The Food Factory

From ‘Tales from the Expat Harem – Foreign Women in Modern Turkey’ edited by Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gökmen,  Seal Press 2006.

In a women-filled kitchen on the Black Sea coast, a pregnant Irish gelin, or bride, helps prepare a feast to welcome the family’s next one.

“What should I do first?” Anne, my Turkish mother-in-law, asks rhetorically as I wash the breakfast dishes.  The morning meal barely finished, she’s already preparing for this afternoon’s event.

As I work at the sink, my mind is back in my own kitchen in Çanakkale in Northwestern Turkey, watching the tankers moving up and down the Dardanelles.  My husband Özcan and I moved there for his university job after meeting in the United States during our postgraduate studies.  Far from both our families we live a quiet life, with frequent trips to Ankara, Ireland, and here, the Black Sea region.   In Çanakkale, I cook in Turkish style for the most part, learned through observing others and by trial and error in the safety of my own kitchen.  I am a homemaker for the first time in my life.  Staying home has given me time to adjust to the culture and lifestyle of Turkey and offered a vital break after the pressure of my academic research in geology.  And now that I am five and a half months pregnant, amazed by the strengthening kicks and movements of my baby, I’m looking forward to watching our child grow and learn, feeling fortunate not to have to work outside the home.

“I will make köfte and dible and dolma, and Saniye will bring pastries,” Anne says, listing the traditional meat and vegetable dishes we will prepare and the dessert the second of her two daughters will contribute for today’s special visitors.

Almost two years ago in 2001, when I moved to Turkey to marry Özcan, the third son in his family, my mother-in-law had welcomed me into the family as their daughter and told me to call her Anne, the Turkish word for mother.  In Ireland it is unusual to call parents-in-law by the familiar terms used for one’s own parents, so it sounded a little strange but I grew accustomed to it.  Calling her Kebire, her given name, would not be polite and Mrs. Yiğit too formal.

The whole family is gathering to meet Burcu, the potential gelin (bride) of Özcan’s youngest brother Hüseyin.  Burcu and her family are coming from nearby Karademir village to Tirebolu, a reciprocation of the visit Anne, my father-in-law Baba (father), and Hüseyin had made to them last week.  In much of Turkey, custom dictates such a visit to indicate parental approval, which allows courtship to officially begin.  With an exchange of söz yüzüğü (matching narrow-banded gold promise rings) the couple enters a period of söz.  After getting to know one another a little better, the couple decides whether to get engaged.

Burcu’s village is also the location of the Yiğit family farm and previous headquarters, nestled in the hazelnut gardens of the rising mountains with a view of the Black Sea coast.  Rough edges of the steep slopes softened by brambles and ferns clambering over every surface remind me of Ireland, though home never seemed so lush or so wild.

We had been visiting Özcan’s parents for three weeks.  Long enough for the novelty of our visit to have worn off, we are incorporated in the family routine.  I help with the housework while Özcan works in the family-owned market on the ground level of their five storey apartment building.  Anne’s kitchen is on the fourth floor.

I am still not used to the crowd, I think, as I maneuver the vacuum around the furniture-cluttered living room and anticipate the gathering of more than two dozen people.  My quiet Dublin childhood with only a sister and brother was no preparation for dealing with the dynamics of a family of six siblings plus their respective spouses and children.

My claustrophobia is heightened by the sense of unease I feel, aware of expectations, but uncertain whether they are mine or those of my husband’s family.  Having spent nearly two years in Turkey, I should be more comfortable, no longer a stranger in the family or the culture.  But language plays its part.  My understanding is good but my spoken Turkish is not.  Painfully aware of this shortcoming, I cannot be myself.  Distorted by the broken lens of language, the image I present to my Turkish family must be fractured and discordant.

Anne is sitting on the rug in the kitchen, her usual position when preparing food, chopping and mixing above a large circular tray.  She dices an onion while it’s cupped in her palm then tosses it into a bowl containing ground beef and breadcrumbs for köfte (meatballs) as her headscarf falls down her back.  I would lose a finger, at least, if I tried to cut anything this way but she deftly manages the knife with an ease only experience can bring.

“I remember when I got married,” she tells me in her Black Sea Turkish, rapid and accented with an adenoidal rush of air, “I left my village and thought I would never come back.  In those days my village was as far away as Ireland is from here.”  She looks up and smiles at me, sympathetically.

I return her smile, uncertain how to reply; the distance she crossed was in space alone, not culture or language.  I wrinkle my forehead; I’m being ungrateful, she’s trying to relate to me and I shouldn’t reject that.

