Oh reader, blame James M for opening a Pandora’s Box of vitriol with an innocent comment.
At the school where I used to work there was a bright young thing, the kind of bright young thing that in my increasing decrepitude I find myself resenting more and more, high as she was on her own hotness, flicking hair everywhere, wearing tiny clothes, putting on make-up with a trowel, etc. All things I used to do myself when I was a bright young thing high on my own hotness, which seems to me to give me permission to be annoyed by it now. I’m officially old enough to look down at younger generations and glower and demand that they not make the same incredibly fun mistakes I made.
One day when we were queuing up for the school lunch she asked me what I thought of Turkish cuisine.
This is an inCREDibly loaded question in Turkey, and one that comes up distressingly frequently for an ex-pat. The correct answer is “it’s the best in the world.” No other shall be accepted.
Turkey is a country with an incredibly conservative food culture.
My best example of the culinary mindset comes from about two years ago. It was summer, and I’d taken to treating köfte bulgurlu like couscous and making myself salads every day- it takes ten minutes to cook the bulgur and then throw whatever in. Cheese. Veggies. A little olive oil never hurt anything. There’s lunch.
One of the Turkish teachers asked me what I was eating one day and I said, “Oh just some bulgur with some farmers cheese and a few herbs.”
She looked at me, horrified.
And then she explained to me, gently, as you might explain to a child that yes, you must brush your teeth every night, that bulgur isn’t eaten with cheese. It’s eaten with YOGURT.
Standing there, staring at the day’s offerings in the school kitchen- greasy rice, greasy pasta, eggplant goo that had been fried twice, heapings of bread- I said the polite thing and the only acceptable thing:
“It’s the best in the world.”
“I’m surprised you say that,” said the BYT. “Coming from America, where all you eat is fast food, I imagine all this healthy food,” pause to gesture to the greasy rice, the greasy pasta and the eggplant goo that has lakes of oil resting on top of it, “must be quite a culture shock.”
A strained “uh-huh” was all I could muster but my brain churned for the rest of the day with all of the things that were wrong with that conversation.
Turned out that BYT had spent four months in a work/travel program in a theme park in Wisconsin, so yes, pretty much every American she came into contact with was eating fast food, and she didn’t have the imagination to think about American cuisine beyond a theme-park.
We invented fast food. It was a terrible mistake, and one that has given us a culinary reputation only slightly above Great Britain, and that is a damned shame.
Fast food was a rare treat when I was growing up.
In the last six years that I lived in Baltimore, before I moved abroad, I ate fast food exactly once a year- when travelling. I’d demand a stop at a Wendy’s and get fries and a chocolate shake and dip the fries in the shake because that is the ONLY way to do Wendy’s.
I ate more American fast food in my first year in Istanbul than in the previous ten years of my life, because it smelled like home, and created an air of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic and unintelligible land. (First year was rough. Not as rough as the last five days, but rough enough.)
What’s missing in this myth of America as only good for inventing soft-drinks and dubious-meat burgers, is that there is actually a rich culinary history, some of which is based here and some of which is a clever reinvention of old world recipes. We are not, fundamentally, a people of Papa Johns and KFC. We are a people who created the BLT. That’s right all you Mediterranean snobs- where’d you be without the tomato, eh? We wrangled it. Okay actually first we killed off 90% of the people who actually first wrangled the tomato, but then we re-wrangled it. Where for that matter, Turks, would my most astonishing school lunch- pasta, bread, potatoes and rice all in the same meal- be without the potatoes? eh?
Beyond basic staples though, we are the land of hoecakes, Virginia Ham, boiled nuts (pronounced bolled nuts, available by the side of any off-the-major-path Southern road, delicious in the bottom of a bottle of coke) biscuits: skillet and the cakey variety favored in Georgia, grits, hominy with honey, baked beans, brown bread, beef jerky, Bruswick stew, Rocky Mountain Oysters … and what could be more American than a fruit pie?
It’s been somewhat disrupted by modern life, but the culinary traditions, and there are many lurking in our ridiculously large land, are intact and in some places vibrant.
If anyone is interested in this subject further I will e-mail you a lovely book- Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky, in Kindle or Nook, or refer you to the library to check out pretty much anything by Karen Hesse, my absolute favorite food grump. (Do NOT get that woman started on white sauces. You’ve been warned.)