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.