A guide to being a Bahá'í'

I was a callow 17-year-old when I first met the Bahá'ís. I'd been brought up and confirmed in the Church of England, but my faith had waned somewhat in my teens and I considered myself an atheist.

I left school in 1965 and went to live in Cambridge with my half-brother Peter. Peter was a Buddhist and was keen I should look into Buddhism. So he sent me to the university freshers' fair – you didn't have to be a student to go into the fair – to find the Buddhist Society stand. I wandered around the various religious and philosophical stalls, found the Buddhists, was accosted by the Christian Union, had a chat with a Humanist, and then came to a bare table adorned with the word 'Bahá'í'.

'What have you got that the humanists haven't got?' I asked the rather severe looking bloke who was standing at the Bahá'í table (I'd just come from the humanist table).

I have no idea what the he said, but he gave me a slip of paper with an invitation to a public meeting a few days hence.

Sheer curiosity got me to the public meeting. It wasn't an exciting or inspiring meeting and I might have left the Bahá'í Faith in my museum of curiosities had I not been approached by one of the younger Bahá'ís and invited to go to a Bahá'í home. Straight away.

And that's where my love affair with the Bahá'í Faith began, in the home of an Iranian Bahá'í family. I'd never knowingly met any Iranians, nor had I experienced the legendary Iranian hospitality. In that home I felt a warmth that I'd not associated with religion before, undemanding but palpable.

I started to attend weekly 'fireside' discussion meetings to learn more about the Bahá'í Faith and got to know more of the Bahá'ís in what was a vibrant and active community. And what a diversity of Bahá'ís I found: the older Scottish lady we all called 'Lady Margaret'; the Southern African couple who came from a Jewish background – he was a photographer, she was a concert pianist; Derek, a Burnleyite who took the responsibility for teaching me about the Faith, and his beautiful Iranian girlfriend, who was the niece of the older Iranian lady the whole community called 'Auntie'. It was in Auntie's house that the fireside meetings took place.

I learned a great deal at those firesides about the history of the Bahá'í Faith and its teachings, about what made the community tick and what held it together. This was a whole new world for me. Religion as I had never experienced it before – informal, non-ritualistic, deeply spiritual.

It took me around five months to come to the conclusion that I wanted to be part of this faith. And it took Derek to push me. I say push, but neither he nor any of the other Bahá'ís ever put any pressure on me – and that's a crucial element of the way the Bahá'í Faith is shared with others. Each of us has the right and the responsibility to explore truth and reality for ourselves, not depending on other people's opinions, and to make up our own minds. But sometimes someone else can see more clearly what one's mind is.

I became a Bahá'í in February 1966. I was 18 years old.

Barney Leith has been an active Bahá’í since the mid 1960s. In 1993 he was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the UK Bahá’ís. Barney has been married to Erica since 1970. They have three grown-up offspring and three grandchildren.
HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad