I was lucky to travel to Turkey for over a week this past summer. Unfortunately, the trip to Niksar, located just a few hours south of the Black Sea, was briefly interrupted by an attempted military coup d’etat. When I eventually landed at my final destination, the small town of Sivas, a 2 hour drive awaited. Moving through several towns, it was clear that this was a different world to the one I knew, both for the country’s reaction to the attempted coup (Turkish flags everywhere) and that this would be my first extended stay in a ‘small town’. Somehow, through 28 years, I’d managed to constantly remain within the comfort of urban and suburban life. A few trips to Vermont, weekends camping in California and a short trip to Madison, Wisconsin (4x larger than Niksar) were as close as I came to small town living. I was lucky that the size and location would provide shelter from the craziness in the news. But between my arrival in Niksar and the drive to Istanbul the following week, I was blown away by one particular part of the culture: the food.
“Little little into the middle”
Few things are more important to Turkish culture than food. Particularly, most Turkish meals are a spread of vegetables, fruits, breads, cheeses, and other dishes for each person to serve themselves. Most meals consisted of only one or two dishes that contained multiple ingredients, particularly at breakfast. Most amazing was the source of these ingredients and dishes. The borek, featured top left in the picture above, is made of cheese and spinach within layers of pastry dough. This was cooked by a local housewife, who apparently needed only to be paid and supplied any special ingredients like meat. This bread was made at home but many came from a firin, wood fired oven, in town.
Niksar, known for its agriculture, was likely the source of many of the vegetables on the table, especially during in July. Eggs were also sourced from a few specific hens, cared for by a nearby villager. Finally, all of the dairy came from a single cow, brought out to pasture every day by a a local. Most of the 40 cows in the small village, one of several just outside Niksar, were owned by locals. Some belong to a single household, are milked consistently, and that diary is processed by another villager. This provides all of the butter, five cheeses, and milk. I watched the cows head to and from grazing each day, that was awesome.
Eating in rural Turkey was definitely a change from the supermarkets and restaurants where I get most of my food. Obviously, it’s too much to believe we can all have such a relationship with food, watching our very own cow walk out to the fields each day, but there’s certainly a lot to learn. After eating such meals, where I could pick out every ingredient that went into my body, it was hard to turn to more complex foods, like elaborate pasta sauces. More than that, especially while I was eating breakfasts like this to start the day, it was almost impossible to eat potato chips, soda, or candy that had a flavor that couldn’t possibly be identified as natural. I ate plenty of unhealthy food in Turkey, don’t get me wrong. There wasn’t enough cheese, bread, sugar, and honey to keep me full. But everything tasted real. If I were to indulge with a soda or candy, I could only handle a small amount.
We don’t put enough attention toward the food we consume. So many people are overweight and obese, leading not only to shorter lives but certainly less productive ones. It’s amazing how much more control we have over our health and our food than we think. Sure, there are plenty of sketchy ingredients in foods Americans love, but no one is forcing us to eat them. At some point in the last few years, an inflection point seems to have been hit and people turned the corner on food. Water has overtaken soda as the most consumed drink, sugar finally seems to be under attack, and the farm-to-table organic movement is bringing whole foods back to the table.
So much focus goes into things that can improve our lives. We want to watch thrilling TV, go on unforgettable vacations, and build lasting relationships. But without food, none of it would be possible. Then, if we can agree on it’s impact on our lives, hopefully we can also agree that different types of foods impact us in different ways. A filling salad prepares us for the afternoon better than a Philly cheesesteak. Ultimately, what we put into our bodies affects our lives as much as anything else. So how do we ensure we’re eating the right stuff? First we have to figure out what we’re eating.