My name is Beyhan Cagri Trock and I recently published a 350 page cookbook/memoir called The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl – Real Turkish Cooking. Being an architect by trade, I never intended to write a book at all. But in 2008, with the downturn in the US economy and very little work for architects, I found myself taking stock of my life, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. It occurred to me that I come from a fascinating family with a story that needed to be told. Instead of twiddling my thumbs waiting for the phone to ring, I set out to preserve the memories, culture, and cuisine of my complicated family. I ended up with a 350 page treasure that has been written up in several magazines and recommended by leading cookbook authors.
A Story Worth Telling
I am the third daughter of Hayri (Zeki) Çağrı and Berta (Beti) Revah. He was a Turk, she a Sephardic Jew. In 1940, while working down the street from one another in Istanbul, their paths crossed and my parents fell in love. Because there were enormous cultural taboos surrounding interfaith relationships, theirs was a forbidden love which forced them to turn their backs on their communities, friends, and most painful of all, their families. When Zeki met Beti, two worlds collided. Their ancient and distinct traditions, cuisines, and religions became embroiled in a dance both passionate and heartbreaking. They defied the odds by remaining lovers until the end of their lives.
Their life dramatically took a new course in 1957, when my father retired from his job as chauffeur for the American Embassy in Ankara. He was given the choice to receive either a pension or a Green Card. He chose the latter. Soon after, the family immigrated to the United States, hoping to grasp every opportunity and chase every dream.
I was three and a half years old when we settled in Washington, DC as pioneers. Not long after, our whole extended family followed; siblings, spouses and children. In the early 1960s, the Turkish population in D.C. was tiny. My parents, always thrilled to meet other Turks, invited practically every newcomer to dinner. Many of these Turkish immigrants became life-long friends and our “aunts and uncles.” We eventually became the nexus of an “extended family” of 30 to 40 people, with cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and nephews living a traditional Turkish life nestled in the shadow of the nation’s capital.
Throughout those early years, we gathered for all-day American Turkish Association (ATA) picnics, leisurely family breakfasts where sometimes twenty of us would sit for hours around the table, and scrumptious dinners at each others homes or at the fabulous Turkish Embassy parties. Every social gathering was centered on foods from home. Fabulous foods. Turkish staples like börek, eggplant, grilled lamb and kebabs, stuffed vegetables, and yogurt; Jewish and Passover dishes with strange Spanish names like agristada and burmuelos. Our food (like our language, music, and customs), had been handed down from one generation to the next. Whatever was “familiar” was comforting, and tied our family to our ancestors and to the world we had left behind.
Why Write this Book?
My parents are both gone now. Their generation is rapidly disappearing. I am now seated near the head of the table on Passover. My siblings and our cousins are gray-haired, and as I look around, I wonder, is it possible that one of us will not be here next year? Though my children have seen Turkey, prayed in mosques, and attended many a Passover Seder, I worry that they are outsiders to “my” culture. They don’t speak Turkish, save a few greetings and choice curse words. And though they grew up with Turkish food, they don’t really know where the dishes came from, or how they are prepared. I’m the one who is expected to cook the traditional Passover dishes, but I’m not sure I can. I fervently cling to my receding Turkishness, all the while watching my children drift further out into the stew of the proverbial “American Melting Pot.” I worried that “our ways”– our foods, traditions, and memories– will fade away, and that the children of my children will never have the chance to know where they came from.
This is why I wrote this book. I’m one of those people Claudia Roden refers to when she says that the drive is still strong for Ottoman Sephardim to preserve family identity, the memory of parents, and an old life that was happy. I am one of the last of that generation of Turkish Sephardim who immigrated in the 1950’s when Turkey was still “Turkish.” I’m aware that the traditions, foods, manners, language, religions, history, and values my parents brought with them from the old Turkey still live within me. And in 2008 I finally realized that if I didn’t tell their story, who would?
I’ve been back to Turkey half a dozen times since we immigrated here in 1958; sometimes as a student of architecture, sometimes as a relative, once as a bride. But it wasn’t until I started writing my cookbook/memoir that I began to seriously research my amazing family. I discovered that my ancestors and relatives not only lived through incredible historical times and events; in some cases they actually played dramatic and important roles in shaping them.
By interviewing family members, and reading journals, letters, diaries, and history books, I found that my father’s accounts of Anatolian battles, which I used to greet with a yawn, suddenly became real and fascinating. Why hadn’t I paid more attention? His stories were not at all like the abstract events and tedious lists of dates we had to memorize in 11th grade World History class. He had tried to open my eyes to tangible events more astonishing and compelling than any video game developer could create.
Dad had talked about Mongol hordes, stolen princesses, battles and conquests, secret alliances, bravery and treachery, Khans and Kings, nomads and slaves. He had always said, for example, that we were descendants of a Greek princess. Here was her name! And Tamerlane’s conquests? They brought our family to Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. Dad had said “We are Turks. We have Turkish blood in our veins.” On the other hand, Tant Ida spoke to me about the Jewish blood in my veins. “We are Sephardic Jews,” she would say proudly. “We left Spain, we left Bulgaria, we even left Turkey, but through all of it we preserved our Jewishness.”
At that point which occurs in everyone’s life when it is important to define oneself, I came to accept myself as a conglomeration of Turk and Sepharad. It then became my mission to tease apart a knotted tapestry of culture, symbolism, language and religion so that I could get a clear picture of their geneses.
