Monday, November 24, 2014

The World as Seen Through Turkeys

By Nicolas Trépanier

If Thanksgiving taught me anything, it is that the United States is a foreign country. They do things differently here.

When I moved across the border from my native Québec in order to pursue my doctoral studies, I brought with me a firm conviction that I would find myself in known territory. I had already spent a quarter century consuming American cultural products, after all, and I was relocating only a few hundred miles from my hometown. Later that Fall, as Thanksgiving was approaching, I did not expect much more than the Thanksgivings I was used to: a day off school, a meaningless but welcome hole in the collective schedule just when I had a 

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term paper in desperate need of being written.

But what I actually ended up encountering was one of the highlights of the annual calendar, a celebration with well-established rituals and social obligations that emptied the graduate dorm where I lived and that caused much pity to be cast upon us, poor international students who (as we suddenly discovered) were expected to feel deeply depressed to be away from our families on such a special occasion. Thanksgiving, I realized, was completely new to me.

And why should it not? Thanksgiving might be the most American of holidays, both because of its gravitational pull in our calendars and because it does not have a real counterpart outside Anglophone North America. This strongly regional character, in turn, means that a deep look at Thanksgiving can yield a lot of insights about the culture that created it. It’s a way to look over America’s shoulder as it waits in line to cash out at the supermarket, and to draw all sorts of conclusions on the way it lives its private life.

Looking into a culture’s shopping cart and drawing all sorts of conclusions about it is also what I do in my book Foodways and Daily Life in Medieval Anatolia—except that it involves another kind of Turkey. Looking at a region that was about to become part of the Ottoman empire, the book examines the various ways people interacted with food (growing it, buying it, eating it or avoiding it for religious reasons) in order to reconstruct the texture of daily life in a culture far removed from our own, far from the bird turke and from cranberry sauce.

Food can be a pretext to document almost anything. Let’s take the way that food enters a house and reserves are managed, for example. Fourteenth-century sources include a number of anecdotes where men, after several days of deep immersion in religious rituals, are suddenly snapped out of their devotions by worries about supplying their homes with bread and meat. In another set of anecdotes, we encounter devout young women who, having taken bread and oil from the house to feed a wandering dervish, have to bear the wrath of their sinful mother-in-law, herself blinded to sainthood by her jealous management of the food pantry. These, and a host of other anecdotes, superficially center on food provisioning. But they also paint a vivid picture of the distribution of power and responsibilities among genders and generations, the collaborative and conflictual character of their interactions, and the contrast between the ways social roles played out outside and inside the house.

The fact that these anecdotes pertain to saintly figures and religious practices is no coincidence. Unlike today’s Thanksgivings, which might be slightly too well documented for some of us, not much more than a dozen original texts and three dozen archival documents remain from fourteenth-century Anatolia. In other words, the five or ten million people who lived there and then have left us with fewer traces than a typical small town of nineteenth-century America.

Given these conditions, I had to draw from all the sources I could find, from official chronicles to archaeological excavation reports. Along the way, I realized that hagiographies are unexpectedly useful when researching food practices. Unlike modern biographies, that follow a character through a single, flowing narrative, these texts are essentially collections of independent anecdotes showcasing the bons mots and miracles of the Sufi masters whose sainthood they try to demonstrate. And as it turns out, many of these anecdotes involve details of daily life that come in contact with saintly powers, such as the ability to read the mind of (and provide money to) a man who worries about feeding his family, or the multiplication of a household’s olive oil reserves after a woman makes a pious offering.

Medieval authors are also interested in what stands out and rarely refer to things typical, making them rather problematic for a project that seeks to investigate the texture of ordinary life. I often had to read between the lines, to look at the shape of the holes in the text. Take for example this passage, where the daughter of a religious master notices a cat that regularly visits her father’s grave, so she decides to offer it the pasty sweet called helva. This, of course, does not mean that mourning cats were all over the place in medieval Anatolia. In fact, it is precisely because a mourning cat was so unusual that the medieval author thought it was worth reporting (or perhaps even inventing). Indeed, it is possible to extrapolate on the parallels it would have brought to the mind of its intended audience, by noticing that the female character was, essentially, reacting to the atypically humanlike behavior of that cat by giving the animal an atypically humanlike treatment. In other words, this anecdote suggests that it was common practice to offer helva to people in mourning. This interpretation indeed fits quite nicely many other scenes depicting the consumption of helva and, as I realized later on, a funeral practice that is still common in today’s Turkey.

Helva in Mahneh Yehuda market by deror_avi
The challenges that came with this research project pushed me in other, less expected directions. In order to contextualize and understand the data I collected, I had to become familiar with a range of areas that seldom find themselves in the same project, from the way soil composition differently affects wheat and barley to the status of nonprofit foundations in Islamic law and from the diversity of Turkish, Persian and Arabic terms used to refer to honey to the respective histories of red and white wine.

Comparing the lives of medieval Anatolians to ours also led me to question aspects of our lives so obvious to us that we seldom realize they could be different from what they are. Take meals, for example: limited cooking fuel, long preparation times and tight social rules made them essential to the middle ages, but is it possible to imagine our eating habits doing away with these regularly scheduled, collective feeding rituals? It was also interesting to observe the way people connected diet and health in a culture that accepted the galenic theory of humors, a theory that presents sickness as the result of imbalance between the four bodily humors (blood, yellow and black bile, phlegm). We tend to ridicule this perspective, which infamously gave us bloodletting as a medical practice. But to someone seeing health as a state of equilibrium (rather than, as we do today, considering it as an ideal, “apex” state), a given food item such as garlic could cure some illnesses and worsen others, depending on balance of humors in the eater’s body. Medieval Anatolians, in other words, would cast an incredulous glance at our compulsive attempts to identify superfoods (açai, quinoa, kale or whatever else is becoming popular this month) that, we are told, can solve all health problems if we only consume them in massive quantities. I tend to think this is not such a bad thing.

A myriad of challenges and even more numerous strategies to overcome these challenges forced me to take a rather circuitous route in order to come up with a general picture of what life was like in medieval Anatolia. The one element that remained throughout the process, however, was the conviction that examining food and the ways humans relate to it can tell us about a whole lot more than just food.

Thinking back on what I didn’t know about the United States before I began my doctoral studies at Harvard, I realize that a parallel exercise could be performed using Thanksgiving rather than food, and today’s America instead of medieval Anatolia. A book about Thanksgiving could have told me about the incredible geographical mobility of Americans, so many of whom are crossing state lines to gather with their families this week. It would have illustrated the depth of division between political orientations, that remain hidden by the politically segregated communities that are Facebook accounts until they find their expression in yelling matches over tables decked with stuffing and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. It could have taught me about social and cultural changes like the growth of consumerism, rarely more obvious than in the scheduling efforts invested in Black Friday shopping, or the influence of YouTube and celebrity chefs over culinary culture, as can be seen in the explosion (sometimes literal) of the practice of deep-frying turkeys. It could also have prepared me for the way in which selfless values such as gratitude survive and sometime thrive in a country whose population I found to be tremendously welcoming, a country that offered me the best education imaginable and a job for which I’m glad I can express my gratitude here.

Originally from Québec, Nicolas Trépanier earned his Ph.D. in history and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University in 2008. He is now an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi, where he teaches history.

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