Tuesday, May 22, 2012

It's Turk to Me


That was one of many street cries we’d hear—some daily, some less frequent; some intruding through the curtained glass-wall front, straight into our second-floor apartment, but others faint and far off like a distant train whistle.

We were living in Turkey then—it was the mid-Fifties—in the old, old Aegean coastal city known as Smyrna for well over three thousand years, one of Christianity’s original “Seven Churches of Asia (Minor),” with another, Ephesus, just down the road. In 1900, say, the city was still a generally peaceful mix of young Turks migrating from the dusty countryside; longtime resident Greeks, many of them well-to-do merchants; and a small colony of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain hundreds of years before.

But in the post-Ataturk nation--more secular, with most Arabic connections denied, and a new Westernized Turkish alphabet and language created--the city’s name had been modernized by deleting the end syllable and adding a new beginning (was it perhaps symbolic?), creating the harsher-sounding urban destination “Izmir.”

The population for this major seaport city, spreading out from a sweeping crescent of harbor, was already around 300,000 by then, but has since expanded explosively to four million and counting. The sounds and street shouts we heard are drowned in traffic noise now—a great clatter and clamor… fewer cries and whispers.

The called-out, cajoling offers of the horse-drawn carriage drivers (who occasionally came riding to the rescue of threatened young Americans) have given way to honking, tires-squealing taxicabs. The music drifting from windows and doorways sounds generic Western now, rather than harem-shrill Turkish or the haunted strains drawn from bluesy Greek rembetika. (Early singer Rita Abadzi was a Smyrna native.) Muezzins high in the minarets today need loudspeakers to call the
faithful to prayer, where their voices in older times, rising and falling rhythmically, were alone sufficient.

The old Bazaar, a dark, crowded maze of shops and stalls, coffee houses and blind alleyways, still exists, but now selling machine-made rugs and cheap gimcrack knockoffs from China instead of brass bells and camel saddles and coffee thick as sludge. The camel trains hauling trade goods are gone, and the beautiful pebble-front, two- and three-story apartment buildings—lost in the rush of Metro trains and a modern international airport, and the crush of massive eight-floor, Soviet-style housing blocs that push out in all directions.

Revisiting Izmir 30 years later in 1986, the only wandering street vendors I saw involved parked-all-day handcarts with young guys boredly hawking shishkebabs, or the Turkish equivalent of gyro wraps, or melting ice cream. Long gone, it seemed, were the whistling knife sharpener with his foot-pedal grindstone wheel, and the old man singing out his willingness to gather all your discarded books and newspapers, and the big-voiced vegetable seller busy letting everyone within a two-block radius know which fruits and vegetables were fresh that day and right there for sale on his produce-piled-high wagon pulled by a rough-and-ready horse.

My own favorite, back in the fondly remembered Izmir of the Fifties, was the peripatetic yoghurt seller, roaming the city with a heavy yoke on his shoulders and two big buckets dangling down, hollering out “YOOGGHHJIAH” and slower, stretched-out variations of the same. You could buy a small paper-cup’s worth or fill up your kitchen container, and the only flavoring came from a honey jar he carried along too. Rich, creamy, and with the honey, a treat nearly as special as ice cream…

So here we are today, going on three decades farther on, and the supermarkets and TV ads of the wider world tout, not just yoghurt, but specifically Greek yoghurt.
Huh? What makes this yoghurt Greek? The goats or cows or, I don’t know, penned sheep maybe, deliver the same milk wherever they are (barring agriculture conditions), and they don’t recognize national boundaries. In fact, I think they graze on any available grass-without-borders.

I also sampled and examined single-serving containers from a couple of different U.S. companies and found some data of interest. One offers Greek yoghurt (“Greek style,” they say) originating in Montlake Terrace, Washington; and another hails from New Berlin(!), New York. One calls itself “The Greek Gods” (Pomegranate represents
Apollo), while the other bears the distinctly non-Greek brand name Chobani. And if the Greeks do have a process for their word (extra straining to insure less liquid and more protein), the Japanese-sounding, German settlement, Greek-insistent product has 3g of Fat, 160 calories, and 14g of Protein, while the “stylin’” one’s same-size serving holds 17g Fat, 230 calories, and 6g Protein. (In comparison here’s a plain, unGreek yoghurt with 0g Fat, 120 calories, and 12g Protein; tastes just fine with a dab of honey.) Both brands offer a mild and tasty product enhanced by fruit flavoring, or some fruit jam in the bottom of the cup meant to be stirred up into the unflavored yoghurt.

Which of these is more faithfully, maybe poetically, Greek? It’s true that the Greek
people suffered occasionally when the Ottoman Turks ruled a vast, lazy, Eastern Mediterranean empire that included Greece--and then more certainly, murderously so, in 1922 when Ataturk’s army drove the Greeks residing in Izmir and elsewhere literally into the Aegean Sea. But the yoghurts of both lands are very much the same. Only paid company scientists and (m)ad men and women care to define (or invent) such specious claims.

Yoghurt from a streetseller in Izmir 50-some years ago vs. yoghurt sold in Seattle today? I suppose it's a wash, aside from advances in sterilizing and mass producing,
but my memory says different. That yoghurt cup you’re pretending makes for a yummy lunch? Well, it may be Greek to you, but it’s Turk to me.

But better yet might be the world remembering that yoghurt too is Gaian first. One world… one yoghurt.

* * * * *
It occurred to me today (three days post-post) that I missed a chance to more deftly make the point (split infinitive be hanged). So...

Insisting that Greek yoghurt somehow tastes better than Turkish is tantamount to claiming that Jewish olives grown "inside" the infamous barrier Wall taste better than Palestinian ones grown on the other side... when what the two sides really need is for one or the other to offer an olive branch.

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