With respect to Friedrich Schiller.
My mother couldn’t cook. I remember her taking a sandwich up to her bedroom after dinner every night, claiming she couldn’t sleep without having a piece of bread and feta cheese. Every single night. “I must have a sandwich,” she would say, “it fills me. Not only my stomach but my soul. Gives me a warm feeling. It’s a memory… a longing for my childhood”.
This wasn’t true. Although she never liked eating and was the skinniest in the family, she’d say anything to justify her appetite for a sandwich. Much like her cooking, her excuses were weak. She cooked unidentifiable dishes which people tried to avoid. Her soups were neither hearty, nor chunky. More like water. And with half onions or quarter carrots swimming in the broth because she could not be bothered to chop them.
She would be hungry one hour after leaving the table, so she’d make a sandwich. Her sandwiches were no great success either. The bread was rarely fresh and the filling was always feta. No slice of lettuce or tomato or a dash of mustard, let alone a piece of tongue or a fried egg. All the same, her sandwiches were sacred and not to be criticized.
Our situation was not something you’d imagine finding in this part of the world. Even the poorer children had better food in their boxes.
Also, she was proud of her lack of interest in “housework.” Not only did she speak very good English but she also had a diploma in philosophy and understood and appreciated art. She sincerely pitied the women who proudly talked about how long they had to cook or iron.
Our cleaning lady – yes, we had a weekly home help who was paid by my grandmother – tried many times to interest her in a few recipes but this was a waste of time. My mother would always find an excuse to be absent. During the rest of the week, everybody took turns in doing the housework. When we were in elementary school, my brother and I were in charge of doing our beds, washing dishes, setting and clearing the table and doing the grocery shopping. In return our mother cooked us consommés with big onions and celery roots that had turned black, mushy rice, a hot pot of thickly sliced sleek. No salt or oil.
“Chopping up vegetables neatly is insane. You’ll lose all the vitamins” she’d say, “my way is much healthier.”
Turkish people are very fond of stuffed vegetables or dolma (vine leaves stuffed with rice) as they’re called originally. Stuffing is always mincemeat in winter, rice in summertime as they are eaten cold. Mind you, making dolmas is not an easy chore, especially wrapping the vine leaves one by one can take hours of labour. My mother claimed that those people who cooked them had had all the time in the world.
She was practical she said. If every ingredient ended up in our stomach, why put so much effort into the presentation? So instead of rolling leaves one by one we could chop them up and make the dish in layers; one layer of filling one layer of chopped leaves. Of course, the leaves to be cut into small pieces so they didn’t get stuck in our throats. At this point she would stop for an express sermon about how vital it was to have a pair of scissors in each room of the house, including the kitchen.
“Look at the developed countries! They all have scissors in their kitchen. Nobody cuts their finger anymore when opening a milk carton.”
I went along with grandmother to “house sittings.” They were called house sitting because it was a slice of time when the friends get together in a house to chat and to eat. In our case they were quite old as they were grandma’s friends. I called them “aunts.” Everything was delicious. Looking back, if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t know the authentic tastes of Ottoman cuisine.
One way or another we were getting by… Until my father suddenly announced that his management had approved his request for a new flat. According to my father the rent was very low and the flat was very big but the location was very far from the centre. He seemed delighted as he’d finally have friends to socialise with.
My mother had mixed feelings. She’d never left her family home since she was born but on the other hand this kind of change might do my father some good, she thought. So, off we went.
The building complex was located on the top of a high hill. The buildings were also high and our flat was on the seventh floor. Every floor had two apartments facing each other. The wind would whoosh past the windows, making a scary sound at night. They were too high, too grey and colossal. We were isolated. Under a giant building was a “garden” of sorts – a miniscule part of grass with a couple of trees.
