Save Yourselves!

I know, I know – nobody particularly enjoys a complainer. And at this moment, being on vacation, what do I have to complain about, right? In fact, it is being – and eating! – here in Turkey that reminds me rather sharply of precisely what I have to complain about in terms of my life back in the United States.

Enjoying dessert with my daughter after a meal of köfte, pita bread, and stewed tomatoes and peppers along the marina of Çeşme.

Bear with me.

My diet has changed quite a lot over the years, an experience I imagine many of you share. Growing up in suburban America, food was quite simple. My mother was too distant from her Scottish heritage to know much of anything other than simple American foods, fried and stewed, supplemented by a growing number of frozen meals you could pop in the microwave and have done with. I should at least be grateful that this disconnect actually saved me from having to endure haggis and black pudding for much of my life. However, it did leave me with a taste for little else besides what her limited skills could provide from her upbringing in Arkansas: fried okra (which I still love), corn bread, baked beans, and an occasional steak, which was when my father stepped in to help out with the grill.

Moving to San Francisco was one of the smartest decisions I ever made. A welcomed escape from the dullness of Salinas, California. And an incredibly stimulating introduction to cuisines of the world. To pay the bills while in college, I took a job cooking in one of S.F.’s thousands of restaurants and treated myself to nibbles of the dishes I was preparing there, including rack of lamb with a garlic spinach sauce, and curry cream shrimp and scallops over pasta, and a chocolate pecan pie with Devonshire cream that was to bloody well die for!

Not much complaining yet, right? Okay, here we go.

Burger King stands testament to a declining cuisine at the entrance to İstiklal Street in İstanbul.

When I left the U.S. to live overseas, I was so very ready to experiment and explore. For five years I studiously avoided the growing number of McDonalds and Wendy’s and Subways popping up everywhere and went only – and I mean only! – to small family-owned restaurants and lokantas. And I was in culinary heaven! Always fresh breads from local bakeries, and fresh yogurt spooned out of tins, and fruits that tasted like fruits, and vegetables that you could identify for what they were from nothing but a quick smell – while your eyes were closed.

Have you tried smelling vegetables in U.S. stores? Not only lacking in true flavor, but bereft even of the appropriate scent. Stand in the produce aisle of Wal-Mart or Smiths or any major chain and take a whiff. You might as well be standing in the stationary aisle.

Living back in the United States, I quickly began to suffer. Gained weight quickly, esophagus burning, becoming addicted to Tums and chewable Pepto, and thinking nothing of it – that this must be what life and aging are supposed to be like. When I became a Crohn’s Disease patient, I was forced to re-evaluate many things about how I was living.

And eating.

My days in the U.S. now include delicious salads and juicy fruits and frequent omelets so long as they include lots of peppers and tomatoes lightly sautéed in olive oil.

One of my favorite salads of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cheese, walnuts, and raspberries.

As for life here in Turkey: indulging in fruits and vegetables and eggs and milk from local farms. And loving it!

But since arriving, I’ve been in the stores, picking up essentials and even grabbing some things one can easily find in the U.S., mainly to please my eight-year-old daughter. Who insists! And so here’s the thing that leaves me frustrated and bewildered: even packaged and junk foods here taste different. I’m tempted to say … better! Nesquik chocolate mix actually tastes like chocolate, while Nesquik in the U.S. tastes like flavored sugar. Cheetos here tastes like cheese, while cheetos in the U.S. tastes like flavored salt. Salça (tomato paste) here tastes like tomatoes, while tomato paste in the U.S. tastes like flavored chemicals.

And we let it happen.

We allow ourselves to fall into these traps of processed foods so harshly flavored with additives and sweeteners and salt that we become addicted to it all. Expecting it with every meal. Expecting to find lumps of sugar and shakers of salt on the table … just in case there’s not enough in the dishes we eat. Which are quite likely filled already with more sugar and salt than we could possibly need. And yet we still add more.

We allow this to happen, you know.

The food industry encourages it all, stuffing their pockets while we stuff our mouths with their crap. And the government defends the food industry in its ongoing efforts to keep us in a perpetual state of obesity and steady decay. Which justifies the immense wealth pouring into the drug industry to preserve us (not cure us) from the crimes of the food industry, while the ME industry gleefully looks the other way, refusing to see the truth of what we are doing to ourselves and our children. Preferring instead to stare at our iPads and iPods and Xboxes and wii’s, giving our tap-texting fingers more exercise than they need while the rest of our bodies receive none, continuing to expand and fold over and over into eventual over-stimulated over-medicated oblivion.

In the face of all of which, as I eagerly plan out my eventual and permanent return to the Old World of my ancestors, finding security and harmony with my beloved in a small village in Europe, I have to say this one last thing on this subject to you all, my fellow poets and bloggers, after which I will go back to writing poetry: save yourselves, my friends. Because no one else will.

