The Real Supermarkets of Orange County

New York Times
November 19, 2010

In August, to be closer to my aging parents, my husband and I moved from Northern California to Orange County. My family settled there more than 30 years ago, not long after coming to the United States from Iran. I was 12, and the culture shock was pretty severe. There were moms in tennis skirts, dads in pastels, good-looking blond boys who surfed and good-looking blond girls who were born to wear bikinis. We were the only dark-haired people they’d ever met who didn’t speak Spanish. When I left for college, I told myself that I’d never live in such a homogeneous place again. Today the beaches are still beautiful and surfers still ride the waves, but the blonds are in the minority.

The closest market to our new house is a chaotic Persian supermarket usually filled with Chinese and Hispanic customers as well as people from just about every country associated with terrorists, floods and dictators. It’s the kind of place you might call “charming” until the third time the lady in front of you stops next to the pomegranates, jujubes or prickly pears, blocking the aisle with her cart to greet her friend with a kiss on each cheek and five minutes of pleasantries.

My husband, François, goes to this market every day to buy fresh sangak, a Persian flatbread three feet long. He grew up in Paris on fresh baguettes but has effortlessly switched allegiances. After returning from a business trip recently, he hugged me and told me how much he missed sangak. The bakery in the market opens at 7 a.m. We try to avoid the line during the day, because it is very long and very slow and the smell of fresh bread we can’t wait to eat makes time go by even more slowly. In order to control the chaos, the owners put up signs, like the one limiting each person to two fresh sangak. This means that if you want, say, eight sangak for your dinner party, you can either go four times or send three relatives, perhaps cousin­ Mahmood, Aunt Fakhri and Uncle Nematollah, to buy two sangak each. Let’s just say I know that this is done.

Another sign warns against cutting in the sangak line. When we first came to America in 1972, my father was amazed at the way Americans waited in line at Disneyland. No complaints, no cutting. In Iran, we have zerangi, a concept that loosely means “cleverness.” Zerangi can be both ethical and unethical. Coming to America and starting a successful business? That’s zerangi. Finding a way to avoid paying taxes? Also zerangi. Moving ahead in a long line? Zerangi at its finest. François likes to remind me that people from all cultures cut in line, including his own. True, but I like to think my people have turned it into an art form.

A few Saturdays ago, we got to the market a bit late. I was behind an Iranian man who from the back looked like at least 12 of my cousins. As we waited, another Iranian man came to the front of the line and started asking the first guy in Persian if he could cut behind him. I don’t look Iranian, so he must have thought that I didn’t understand and that he was being very clever. I was about to give him a piece of my mind, but before I could say anything, François showed up with our youngest, who wanted a scoop of gelato, which is in the back of the store, next to six varieties of Feta cheese. “Can you take her,” he asked, “and I’ll wait in line?”

“Listen,” I whispered to him in French, “do NOT let this guy cut in front of you.” Ten minutes later I met my husband, who told me the Hispanic guard at the door had finally made the guy go to the back of the line. Apparently, store personnel have been trained to look for signs of zerangi.

Warm sangak in hand, I heard the unmistakable voice of my father and his brother, Nematollah, talking loudly in Shushtari. When they saw us, the sangak in my arms like a newborn, my father said, “I wish I had known you were in the bread line.” And so I did what any good daughter would do; I volunteered to go back.

This time the line was much longer, and my daughter’s ice cream was melting in four places. As I approached the roped-off area of the bakery, I hoped she would start whining so that someone might take pity on us and let us go ahead. (That would be an example of ethical zerangi.) Alas, my little one was perfectly behaved, almost as if she liked waiting in line. I wondered if she, my American-born child, would ever understand the ways of her maternal forebears or if they would be a foreign concept to her, like dinosaurs. Meanwhile, I watched for other sangak lovers who, unlike dinosaurs, were still roaming around looking for an opportunity.

A version of this article appears in print on November 21, 2010, on page MM66 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: SUPERMARKET ZERANGI.