Last fall I spent almost a month in Turkey, and I have yet to write a thing about it. It has crossed my mind many times in the interim, the peculiarity of this lapse, and I am still not sure how best to account for my reticence.
As one should imagine it is not for the lack of material – my entire time there was one of almost uninterrupted culinary richness, from tart, thick-skinned yogurt to sweaty chambers of steamed hamburgers on Taksim square, incredible lamb cağ kebabı to incredibly tripey kokorec, ayran every day, tea every hour, spicy pickled turnip juice, lamb omelette, eating stuffed mussels on the street corner and oranges from my friend Elif’s backyard, one hundred feet from the saltiest sea that has ever had me, mint and freshly hulled pinto beans, olives, mint, olives, mint, more yogurt, cucumbers, repeat. Listening to Bolt Thrower and Goathorn in a bathroom-sized metal bar in Beyoğlu. Watching Bergman on a laptop, drunk in a cave hotel in Cappadocia. Seeking, but being too ill-prepared to know where to look for, some trace of James Baldwin’s life in Istanbul, four decades ago.
And yet, none of this has made its way to the (figurative) page. On one level this should be unsurprising because I have been writing very little of late. But in part, it is because I don’t know that I know how to tell these stories – or, to tell them responsibly – to relate the experiences without succumbing to the sly, earnest, dishonourable exoticism of so much cultural tourism.
It brings to mind, in a sort of roundabout way, the furor that was generated a few years back by Adam Gollner’s unfortunately-titled Globe & Mail article, “Why You Should Eat in Parc-Ex, Montreal’s Ungentrified Food Paradise,” and the response published by Maisonneuve, “Orientalism, Gentrification and Irony in Parc-Ex.” I don’t mean to rekindle the the whole thing here here, but what struck me about Gollner’s piece, and what seemed to be lost in the ensuing discussion, is how easy it is to slip into a discourse of exoticization when writing about food from / in “other” cultures – at least when one is attempting to write with some literary sensibility and attention to context.
Notions of wildness, of pre-, para-, or contra-modernity, noble suffering or uninhibited celebration, even of authenticity all have their place in the elaborate discursive architectures of colonialism and Orientalism, and in their contemporary iterations. One may think of these as literary technologies – narrative, discursive technologies – for fixing Otherness in a fictional alterity (or fixing alterity as a fictional Otherness?) for our consumption. Now, we may debate the ‘real’ impact of such symbolic violence, and the extent to which Western cultural analysis itself reproduces the silencing and dispossession of the “Other” in whose defense it presumes to speak, when it presents Orientalism as a totalizing discourse, but for the moment I want to keep things a little more reined in.
It suffices as a reminder of how accessible and salient are such colonial tropes for (esp. white) authors writing within a Western literary tradition – perhaps all the more so for food writing, which is at best always balanced precariously between fluff, formal blandness, and something that occasionally pretends to a some creative engagement, and so is especially susceptible to hackneyed sentiment and cliché. Yet all the while dealing with something quite intimate and fundamental to survival and pleasure both (as much as mostly I like to use food mostly as a vehicle for jokes and self-loathing). The question we are forced to ask is how not to fall into this when such tropes are so ready to hand for the making sense, and indeed the structuring of, our encounters with difference?
There is of course a risk in using these terms – colonialism, Orientalism – too freely, thus blunting their critical edge and the specificity of the histories and relationships which subtend them. The relationship between Canada and Turkey is not a colonial one, Istanbul is not Urla is not Göreme, let alone Erzurum, Antep, etc., colonialism and Orientalism cannot be reduced to one another. Nevertheless, colonial and orientalist tropes remain, I would argue, major structuring elements for the Western imaginary and its encounters with the “East” (or various Easts). They are ubiquitous, perhaps not inevitable, but will not be evaded without some imagination and force of will.
And at the moment I am not sure I possess that imagination, or that honesty. But it’s something to work on. In the meantime, here are some pictures of food.