kubideh, he was our neighborhood’s certified master griller. Rain, shine, sleet or snow, he’d grill outside—bourbon in one hand, tongs in the other. His grilling became so famous that nearly every weekend all the neighborhood kids would show up for dinner. Kubideh was never on the menu, but pork chops often were. As were two big serving bowls of rice—one with egg yolk and butter mixed in and one plain for my American friends unable to overcome the idea that there was raw egg yolk in their rice.
Despite my dad’s active participation in flouting some of the basic tenets of Iranian culture, he was embarrassed about being exposed as a pork-eating Iranian by his son. Being young and growing up in relative isolation from other Iranians, I had no clue that Muslims don’t eat pork. I didn’t even know we were Muslim, though if we were regularly eating pork and not going to mosque then maybe we weren’t.
None of that mattered though. Because according to my father, I should have known. Even if he didn’t teach us that we were “Muslim-light” or “Muslim adjacent,” we still should know how to behave properly—whatever that meant.
I shouldn’t have put it on blast that my dad was happily facilitating our consumption of pork. I should have known that Muslims don’t eat pork.
I should have known that our life in Bardstown was vastly different than that of pretty much every other Iranian on the planet. I should have known that Iranians often judge each other harshly. I should have known that just because we ate rice with every meal and drank hot cha-ee instead of coffee, we weren’t immune from judgment. I should have known about aberoo, that all-encompassing moral code that keeps Iranians the world over from acting out in public, with often wide variations of what “acting out” means.
There are things that are acceptable in public and things meant to stay inside the home. Most people understand that. But for Iranians, there are often even more layers and levels that shift, change, and are often conditioned on the company, geography, and any other ad hoc rule. And apparently, outing your father as a pork eater to his Iranian friend is included in that very broad no-go zone.
About a decade ago, shortly before I moved to Washington, D.C., my dad and I were chatting about religion, and he mentioned that he has always been Muslim. But he was never a zealot or whatever the Muslim equivalent of evangelical is. Instead, he saw himself as Sufi, bourbon country’s very own Molana. He grew up in Iran at a time when religion wasn’t as omnipresent as it is today. He doesn’t even remember having been to a mosque as a child.
“I feel like God has bigger fish to fry than to worry about me eating pork,” he told me during this same conversation, though this isn’t quite the point of religiously prescribed prohibitions. It is nonetheless a valid argument for those of us living a religious-adjacent life seeking justification for our apostasy, especially when living near some of the most underrated and outstanding pork producers in the country.
Regarding the chiding of his family and friends, who themselves come from a mixed bag of religious devotion, my father responded, “All those assholes used to go to the Armenian butcher for mortadella sandwiches.” And before anyone gets bent out of shape, my father uses “asshole” as a term of endearment. I celebrated his 50-year anniversary in America with an essay published by the Huffington Post, and the first words out of his mouth were “You ASSHOLE!” followed by another expletive that is unrepeatable.
“Why’d they go to the Armenian butcher?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Well, for starters, it was delicious. And second, the Armenians were the only ones allowed to process pork. You couldn’t get their mortadella at the Muslim butcher.”
Aberoo is a fickle beast. Even now, over 30 years from one of my first run-ins with the cultural concept, I still find myself running into moments when it applies, and unwittingly committing a faux pas, only later realizing I’d upset some unwritten rule.
People often have ways of insulating themselves from judgment. They obfuscate the facts, fudge the numbers, or juke the stats to make themselves look and feel better about societal transgressions. It’s innate in all of us. Largely due to 2000-plus years of empire and civilization, Aberoo is just the Iranian culture’s more complex version of that.
Aberoo be damned, though, I still eat pork and it’s absolutely delicious.
Featured Image by Paul Hermann via Unsplash
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born and raised in Kentucky, David now lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Amanda, and 1-year-old daughter Martha Kocab. When not reading, writing, or spending time with his family, David enjoys watching Liverpool FC and University of Louisville basketball. Find him on Twitter @ShamsWriter.