The market was far away and she couldn’t drive well. It was my father who did the main grocery shopping like going to the greengrocer, butcher, deli. Because we were saving money due to less rent and a less active social life, we could afford meat and bananas. My father also cooked a few times a week, yet it wasn’t enough. At the same time, my mother’s cooking got worse because she was unhappy. We needed a miracle.
And one day our doorbell rang. I opened the door and there she was… The miracle from across the hall. She was holding a fluffy marble cake in her hand. … So she can only be Angel: Aunt Angel. She had long hair and she looked like a person who could make chocolate puddings with uncracked skin tops. Just before she left, she asked my mother if she would like to join her for a “gold day.”
My mother who was still feeling blue from homesickness, absentmindedly said yes. When she closed the door, she sank down on a kitchen chair thinking of the mistake she’d made, whereas I ran to my brother’s room to show him the cake.
What was a gold day?
A gold day was a bunch of scheduled consecutive meetings where each guest presented a gold coin to the host. But first, they formed a group. Before the official day they got together, drew names one by one to see who was next. Everybody in the group was to buy a gold coin from a local jewelry shop and present it to the host at the next meeting. Coins came in three sizes: whole, half and quarter.
So, the size of the coin and the frequency of the meetings depended on the level of income of the husband. If there were twenty women in the group, the first host would receive nineteen gold coins on her day. After completing one full circle this would go on and on for years. It wasn’t unusual if something happened to a group member and her next of kin would take over like a flag runner or stand in for her during her absence. Apart from the gold element, there were actually more important things in the gold days than met the eye.
I had known about this before because all my classmates’ mothers had gold days. In my grandmother’s day, going to the bank was a relatively new thing – people traditionally borrowed and lent money and saved in gold coins and keep them at home. In other words, gold days were not only a way of socializing, but also served an important economic function. Some women will even have more than one gold day.
My mother came back from her first meeting tongue-tied realising what she was up against. In her bag there was a variety of food that was given by the host; börek with spinach and feta cheese filling, dolma (stuffed vegetables), deep fried pastry, tabbouleh, marble cake, coconut sprinkled chocolate balls. Sooner or later the other women would come to our house where they would expect similar treatment. We didn’t have a decent tablecloth, let alone a set of China. But we did have a good collection of Agatha Christie novels.
The next day I overheard my mother talking on the phone to her best friend.
“They were swapping cake and diet recipes!”
Gold days’ responsibilities were much beyond exchanging gold coins, cooking and eating. In our case, they meant considerably more because husbands happened to be colleagues and not just neighbours.
I heard that in the apartment building, the hosts – just before the Gold Day – would array the kitchen appliances, even the unused ones, all along the counter like an exhibition: ice cream maker, bread baker, fryers, bread knife, cookers, waffle makers. Guests would be amazed at the amount of ultra-modern equipment the husbands could afford. The strange part was that they were all perfectly aware of this mise-en-scène.
Another point was to prepare plenty because gold day buffet was the mother of all buffets, even more than weddings. And the cleaning…or, as the saying went: “lifting the house then putting it back down.” Let’s say one of the guests accidently got a tea stain on her silk blouse… She was shown to the master bedroom to get changed. If she wasn’t, she might think that the master bedroom was either in a bad state or decorated poorly. So, every corner had to be ready for a possible inspection.
Strangely enough, my mother kept going to the gold days. Unlike others, she didn’t have a recipe to swap or a mother-in-law to gossip about. I don’t remember her once talking about her family or about her in-laws. But I do remember the variety of cakes that we were given at the end of every gold day: pound, marble, feta & dill, tahini, chocolate, sponge, carrot. Back then nobody in our region had heard of cheesecake or brownies, merengue, tiramisu or apple pie. At this point my mother would accept a common sponge cake any day. And she’d be grateful if somebody brought something. Because she wasn’t the ambitious type, she was far from being passionate, had no desires for anything. She was a free soul, an untameable individual and wouldn’t budge over a labour of love.
Come to think of it, my mother was born in the wrong place and in the wrong gender.