Baba was immediately sent to do his military service, sailing to England for three years.  He came back but went to İstanbul to work, and after that to Germany.  Nineteen years he was gone, only returning for the hazelnut harvest each year.”  By the time Baba returned permanently from Germany, the family had opened the market and moved to Tirebolu, using the village land only for farming vegetables and hazelnuts.

Anne rises to get the olive oil and asks me to bring an egg from the fridge.  Crouching beside the bowl, she mixes with her hand, squeezing the meaty pulp through her fingers.  Dealing with an expanding family and looking after her husband’s aging parents cannot have been easy, but only in the last few years has any grey appeared in the sixty one-year old woman’s dark hair.

“Mothers always worry about their children far away.  At least you and Özcan are in Turkey now.  Hüseyin will get married and run our market downstairs; that will be good.”  She smiles, happy that her youngest is about to marry and she will have another gelin to talk to.  I hand her a plate for the köfte as she shapes each meatball into a thin oval, the size of her palm.

Sadiye arrives, a no-nonsense woman with a quick wit, looking like a taller, thinner version of her mother.  She hugs me and, smiling, pats my growing belly.  Gülşah follows, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Sadık, the eldest son in the family and a teacher.  Gülşah is a serious medical student, full of important questions and deep thoughts.  Sadiye kisses her mother on each cheek, hugs her, and replies to Anne’s welcome.  Gülşah does likewise and sits at the table beside me, hand on my bump, hoping to feel the baby kick.

“Were you able to clear the undergrowth in the hazelnut gardens yesterday?”  Sadiye asks Anne about their uninhabited farm in Karademir.  Gathering an onion, some ground beef, and rice, Sadiye begins preparing yaprak sarma also called dolma (stuffed vine leaves).

“We cleared it with Özcan’s help.  Is everyone ready for the harvest?”  Anne asks about Sadiye’s in-laws, also Karademir villagers, who have their own crop maturing in the following month.

“I don’t know; I’m not going to go up for the harvest this year.”  Sadiye chops the onion, detailing her plans to spend August in Giresun with her two teenage daughters instead of in the village with her husband.

“Don’t you get bored at home?”  Gülşah asks me, suddenly coming out of her adolescent reverie.

“No,” I hesitate a little in replying.  “The house keeps me busy and I’ve been very tired lately.”  My lack of a job is easier to explain since the pregnancy; the excuse of needing time to adjust to the culture and learn the language was beginning to sound a little weak after two years, even if it was true.

I bring the vine leaves to the table, following Anne’s orders willingly but not confident of my understanding.  I repeat the instructions, my fear of doing something wrong slightly irrational.  Perhaps I am the only one who expects I should know exactly what to do; working in anyone else’s kitchen means following orders.  Stuffing the grape leaves with Sadiye and Gülşah is a slow job for a beginner.  I copy them inexpertly, placing the leaf across my palm, removing the stalk, adding the rice filling and rolling the sarma.  I roll too loose or too tight, too long or too short, and everyone laughs at the worst ones.  I laugh too as Sadiye re-rolls one of my failed attempts.  The slimy leaves are gossamer-thin and arranging them with the veins inward, they pull and tear easily.  Slowly I begin to get the knack, feeling a sense of achievement as I speed up a little.

Another daughter-in-law, Arzu, arrives with three-year-old Doğukan, clutching toy cars to his chest.  Only on my second visit to the Black Sea did I memorize people’s names–the unusual sounds and rhyming names are difficult to learn: Sadık, Sadiye and Saniye, Osman and Özcan, Hüseyin.  In common Turkish style, they start with similar letters, each change of letter indicating a longer gap between the siblings.

Yavrum, will you not let me hug you?” Anne, calls Doğukan by the affectionate term for ‘young one’.  She is upset as he hides from her behind his mother’s legs, pulling on her trousers.  He is wary of contact with anyone but especially of the over-affectionate hugs of his grandmother.

Arzu washes her hands and sits, having warmly greeted everyone in turn.  She is married to Osman, the second son in the family and rolls the sarma with practiced ease.  As teachers on their holidays, Osman and Arzu spend their time shuttling between their families, helping out wherever necessary.  Arzu is comfortable with her in-laws and well able to speak her mind.  I am slightly envious of her.  I merely follow instructions; I don’t feel confident to do things my own way, knowing my limited knowledge of the language won’t allow me to explain what I’m doing and why.

“There’s a baby in her stomach.”  Doğukan shouts and points.

“So how many babies do you want?”  Gülşah asks me.

“Em, two, three would be good.”  I reply honestly.

Anne hugs me where I sit, showing her approval.

“Not six like Anne?”  Sadiye laughs, a mother of two.  “Or four like Saniye?”