The importance of…

Asena and George breakfasting at Oasis Cafe in Salt Lake City (5 May 2012)

No, the anomaly here is not the missing hair. Please, at my age? Simple rule–hair in winter to keep me warm, shave it off as summer approaches to help cool me down. I have long since passed the age when hair served any other purpose. A fashion statement, perhaps? God forbid! No, look closer. On the table. … Who else would bring his own tea into a cafe? A man with access to GOOD tea, that’s who! (With all due respect to the good, tolerant folks at Oasis.)

Asena Usta Mutfakta

The happy baker pauses for a photo op.

 

We have rounded out our weekend with some time in the kitchen, my daughter Asena and I. She has come to the point now where there is rather little I need do to help her. Soon I think I will be little more than an observor while she dominates my kitchen, there only to praise and partake. And I am very proud of her. Apart from writing and reading and travelling, cooking was my first love, something my mother began to teach me back when I was 6 or 7. Years later it was how I foolishly tried to win a woman’s heart. It was how I got through college as well, paying my tuition and rent in San Francisco by cooking in a restaurant there. And even how I made it onto television with a cooking show we shot in Turkey. But I believe my sweet girl will easily outdo me. So cheers to you, Asena! Keep them coming.

Did you say … “prawny”?

“Prawny” is a word, isn’t it? … It should be, don’t you think? Prawny. Praaaawwwny. And yet, Bill Gates in absentia is underlining that word as I type it with a squiggly red line. Piss off, Mr. Gates! I like it and I am an English teacher, so I declare that henceforth “prawny” shall forever more be enshrined in the Dictionary of George!!! On sale now in any dusty bookstore somewhere in the back of your mind. Don’t miss it—it’s a veritable whirlwind of lexical fun and games!

“What in God’s name is he babbling about now?” I hear you muttering under your breath. … Speaking of which, how can anyone do anything under their own breath? That really does not make sense, does it? Okay, declaration number two on this 19th day of the 2nd month of the 46th year of my life—in the Dictionary of George, no one shall be allowed to evoke any language that involves anything happening under one’s breath. Nor above it, around it, before it, behind it, or beyond it. “Breath” shall be neither derided nor anthropomorphized in any way. Breath simply is. So live with it! (Try living without it and see how far you get.)

But getting back to your “what is he babbling about now” comment (that was rather rude of you to mutter, by the way, but you’re forgiven). I was just sitting here in the midst of a highly professional and incredibly productive … word game. I selected P R A W N Y, and the bloody iPad app would not accept it as a real word. And so I put it to you, whoever you may be—imagine, you are at a restaurant—not the finest of restaurants mind you, but that type that readily recycle pans and oil and God only knows what! Probably bits of salad and those poor untouched veggies that are so oft neglected. That wilting sprig of parsley at the very least.

And while all this unspeakable horror is happening in the kitchen, you sit at your table in light dimmed just enough to ensure that you cannot spot the evidence on your plate of what was really happening behind the swinging doors. When your orange roughy arrives at the table, your eyes widen a bit as you imagine just how yummy this will taste—a thought that inexplicably crosses your mind despite the obvious fact that you have chosen to order orange roughy at a so-so restaurant in a so-so quarter of town. Which town, you ask? Ooohhh, let’s say … Frankfurt. How you managed to order the orange roughy in a restaurant in Frankfurt when you don’t even know how to say “orange roughy” in German is beyond me, but well done to you! Now stop interrupting me with silly questions!

Anyway, you take a bit on your fork, that nice, gently steaming orange roughy with a buttery sauce, bit of dill sprinkled in for good measure, and pop it in your mouth while your dinner companion is sitting there wondering why you are taking so long to take your first bite. Little does he know that your actions are timed to coincide with my narration of this story, and that therefore you have no choice but to bow before the dictates of me, the Grand Timekeeper and woefully uncelebrated Author of the Dictionary of George. Still collecting dust on that lower bookshelf two aisles down towards the back of that bookshop in your mind. You know, you really need to get someone in there to spruce the place up a bit. Hoover it at least, maybe hang a plant or two in that corner—the one below the window. That window you never seem to get around to opening. Yes, airing the place out a bit might be a good idea as well.

So you do finally manage to take that first bite of orange roughy, rolling it about on your tongue a bit, hoping for a sweet, sensual experience, one you shall remember at least until the end of this evening, and—depending on the quality of the sexual encounter you anticipate afterwards—possibly for the next day or two to come. Delicious details of which you could eagerly share with your friends—about the orange roughy, I mean, not the sex. Although God willing that too will be worth reporting on. You know, to certain friends. Not all of them. Certainly not Penelope, who can’t seem to keep her mouth shut no matter how many times you have begged her, “Please don’t tell anyone about this. Pleeaaassseee.” And in the end, you know it is not Penelope you should be criticizing, but yourself for continuing to share intimate details with a friend whose notion of privacy encompasses half of California. Easily.