When it was time for her gold day, she started her practice sessions one week beforehand. We only had four chairs. Our table was second-hand; and the chairs didn’t match. We always used a waxcloth at mealtimes.
We could buy a tablecloth. Or she could borrow one from my grandma. “Are you crazy? Do you know how hard it is to get the stains off?”
Truth was, she didn’t know how to remove stains. To this day I don’t remember her ever thinking of a quick solution like squeezing some washing-up liquid on the stain. That said, we didn’t have that liquid either because it was poisonous, she claimed.
Next step was the cake bake. She could make other things but the priority was to “bake a cake”. During those trials no one dared speak to her. She’d be covered in flour and would break an occasional glass. After putting the dough in the oven, she’d open the oven several times to make sure it was baking; which resulted in cake “versions”. The cake might emerge in an acceptable size but sugar or shortening would be missing. Sometimes both. Or baking powder, egg, milk or yoghurt might have been forgotten. Or the whole thing got stuck to the tray because grease was forgotten. The worst version was the “thin and hard on the outside, raw on the inside— preheating forgotten” one. I still remember her various pronouncements today. She would specify them as if her mind went blank during the preparations baking.
“Look at it, it’s not fluffy! Why? Because I hadn’t put the baking powder. What’s baking powder anyway? Soda is soda. If I wanted to have soda, I’d drink it…”
“Look at it, the whole thing stuck to the pan! Broken into pieces… Why? Because I hadn’t greased the pan… To be very honest, you can bake a cake without greasing the pan. Of course. Take sponge cake for instance. You don’t put any shortening in it, do you? What? You used grease-proof paper? Well, that’s not good either because that paper is full of chemicals – not at all healthy.”
“I hadn’t put the eggs. Strange, because I’d taken them out of the fridge… If you hadn’t mentioned the tablecloth, I wouldn’t have forgotten them… But I have. My oven also is a little bit…”
“Nobody reminded me to preheat the oven.”
“I hadn’t put any sugar. Anyways, it’s nice without sugar, you can eat it just like bread. In fact, it’s healthier because there is no yeast in it.”
She’d say all this in a puzzled way, knowing baking was a lot harder than she imagined.
Schiller says the poets can be classified either as naïve or sentimental. The naïve poet represents the naked mind that’s disconnected from the outside world, words flowing uninterruptedly from the depth of his mind. On the other hand, sentimentality represents the conscious state that enables the poet to make manoeuvres to manipulate the readers. Yet Schiller claims that in contemporary literature, every poet is both.
This theory reminded me of my quiet mother and how much it applied to her. To me, accepting her mistakes must have required a great deal of innocence. Tray after tray of failings had neither discouraged nor improved her. Perhaps it was an Eastern curse that began and ended with fatalism.
I recall, despite all the tips and recipes she was given, attributing her endless attempts to an incorrigible naïveté and optimism. Deep down my mother had faith in herself, she thought one day the flames of her beliefs might help her bake properly. She was naïve in that sense.
On the other hand, she also exhibited the traits of Schiller’s sentimental poet. Concealing her reluctance, she would comply, as to not break people’s hearts. She would accept the over-indulging recipes she was forcefully given at the gold days, despite her true feelings towards the baking traditions. Particularly the recipes from Aunt Angel, who had done nothing but bring us pastries from heaven…
Now she’s trying cookies…
Zeynep Rade is a Turkish immigrant writer. Born and raised in Istanbul where she published six books in eight years (two short stories, novel, children’s book, two books of radio dramas) and many academic articles and essays in literary magazines and online journals. Two of her radio dramas Animal Love and The Passenger to Normandy were aired in the late 90’s when the national radio was open to outside submissions.
In 2015, she left her home town with her son, and migrated to France (French-Swiss border) due to extensive human rights violations with escalating censorship. Ever since she attends literary geography master classes at the University of Geneva, as landscapes have become her passion.
She is slowly learning French and trying to write in English.