Ever since I was a young girl I have been fascinated with food. I spent the first eight years of my life in Istanbul, and my memories of the city all have to do with the smells, sounds, sights, and tastes of food. From the time I was a toddler I practically lived in the kitchen, where my mother, grandmother, and aunts could keep an eye on me. From my seat, I would watch the elaborate and ancient dance of women preparing food to feed their family.
When I was young, I was blessed to experience food in an intimate way. Because I was taught that food comes from the source of life, I came to understand the life-giving qualities of it. I intuitively understood that food’s nourishing capacity far exceeded basic physical survival. Food had the power to bring a family together, to connect me to the earth and our planet’s cycles, to nurture all my senses.
As a child, I adored the seasons and loved the cyclical wheel of nature that brought each fruit and vegetable back each year. My favorite fruit was a type of small, green plum that grows in early summer. Each spring I began to look forward to these deliciously crisp and sour plums with just a hint of sweetness. But I had to be patient and wait until May when I could buy them in little bags from the street vendor, where I’d pick them up on my way home from school. For me, that delightfully sour plum will always be the taste of childhood, the anticipation of the end of school and the long days of summertime ahead.
A few months after we moved to Wisconsin, a little girl in my third-grade class surprised me by inviting me to her birthday party. I was a shy child, still learning English, and this was the first time I had been invited to someone’s house. You can’t imagine my excitement. Since leaving all of my friends in Istanbul, this was the first hopeful sign that I would ever make friends again.
At the party, we ate normal kid foods like hot dogs, potato chips, and, of course, birthday cake. I had already been introduced to these foods, so they were familiar, but then the girl’s mother served us green jell-o. I had never seen anything like it. The bright green globular mass wiggled on my plate most unnaturally. Was I supposed to eat this? I watched the other little girls dig in with their spoons, so I tentatively did the same. I took one mouthful, and had to do everything to keep from spitting it out. I was immediately sick to my stomach.
Sometimes it takes going to a new place to realize the value of the old one. In Istanbul, we had marketed daily, going to outdoor markets for local produce. We bought bread hot from the baker, goat and sheep feta cheeses that were cut from large vats, and fresh fish and meat for our daily meals. Food permeated every aspect of life. Even walking through the city streets was an occasion to smell the rich scents of steamed corn, grilled fish, and roasted chestnuts on the vendors’ carts.
In Wisconsin, we had traded the outdoor markets for the supermarket; green plums for green jell-o. I may have left Istanbul when I was young, but I carried with me the strong memory of the wholeness and richness of food, and it’s guided my life ever since.
This article originally appeared in Elle magazine, July 2006.