So there it is at long last—that flaky, tender bit of fish, caressing your taste buds. Although … not quite. No, caressing is not the word. Hmm, “roughly handling” might be more to the point. A rather rough roughy assaulting your senses despite the fact that you never said a harsh word to that bloody fish before it ended up on your plate. But don’t blame the poor fish (who’s no more at fault than is poor Penelope). Nor can you say anything to your dinner companion, who was so eager to please you with this choice of a so-so restaurant in Frankfurt (cut him some slack—he’s a poor university student!). So you decide to keep this experience to yourself rather than hurt his feelings and impede the prospect of sexual congress about two hours and sixteen minutes later. (Don’t forget to floss. And use a bit of mouthwash. This is a seafood restaurant, after all.)

Unfortunately, your companion won’t allow you to maintain your silence on this point. No hiding behind constitutional rights for you, I’m afraid. Besides, you’re in Frankfurt—the U.S. Constitution ain’t gonna help none here, little missy! Not when your anonymous companion puts down his own fork, looks you square in the eye, a look of immense hope and imminent desire, and asks you, “So? How is it?” You swallow (took you long enough, but that was my fault), strive to maintain eye contact and a steady voice full of promise as you compose just the right lie. And yet, when you open your mouth to speak, what statement should emerge (not under your breath, but with it!), but this: “Tastes a bit prawny.”

Take that, Mr. Bill Bloody Gates!!!

Zetinyaĝlı Dolma (Stuffed Vegetables in Olive Oil)

Yesterday evening in our ESL class, we once again wandered off the topic of American history – WAY off the topic – and began sharing recipes. None of which were American or even remotely related to American history. In case anyone missed it and would like to give it a try, here again is my recipe for dolma (stuffed vegetables), the olive oil version. I have a similar recipe for etli dolma (vegetables stuffed with meat) if anyone would like that as well. Afiyet olsun.

Cover in warm water and let stand for 1 hour:

  • ¾ cup rice

Prepare your vegetables of choice, hollowing them out if necessary without removing too much of the center of the vegetable. (The vegetables should not be a thin shell around the stuffing; they should be a tasty component of the dish.)

In a large pot saute until golden:

  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 tbsp pine nuts

Stir in and continue cooking for 10 minutes:

  • 2 medium onions, minced

Drain the rice and stir it into the onion mixture.  Continue cooking for another 5 minutes.

Stir in the following and continue cooking for 2 minutes:

  • 1 tbsp dried currants
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • ¼ tsp ground black pepper
  • ¼ tsp allspice
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon

Add, cover, and simmer for 5 minutes:

  • ½ cup water

Remove from heat, cool, and stir into the rice mixture:

  • ¼ cup parsley, minced
  • ¼ cup dill, minced
  • ¼ cup mint, minced

Stuff the vegetables of your choice with this mixture. Do not overstuff them. The filling should expand as it cooks, so keep it well enough below the top or opening of the vegetable.

Place the stuffed vegetables in a pot, cover, and cook over low heat for 1 hour with:

  • 2 cups water
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ½ tsp salt

Let the dolma cool. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over them and serve.

NOTE: Different cultures who eat stuffed vegetables favor their own choices of which vegetables to stuff. Okay, I prefer bell peppers, tomatoes, and squash, but you might also try potatoes, artichokes, or eggplants. If you do try the bell pepper version (possibly the most common) in the United States, look for baby bell peppers. American shops tend to sell those huge bell peppers with awfully thick skins. If you want your dolma to be as soft as it really should be, then you’ll have to cook the heck out of those big bells.

Also, to clear up a misunderstanding – dolma are certainly prepared by different cultures, but the word dolma comes from a Turkish word dolmak (“to be stuffed or filled”). A number of cultures also produce a dish with the same filling I have described here, but wrapped inside grape leaves. Even Turks will sometimes call this dish dolma, but strictly speaking, in Turkish cuisine it is sarma from the Turkish sarmak (“to wrap around”). Yaprak sarması, to be precise. Also delicious, but obviously requiring a very different method of preparation. I also have a recipe for this one if you’d like.

Ezogelin Çorbası (Bride’s Soup)

As the weather begins to turn and a chill creeps in, it seems an opportune time to share a recipe for a delicious spicy soup from Turkey. A number of lentil dishes appear in Turkish cuisine, including a basic lentil soup, also delicious although fairly generic. The Bride’s Soup enhances the basic recipe with some special flavors and crushed red peppers. Ideal for an autumn or winter meal. In Turkey, we would even have this for breakfast – excellent!

Saute until light brown.

  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 1 tbsp butter

Add and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.

  • ½ cup red lentils

Add, bring to boil, and simmer covered for 10 minutes.

  • 5 cups chicken or beef broth

Add and continue to simmer for 5 minutes.

  • 1 tbsp rice

Add and continue to simmer for 5 minutes.

  • 1 tbsp bulgur

Saute lightly in a sauce pan for 3 minutes.

  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp mint
  • ¼ tsp red pepper
  • 1 tsp salt
  • a pinch of black pepper

Stir into the tomato mixture and cook for 3 minutes.

  • 2 ½ cups water

Combine the lentil and tomato mixtures and simmer for 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat and let stand 10 minutes before serving.