Our house was a linguistic melting pot, and I became interested in how the languages spoken in our home served as a highly accurate cultural compass, pointing me down the various roads of my ancestry. Names were important clues. On my mother’s side, they were Latin based: names like Mari, Merih, Ida, Sara, Suzanna, Leon, Jak, Aron, Yehuda, Bulisa, Bella, Silvio. On my dad’s side, they were Muslim and Central Asian; Mehmet, (from the name Muhammad), Ali, Hüseyin, Lütfiye, Fehmi, Haydar, Gökhan. My mom’s fluency in Ladino (15th century Spanish), Greek, and French revealed the existence of robust and interwoven non-Turkish communities in Istanbul. I began to appreciate the cultural soup that was the Ottoman Empire.
Language gave other clues. The fact that mom spoke Turkish without the strong Jewish accent of her siblings indicated the young age at which she left the Sepharad community. The way my grandmother pronounced my name Beyhan with a slavic ‘kh” pointed to her Bulgarian background. My father’s knowledge of Arabic and Farsi pointed to the influx of Muslim and Persian culture in his Turkish ancestry.
Because father’s family has spoken Turkish for many, many generations, it was a safe assumption that at some point in history his people resided in the mountainous Eurasian Steppe of Central Asia, domain of nomadic Turkic peoples since antiquity. This is where I decided the story of the Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl would begin.
Deciding How to Tell the Story
For the past two years, people have been asking me, “Is it a cookbook or a history of your family?” When I said, “Both,” I got confused glances. Realizing that this is not your average cookbook, I decided to divide it into two parts. Part 1 is the story of our family. Part 2 includes 101 of the recipes we brought with us from Turkey.
Part 1, the narrative, describes the dual histories of my parent’s ancestors. First comes “The Turkish Muslim Side” which traces my father’s family from its Central Asian beginnings. I talk about the Turkic people, nomadic horsemen, their lifestyle and how it influenced modern Turkish cuisine. How the Mongol Hordes were responsible for my family’s appearance on the Black Sea, how there were Byzantine princesses in our ancestry, and even how my fez-wearing mustachioed grandfather rescued a kidnapped American actress in Istanbul.
The second section, “The Turkish Jewish Side,” traces my mother’s family from their Jewish origins in Palestine through their fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 to arrive in the Ottoman Empire. I talk about Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire and about how strict social religious doctrine can be a double-edged sword when it comes to preserving families.
The third section, “Coming to America,” describes life after our arrival in the U.S. a half-century ago. My parents built their life here in fits and starts, by trial and error. I talk about what Washington, DC was like then, and what it feels like to grow up an immigrant. I include anecdotes about trying to fit in, and also about the more difficult task of preserving Middle Eastern culture and traditions as the years go by.
Part 2 of the book is the Recipes. Over the years I had collected recipes from my mother, father, and aunts. These were the delicious family recipes I had grown up with. I cooked every one of the 101 dishes presented in the book, sometimes making several attempts before settling on the formula that tasted most like what I remember eating as a child. I meticulously photographed every step of every recipe, keeping in mind that many readers may have never seen what the dish is supposed to look like. I also kept the novice cook in mind, providing instruction on basic things like how to cut an onion or clean fresh leeks. And of course I provided a tantalizing “beauty shot” of each dish, enough to make your mouth water! Then I added notes about who taught me the recipe, or who made it best, or other stories about the dish.
You can imagine how thrilled I was when Esin Atil, Ph.D. – Historian of Islamic Art – Curator Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution said this about my book: “I highly recommend The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl – Real Turkish Cooking, which not only covers a variety of ethnic Jewish and Turkish recipes, but traces an unusual blend of cultures in mid-20th century Istanbul as well as a unique love story. It is at once a cultural history, a biographical study, and a valuable source of culinary experience. I wish more cookbooks included the historical/biographical backgrounds of the people who created the recipes.”
A Rewarding Experience
Researching my family roots and cuisine was an enormously rewarding experience, and I recommend it to everyone. It allowed me to develop close ties with new-found relatives in Turkey, Venezuela, and Israel – strangers who were suddenly willing to share their pictures and memories with me. I uncovered recipes that were first made in Bulgaria, and brought to Turkey by my grandmother. I learned a great deal about world history and how political events impacted my ancestors’ lives.
Best of all, I got to spend quality time with my tants (aunts). In the process of interviewing them, I was blessed to gather not only recipes, but memories and anecdotes about their lives; stories that I would never have heard otherwise. For example, I never knew that in the early days of the Turkish Republic, Tant Mati’s father was forced to do hard labor in a work camp. I learned this tidbit while we discussed tricks for reducing oil in fried eggplant. Tant Ida and I actually belly danced together in her kitchen while she showed me how to make eggplant-filled pastries called börekitas. Cooking with them in their kitchens gave me the opportunity to notice idiosyncratic habits that they would never have mentioned if they had simply related their recipes to me. I learned the most subtle of tricks, like knowing which utensil is best to scoop the pulp out of a zucchini squash, or how to catch the seeds when you squeeze a lemon.
That’s my journey, in a nutshell. I hope this inspired you to launch your own personal journey through time and into the kitchen!
Beyhan Cagri Trock is an architect based in Bethesda, MD. To learn more about her family’s incredible history and delicious recipes, visit www.ottomanturkjewishgirl.com. The Reel Tributes team tried some of her dishes, and we give them a ringing endorsement!