Turks don’t approve of eating on the street. Or rather, their idea of eating on the street involves sitting down at a café table and placing their orders with a garson — they take their word for “waiter” directly from the French. The New York version of street eating, where the diner wolfs his food straight from the wrapper while on the move, strikes them as uncouth. And so must I, because that’s how I take at least two of my daily meals.
Both consist of an ekmek. Ekmek is the Turkish word for “bread.” The word can take various qualifiers — pide ekmeği refers to flat bread, çavdar ekmeği to rye. But when standing alone and in the singular, it suggests a loaf of sourdough, thickly crusted, a little over a foot long and shaped like a pregnant baguette.
It might come as a surprise to anyone used to eating their kebaps in American “Mediterranean”-style restaurants, where they come served over beds of rice, but here in Turkey ekmek is the chief staple. Bakers deliver ekmek to convenience stores and supermarkets at least twice every day. Even some liquor stores – yes, Turkey has them – maintain an ekmek cabinet. In everyday Turkish life, you might say, ekmeği double as French fries and Moon Pies.
It’s no mystery why. Chewy on the outside, fluffy as a cloud inside, your basic ekmek, even when taken neat, offers the full gamut of delights in every mouthful. Don’t ask me how many calories are in one, or whether the embedded carbs are simple or complex – I’d rather not know. But one will keep me full and happy for a good four or five hours, and help me to run like a sled dog. Let me add, at the risk of turning this into an infomercial, that a standard ekmek will set you back one thin Turkish lira, or about fifty American cents.
But for an American expatriate like me, an ekmek-based diet holds special appeal. Our dirty secret is that an awful lot of life abroad feels like a giant pain in the ass. Once you’ve toured a few medieval mosques, wandered through a bazaar or two, gotten lost in your fifth or sixth warren of ancient, winding streets, the novelty wears off. You’re stuck with lessons to plan, 90-minute commutes to make, bills to pay. What was once exotic turns exasperating. At first, burbling out your first few phrases in a new language can feel like intellectual Ping-Pong. But when the stakes are high – as, for example, when you have to give intelligible instructions to a hairstylist – it becomes an occasion for nail-biting stress.
The man whose apartment I took over, a fellow American and English teacher, calls this the Hardness Factor. That’s it right there — in plain English, for a change.
In full effect, the Hardness Factor produces a suffocating ennui that can ruin even a simple pleasure like eating at a cheap café. Let’s say you know what you want to eat – make it kokoreç, or lamb intestines, which is a lot tastier than it sounds, and a lot less commonly contaminated than some nervous nellies will have you believe. You place your order. The waiter understands you. But, catching your accent – if he hasn’t already clocked something foreign about shoes – he decides to fuss over you in that way that guidebook writers love. He asks you where you’re from, says something about the dish being a house specialty or old family recipe. Or so you surmise – your Turkish isn’t really good enough to tell, so you smile back till your face hurts.
There’s nothing affected about the pride he’s taking in his national cuisine, in his own attentiveness, in pleasing you. It’s no hustle for bahşiş, which, in this country, is never expected to exceed 10% (which, on this dish in this joint, would run about $0.30). You should be touched. You want to be touched. But at the moment, what you want much more is your sheep guts. The necessity of making small talk, of showing appreciation for the service, feels like just another obstacle to getting them. Cheese and crackers got all muddy, did the clerk at the passport office expect you to compliment her for paper-clipping your documents together so niftily?
You find yourself wishing the waiter weren’t there at all. This meal would be so much less stressful, you think, if you could order and pay at the counter, sit down at your table, and rush back to claim your food when the cashier called your name, or your ticket number, just like…well, just like back home, damn it.
Uh-oh, Spaghetti-O’s. As soon as it hears that thought, your superego stages a coup. So it’s come to this, it says, sounding awfully smug. Last week, you were making plans to climb Ararat and sneak into South Ossetia disguised as a Circassian dancing girl. Now you can’t even field a waiter’s good-natured banter without shedding nostalgic tears over Cheesecake Factory. You suck, Sonny Jim. Up in travel writers’ heaven, Bruce Chatwin is pointing at you and laughing. You bourgeois ugly American tourist pile of poo, you.
Now the waiter appears with your kokoreç, setting it on the table with a flourish, as though it were a cure for cancer. And boy, does it smell good! But no sooner do you take a bite than your superego pipes up again. I hear there’s a Burger King down the street. Why don’t you just put on a pair of Bermuda shorts and go there, pussy? Suddenly, those might as well be your own guts you’re eating.
That, in a roundabout way, explains the real beauty of ekmek. It’s no-fuss nourishment. You walk the thirty steps from your apartment to the store, pick it out of the cabinet yourself, slip a lira to the doyenne behind the counter, and tell her, “Teşekkürler” — the one word in Turkish you know you can say. It’s just like getting a bear claw from Circle K, except — you tell yourself — they don’t seem so uptight about people touching the merchandise with their fingers. So you’re having an adventure after all.
I maintain this attitude is perfectly defensible from a Christian point of view. Since Jesus’ time, we’ve been asking God: “Give us this day our daily bread.” In first-century Judea, most people baked their own bread, which took all afternoon and entailed the risk of burning down the house. For 2,000 years, we’ve believed in a God of snappy service, a God Who could make life easy.