Arzu is quiet, Doğukan is an only child, a rough pregnancy dampened her enthusiasm for more.  Some people feel a brother or sister would be good for Doğukan but Arzu is resolved, so it isn’t mentioned.

Saniye arrives with a kilo of baklava, a tray of wrinkled pastries called burma boreği from her own oven, and a bag of soft drinks bouncing against her ankle-length leopard print skirt.  She takes off her jacket and breathlessly kisses everyone’s cheeks before standing in front of the mirror to tighten her headscarf above the cap worn to cover her hair.  She and Sadiye, like Anne, both wear headscarves, though Sadiye’s is only worn in public, loosely tied for respectability, as my Irish grandmother might wear one.  Anne, sitting once again in the sunlight on the floor, chops the wrinkled-leaf karalahana (black cabbage) and asks after Saniye’s in-laws.  Saniye answers quickly, more interested in the preparations for the afternoon and finding out what still needs to be done.

I put the pot of sarma on the stove and go sit on the couch under the window, the July heat stifling.  Sinking a little under the crowd, allowing the conversation to flow over my head, I watch the family work.  They work individually but seem to form a cohesive team; Sadiye chops onions as Arzu cleans the table and Saniye puts a pot of water on the stove.  The comfortable gelin Arzu is weaving a dance between the two sisters and Anne, respectfully allowing them to take the lead, but yet knowing exactly what to do herself.  Discovering the sugar is low Arzu phones the market and Gülşah dangles a woven shopping bag on a string out the window.

Leaning out the window to cool down in the sea breeze, wondering will I ever settle into my place in the hierarchy, I glimpse the Genoese castle on its promontory.  St. Jean castle is now a teahouse, standing sentinel above the little harbor, water glistening in the summer sunshine.  It is one of the three castles in the area which give Tirebolu its name, derived from Tripolis.  Its squat defensiveness is a contrast to Irish castles, which are mostly stately homes in disguise without a real defensive purpose.  Behind the house the hill climbs steeply a verdant background to the quiet town.  My husband, Özcan, waves to me from the street before rejoining his elder brothers sitting in the shade at the corner outside the market.  Sadiye fills a pot with the cabbage, rice, and onion, adding a chopped tomato and salt to the water.  The steam-cooked dible is a traditional dish in the Black Sea, sometimes cooked with finely-chopped green beans instead of cabbage.

“So when will the wedding be?”  Saniye asks Anne as she stirs the sugar syrup bubbling on the stove.  The syrup will be poured over the dry burma boreği, fine layers of nuts and wafer-thin pastry rolled around an oklava, a narrow rolling pin.  The pastry is then pushed together and eased off the oklava to form a wrinkled, hollow roll and chopped into finger-length segments.

“We have to meet the girl first!”  Her elder sister Sadiye laughs, though everyone knows that the conclusion is foregone, the engagement will be soon.

“I think they should have it after the harvest, but before the schools start.”  Saniye makes the plan, surprising me with its haste; the hazelnut harvest will be over by the end of August.  In Ireland planning a wedding usually takes a year at least.

Anne looks up from checking the pots, filling the room with the steam and the smell of cooking sarma, “We have to move downstairs first, and before that the floors need to be sanded and polished.”

Hüseyin will take the apartment in which we are working and Anne and Baba will move downstairs.  The newlywed’s house is generally provided by the groom’s family while the bride brings furniture for several rooms–Turkish traditions not always followed these days.  The bride also brings her sandık, or chest, full of her çeyiz or trousseau: towels, tablecloths, sheets and pillowcases, all hand-decorated with delicate crochet work by the bride herself or her mother.  Saniye continues thinking aloud of shopping trips and about the new couple’s future.  With four children, the oldest in university, the youngest ten-years-old, she is a natural counselor.  Bringing the saucepan from the stove she pours the warm syrup over the wrinkled burma boreği, taking care that each piece should soak its share.

Sitting at the table again, I peel cucumbers, fresh from the farm, for the salad; Arzu chops tomatoes and onions.  On my first visit I had been the guest, waited on and treated with astonishing generosity.  Now I am one of the family, included without special treatment.  I try some nearly-cooked sarma, soft and juicy; the leaves melt in my mouth with an explosion of taste.  Anne tries to get Doğukan to eat some but he refuses, running for cover again.

“That child doesn’t eat, he is so thin.”  Anne looks concerned, “Mine were all big children, like this…”  She puffs out her cheeks in a comic imitation of her children’s chubby cheeks.

Doğukan giggles and points at his grandmother, who repeats the performance for him, edging closer to gather him in her arms.  Everyone laughs as he wriggles out of her reach, looking to me like a perfectly normal, active child.  The worry fleets through my head: my baby will probably be like Doğukan, dealing with these sorts of comments won’t be easy.  I still try to explain that skinniness is a family trait whenever someone comments on my weight, or rather lack of.  Arzu chops heedless of the comment about her son, perhaps she has learned the best way to handle it is to ignore it.

