Halfway through the writing of her enchanting debut novel "Pomegranate Soup," Iranian-born Marsha Mehran experienced a burst of inspiration.
"'Pomegranate Soup!' It just happened while I was washing dishes," Mehran said. "Not very romantic. And I said, 'Yes. That's it the title of my book!'"
Mehran has written a charming "modern fairy tale" that is loosely based on her own young life. She is just 27. "Pomegranate is one of a handful of foods that are pillars of Persian food," Mehran said by phone from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., "and it was important to my life because my mother had a craving for pomegranate while she was carrying me. Now pomegranate marks my birthdays."
When Mehran was 2, her parents decided to pursue an academic life in the United States, but their visas were rejected when a group of revolutionary students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and took the employees hostage.
Instead, the Mehran family went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where her parents opened a Middle Eastern cafe, El Pollo Loco (the Crazy Chicken), which was well-received by Argentinian palates. Marsha attended St. Andrews, a Scottish private academy where the students spoke English. By 1984, military coups threatened the Argentine government and the family moved again this time to Miami.
When her parents divorced, 14-year-old Marsha went with her mother to live in "barren" Australia. It didn't seem like home to her, so when she turned 19, Mehran moved to New York with $200 in her pocket. While working as a waitress
she met her husband-to-be, Christopher, a bartender at an Irish pub. After they married, they moved to Ireland for two years but Brooklyn called, and now they consider that their home.
"Brooklyn is all kinds of different people," said Mehran, who has become thoroughly cosmopolitan. "There are no boundaries. The people are just great, and there are so many different cultures with 177 different languages spoken there. I love it. I feel at home. Getting off the subway, I see the sky and I hear different voices."
In the process of finding her home, Mehran has also found her place in life as a novelist. She "stumbled" onto writing after she had studied for a decade to be a concert pianist. "It just wasn't working for me, so I started writing short stories. One night in Dublin, I was crossing a bridge and a thought occurred to me: 'I'm going to be a writer.' And I said it out loud! I started rushing home every night to work on the computer."
Back in Brooklyn, Mehran worked as a receptionist but continued writing what she saw as a novel about Iranian/American women. After working on it for two years she became depressed, dreading the writing process.
Before she moved to Ireland, her father had said that country really should be called "Iranland." She had noticed while living in Ireland that ethnic foods were making a splash. "I had this other idea in my head, and I wrote 'Pomegranate Soup' in six weeks! I was eating a lot, too! It was glorious. I gained 20 pounds but I've lost it all now."
Mehran called her agent, and only two weeks later Random House made an offer. Her book reflects all her cosmopolitan experiences, as her characters three Iranian sisters go to Ireland and open a Middle Eastern restaurant and attract a wide following.
She sees a part of herself in each of the three sisters: "Marjan, the eldest, is paternal, and I find myself being nurturing to people. At the same time, I have a bit of the neurotic tendencies of Bahar. And Layla, the youngest, is the optimist. That's me I always have hope."
There is so much mention of various foods in the book that it is impossible to read it without getting hungry. Random House decided to debut the book in Europe because of its gourmet appeal. The book is now a best seller in Italy and is attracting burgeoning interest all over the continent at the same time it is being introduced to an American audience.
Mehran wanted to introduce the beauties of Iranian cuisine to the world, but she also believed strongly in her story. "Iranians use the ancient system hot and cold foods. You know how much to eat and what to eat when."In New York, there is such a variety of foods you sometimes get overwhelmed and eat everything and anything. Iranians know more about control of portions and the elements of food."