In the summer of 2007, I traveled to Turkey for ten days as a member of an International Interfaith Dialogue (IID) group from Little Rock, AR. The tour included sightseeing at various historical sites, a visit to Ankara, the capital of Turkey, and school and hospital visits, as well as home visits where members of the IID group shared home-cooked meals with Turkish families and their neighbors. The two family dinners in Konya and Istanbul started at 8 p.m. and lasted several hours; we just kept eating and enjoying one another’s company. I had been to Turkey ten years earlier, but that time, I mainly saw Turkey as a tourist, on a bus. The 2007 trip was definitely very different from my previous experience in Turkey.
All the home-cooked dishes were delicious. It was obvious that the secret ingredient of my Turkish hosts’ cooking was love, spiced with intriguing conversation. I had not known that Turkish cuisine was one of the best three cuisines of the world, along with Chinese and French. As the IID members we had a great time eating the meals, sharing experiences and world views, and indulging ourselves with delicious and sinfully sweet Turkish desserts. During this trip, I had an ample opportunity to learn about Turkish everyday life as our hosts showed us their entire houses and explained Turkish customs and manners. Unlike contemporary, always busy, American or Japanese households, eating meals together still constitutes the core of Turkish family life, and this practice binds each member to the family unit.
Since my 2007 trip, I have been involved with various social activities at the Little Rock Raindrop Turkish House, and chief among them is the cooking course. A friend and I took the course for a few years, and we are now able to cook some dishes with ease, thanks to the classes and also our Turkish friends who gave us private lessons in their kitchens.
The Raindrop Turkish House cooking classes are taught by Turkish women volunteers, most of who are in their late 20s and early 30s. Some are housewives with small children, and others are teachers, researchers, and graduate students at university. When some of these women’s mothers visit them from Turkey, the older ladies often volunteer to show us different dishes that require some special techniques—which I would describe as “tricks.” I learned that Turkish cuisine is characterized by regional differences from the visiting mothers, who come from different parts of Turkey.
Students taking the cooking classes are diverse; some are university professors, school teachers, secretaries, university and high school students, housewives, and retirees. Their ages range from the high teens to low 60s. The nationalities of the students vary, too; during any semester, there are students from the U.S., Japan (me!), Mexico, Columbia, Uzbekistan, Poland, and Turkmenistan, among other places. The classes are thus international, for over the years I took the classes, a number of different languages were spoken besides English and Turkish.
The religious affiliations of the participants differ, too. All the Turkish women are Muslim, and some of them wear the scarf called Esharp, while others do not. American students belong to Catholic or Protestant churches or Jewish synagogues. I practice Zen (meditation).
The classes are very informal and take place once a week during the evenings. When too many people want to enroll, the classes may be offered twice a week. Usually, the class size varies from 4 to 13 students and two to four Turkish teachers. Recipes are given at the beginning of the class, and students learn about the ingredients, cooking techniques, regional differences, and the significance of the meal as they chop or mix vegetables and meats, and talk about life experiences.
The reasons for taking Turkish cooking classes vary. Zelda, an American woman aged 50, who is married to an attorney, said, “I am interested in the development of food, its difference and similarities with different ethnicities and regions. Plus, I like exploring new cuisines and cooking techniques.” Zelda is a dedicated cook at home and always brings a set of sharp knives to the class. She taught her sons how to cook Turkish meals, too. My colleague recommended Amber, a 23-year-old student to take the class to learn about Turkish culture. It is part of her project for a linguistic anthropology class. Kim, 59, a Jewish homemaker, said “I love to cook and learn new traditions and recipes. I enjoy getting to know the other participants,” when I asked why she wanted to learn about Turkish cuisine. Lynne, 62, said, “The food we’ve learned to make is excellent, but my favorite part is learning from and spending time together with the young Turkish women who teach the class.” She went to the IID’s Houston headquarters for a cooking competition in February, 2011, and won an honorable mention award.
Food is often a symbol of national identity, and it helps define cultures. Food can influence and enrich cuisines of other cultures, too. Historically, food was part of cultural imperialism and colonialism as well. Food unites people and standardizes the world as well—as we can see from the spread of American fast food chains thriving all over the world. As a result of globalization, the boundaries between cultures based on tastes and availability of foods have become much more ambiguous, and certain cuisines have merged in recent years, resulting in the food fusion phenomenon.
For me, as a sociologist, food unites the women at Raindrop Turkish House for world peace. Utilizing the Durkheimian theory of religion, we can say that these cooking classes are an integrator of all the participants from different nations and cultures. The class experience is similar to religion.
The teachers and students gather weekly in search of good food in a cathedral called the kitchen. The cookbook is like the Bible or Qur’an that is used as guide to successful cooking. Chopping boards, knives, ladles, and spatulas are items necessary for the “rituals,” and are comparable to an incense burner, a Yad (a pointer for reading the Torah), candle sticks, a Kiddush cup (for the rabbi to bless the wine). The teachers preach the way of cooking and tell us the significance of the specific meal. Some of the Ten Commandments of Cooking include:
- Always cook with love
- Wash the grape leaves before you wrap them with filling
- For the syrupy dessert, the cake must be warm and the syrup must be cold
- Sauté chopped onions with olive oil before you add the tomato sauce
- Use only the freshest and best ingredients
We work in a close proximity and in unison with all the participants. We laugh together as we dice carrots, mix minced meat, roll sarmas, and make mantis in huge quantities, and we cry together as we chop onions. After the cooking comes the tasting of the food we cooked with love. We open bottles of water and soft drinks to quench our thirst and become our nectar of life. We eat the meal that will become our flesh, blood, and energy to keep us going. We talk about experiences in our countries, share stories, and bond. Georgiana, 63, a secretary, said, “I am taking the class for the fellowship of others—to learn about the Turkish culture, to expand my horizons by meeting people from other walks of life. I love the lessons and I love all the folks!”
The teachers and students in the cooking classes are mothers, university professors, and school teachers who are raising the next generation of Americans. The children, youth, and young adults will grow up to be less prejudiced, more open-minded, and have more knowledge and understanding of each other’s nations and cultures because of the socialization process of their mothers and teachers/professors. By talking casually as we cook and eat together about our experiences, nations, and cultures, the participants can relate better to each other in spite of their different backgrounds and world views. The cooking class companionship promotes international understanding, friendship, and appreciation. This is the first step toward peace.
The Latin origin of the word “companion” includes the words “com,” meaning “with” and “pan,” meaning “bread.” Thus, a companion is basically a person you eat bread with! In Japan, there is an idiom, “eat from the same rice pot.” Our cooking-class companionship makes us bond and become friends. At Raindrop Turkish House, we say “Delicious!” in different languages, appreciate the food, and discuss matters that are important to women everywhere in the world. As women, daughters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers, we do share feelings, emotions, and thoughts about certain things, and they are universal to humankind: feelings of love, understanding, empathy, and compassion.
One night, my friend said at the table, “You know, we eat together, share experiences, and try to understand each other’s countries and culture. We become friends, and we will never think about bombing each other’s country or harming each other’s people.”
I hope that a day will come when there are no more wars in the world, and people live together in peace. And we can begin our efforts right in the kitchen!
Dr. Kinko Ito, Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, U.S.A.