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Back to July-August 2022
When I ask my 5-year-old son, Oliver, to tell me the largest number he can think of, he always replies, “1,008.” This is the extent of his universe.
I just got back from Istanbul and Antakya (Antioch for history buffs), and spent time in home kitchens making wedding soup, Circassian chicken, moon cake (a crescent-shaped filled pastry) and lavash.
I was introduced to pickle juice as a daily restorative. I started the day with menemen (eggs scrambled with tomatoes and peppers) or a plate of yogurt, cucumbers and olives. I was awakened at dawn by two competing calls to prayer, one from the Blue Mosque and the other from Hagia Sophia. On the Galata Bridge, fishermen line the way alongside young women in headscarves posing for TikTok videos.
The traffic was two-way on one-way streets, taxis stopped head-to-head, drivers on the curb, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, arguing until one finally gave way and backed up. We found the best Turkish delight in Istanbul at Haci Bekir, flavored with rose water, pistachios and a dozen other flavors. We crammed into a small shop that bakes lahmajoun, small pizzas topped with spiced meat. The late-night ferry back was packed; a traditional Turkish band started up and passed the hat, girlfriends whispered and giggled, small children sat on their mothers’ laps. We got off at the wrong dock and navigated our way slowly back to the hotel.
In the Antakya market, near Syria, one vendor dipped shortbread cookies into a barrel of homemade marshmallow. Another dripped thin streams of batter onto a hot rotating stone to make kunefe—a bird’s nest of butter-soaked, cheese-filled dough, served in slices topped with simple syrup.
At the end of the day, we stopped at a shop that sells bowls of bubblegum-pink gelatin topped with ice cream. In one corner, old men slapped pieces on backgammon boards. On the way back to the hotel, a street hustler sold me a fortune written in tiny cursive on a small piece of rolled-up paper. The predictions were discouraging. When I finally got to bed, I discovered that there was a dance club next door to the hotel; the band played till midnight.
The next day, we drove to a small Armenian village, perhaps the last one in Turkey, to chat with local cooks who made stuffed vegetables, pickled walnuts and a delicious raw meat dish with parsley, peppers and spices. On the way back to town, we drove by the first Christian church (originally a cave). The next morning, we had breakfast in a sunny courtyard, with a spread that featured everything from fresh cheese and breads to za’atar salad and cucumbers and tomatoes.
In her poem “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver writes, “The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” Traveling for food is both unfamiliar and comforting. I fill my plate with things familiar and unfamiliar. The world is limitless; the world is a village. We cross the Bosporus in a spray of water that moves from Europe to Asia, from Istanbul to Anatolia, from the last days of the Roman Empire to the Ottoman Empire, written in blood and triumph, driven by a young sultan’s vision of breaching the ancient walls of Constantinople.
What we are is written on the walls of the kitchen, in its pots and pans, in the fire of its hearth, in the markets that feed our imagination. And a people’s character is written in its food: frugality or abundance, community or individuality, patience or instant gratification, taste or good looks. How we sit at the table circumscribes our national destiny.
The kitchen is infinite in its possibilities, either to bring us together or to underline our differences.
It’s a simple question. What is the greatest thing you can imagine?