Sadiye has cut potatoes to be fried, while Anne begins to fry the köfte as my husband Özcan and his older brother Osman arrive to rearrange the furniture in the living room.  Osman, full of energy, swings Doğukan to shrieks of delight as Özcan catches my eye across the kitchen, silently enquiring how I am coping with the crowd.  I smile in answer and our exchange is caught by Saniye who says “Don’t worry, my brother, we’re taking good care of her.”

Salad made, I survey the food: stuffed vine leaves, steamed cabbage and rice, Turkish meatballs, fried potatoes, and Anne’s homemade yoğurt with pastries, baklava, and burma boreği for dessert.  Anne’s butter and yoğurt are always homemade from fresh milk.  The smell of the food is rich and warm, soothing.  Saniye, standing beside me, claps her hands as she makes a sudden realization.

“There’s no soup! Anne, what were you going to make?”

Anne suggests a packet of instant soup from the market, lamenting the lack of time and all the things she still needs to do before the guests arrive.

“Never!” Saniye replies, not wanting to serve instant soup to such special visitors.  “We’ll make şehriye soup,” she suggests referring to the small rice-shaped ovals of pasta cooked in a watery broth of tomatoes, onions and parsley.  But Anne fusses, unwilling to leave us to finish the cooking while she changes her clothes before the company arrives.

Anne,” I raise my voice to be heard, taken aback by its loudness, thinking of the quiet kitchen in Dublin and a little surprised to find myself addressing everyone.  “You are the manager of the food factory.  You go and leave the workers to cook.”

Anne laughs, echoing me as she leaves the room, “Manager of the food factory, exactly, exactly.”  I smile, pleased that she has understood and taken my advice.

Laughing at my comment too, the sisters start to make the late soup.  I relax on the couch again, realizing that without knowing how şehriye soup is made, I cannot help, only interfere.  For the moment I only observe, learning more Turkish cooking in my few weeks in Tirebolu than in a year at home.  The food is finally ready, only the tea needs to be made.

Soon everyone has arrived, a total of twenty seven people.  Children run up and down the stairs between the apartment and the market, escaping from the elders, who chat together.  Burcu sits alone on a couch in the living room, an island in the midst of the sea of people around her, her tight headscarf adding severity to her rounded face.  Her mouth is set and her eyes are downcast, an air of sullenness barely disguising her nervousness.  Hüseyin, the groom-to-be, walks in and moves through the people, kissing the hands of his elders, bending to touch his forehead to their hands as a mark of respect.  On the couch it is as if a light has come on, the smile in Burcu’s eyes never reaching her lips.  Hüseyin sits on a chair beside the couch and leans to talk to her.  Aware of all eyes on them, he is polite and formal.  She smiles and the nervousness of her youth disappears as Hüseyin suddenly wrestles with her younger brother, who has sidled up.  Across the room their mothers nod, it will be a good match.

Burcu scans the room, watching the family, especially her future mother-in-law, probably wondering how she will fit in.

At that moment, I realize that though the new gelin is from this culture her worries and concerns are exactly the same as mine.  Moving into a new family will always involve compromise and change.  Though we have the benefit and disadvantage of living far from the family, Burcu will live in close quarters, immediately within reach of family support and family doubts.  She will be the traditional gelin, working at home to support her husband.

I start in shock; I see myself as in a mirror.  For all my foreignness I am closer to the traditional gelin than I want to admit, content to stay at home and look after the baby, unlike Arzu, a teacher, or Sadık’s wife, who works in an office.

I rise to help Arzu bring in plates of food, almost gleeful at the revelation.  I should feel more comfortable here; I fit the role of gelin far better than I thought.  As I return from the kitchen with plates, Sadiye catches me around the waist, hands the plates to her daughter and sends me to sit down again in the living room.

“You are not to tire yourself or the baby.”  She says sternly, but with a twinkle of laughter in her eye.

Saniye joins me on the couch and slips her arm through mine.  Nodding toward this person and that, she tries to explain who everyone is but I lose track.  I feel as though a weight has lifted from my shoulders.  In this crowded, boisterous room, I have gained a family, who accept me as their own, without judgment.  A feat in any culture, this family manages to accommodate the unconventional with the traditional.  And finally I have accepted my place within the family, too.  Across from us on the couch Burcu is alone now, and once more looks bereft.

I nudge Saniye, who squeezes my arm in agreement and we join young Burcu on her couch, sitting down on either side of her.  She brightens at the attention, and we welcome her to our family.