The passion of my mid-twenties was some high-minded ideal of sustainable, organic, slow food. Not foodie food- I squirmed and still squirm at that word, which feels smarmy to me. Something a certain kind of man who has an “eclectic” c.d. collection and enjoys “sensual” massages would say to impress a girl, “I’m really a foodie. On our next date you’ll have to come over so I can make you squab in a blood orange pomegranate reduction sauce with roasted asparagus with wasabi jus. I got the recipe from Gourmet, February 1988.” Bleh. Run. No, I was interested in plain home cooking, done well, with local, seasonal ingredients. I was interested in a time before strawberries were available year round, and one might know one’s farmers, and one canned food because it was the best way to make it last all winter, when waste was anethema, and even the scraps went to your pig to become your dinner later.
I read Karen Hesse and learned to hate white sauce. I read Michael Pollan and learned to despise Monsanto. I trawled the farmers markets for organic farmers who were actually local. I bought my pork from the heirloom pig guys and learned to do without beef. I waited weeks for the only truly free range chickens I could find and paid sixteen bucks for one. I stopped buying eggs from my egg man when I learned he fed his chickens soy. I grew food on my roof.
And I never, ever, ever ate fast food.
Well, maybe once a year when we all went on vacation because you canNOT go South without hitting Waffle House I don’t care how strong your principles are.
What happened to that passion? Well, work got in the way. And when you’re chronically single, making meals for yourself sucks the fun right out of cooking. So much easier to just heat up a bowl of soup and be done with it. Or stop for a sandwich somewhere on your way home. And then, I was a few years too early. When I left, Baltimore was becoming an urban farmers paradise. When I was 26, the sheer effort of cycling all around town to try to find food I deemed acceptable, and the cost of that food when I found it- it makes me feel tired and defeated just to think about it.
Fast forward half a dozen years and here I am in Istanbul, which is a paradise for fresh fruit and veg. It ‘s ridiculously cheap- I swear I just paid 4 lira for a pound of early cherries which comes out to less than two bucks- and it’s trucked im daily. And if you want to support a local farmer, they rig up markets in almost every neighborhood on almost every day of the week. Just found one in Cengelkoy at the Su Dolap stop, by the way, that’s ridiculously cheap, but, fair warning, crawling with gypsy kids. (Unexpected side effect of Istanbul ex-pat life, I find myself saying things a racist from 80-odd years ago would say. But seriously, watch your pockets around the gypsy kids.) It’s not organic of course. Istanbul’s selection of organic food is pathetic, and so expensive it makes Whole Paycheck, er, Whole Foods look like Sav-a-Lot. No joke. (Any Isty’s wanna put in two cents proving me wrong here, please do.) But it’s local? Lower carbon footprint? That’s good, right? No? No. 26 year old Sarah is weeping and gnashing her teeth in fury. I’ve let down the revolution.
And then I’m surrounded here by really good, cheap abundant food. It’s EVERYWHERE. Other bloggers are better about waxing rhapsodic about it and I’ll let them. But trust me- the fish is fresh, the iceberg lettuce is invariably crisp, the stews are savory… yeah. Other people do that better. But the problem I keep having, the problem I always come back to is that Turkish food is pretty much all you can get here. There are Chinese restaurants, sure, but they’re kind of crappy. THere’s a vegetarian Indian restaurant, I’ve heard. There’s even some approximation of sushi. But I grew up in America, where even a relatively uncosmopolitan city like Baltimore was in the nineties had decent Chinese takeouts on every corner, (even fancy Chinese restaurants! Anyone remember Uncle Lee’s? Holla?) and Indian, (what was the name of that Indian joint that opened on Frederick Road? Marc and I used to go there ALL THE TIME. Mmmmm. Samosas.) and Greek and Afghani and Thai and Mexican and El Salvadoran and okay, if we get into taco territory I’ll start crying and never stop, but you get the idea. It was not only available, it was convenient. I’m just not used to living in a mono-cuisine culture, yet here I am.
I rarely eat for pleasure anymore.
So to sum it up, my relationship with food has unravelled because of latent hippie-guilt, laziness, and boredom.
Which brings me back to fast food.
In my early, dark days here, on a morning when I was feeling particularly beaten up by Istanbul and homesickish, I passed a Burger King, and the door opened and the smell hit me full in the face and suddenly I was in Snowpea, my white Nissan Stanza, in the drive-thru of the Burger King on Rt. 40, in 1998, and Marc was probably there too, and I was ordering a Big King Meal with onion rings instead of fries and a diet pepsi. I found myself walking into the Burger King on Bahariye and ordering a meal. And even without the bacon-product topping, it was the most perfect thing I’ve ever eaten. The patty was cardboardy, and the ideal balance between salty and savory and totally bland. The cheese-product was rubbery and poorly melted. The ketchup was too vinegary. The bun managed to be soggy and sawdusty at the same time. The fries were limp and underseasoned. You might judge me, reader. You might call me an ugly American. You might, rightly, point out that there was a doner bufe right next door and doner is, by any subjective or objective measure, better than Burger King. And yet it my mouth it was so much more than the sum of its poor parts. It was sunshine streaming through a car window. It was easy companionship and brittle jokes. It was road trips and beach toys, all the time in the world, the perfect mixtape. It was youth and the weight of the world. It was everything I’ve ever lost, and everything I ever wanted. That burger, reader, was love.
Nevertheless when I finished and was licking my fingers and noticing that the other patrons were Turkish teenagers and tourists, I was ashamed of myself.
It became a regular thing, after that. A payday treat. I found my footing eventually. Made friends, took and discarded or was discarded by lovers, found the perfect apartment, became good at my job, stopped being homesick, and ate less fast food.
I came home the other morning to find RM and JP in the living room.
“We’re ordering McDonald’s breakfast,” RM announced. “You want the standard?”
“Yes ma’am!” I said. And settled happily into the couch. While we waited for the McDonald’s delivery man (oh yes, that’s a thing here) to come on his scooter we post-mortemed our various adventures from the night before and settled into an easy companionship. JP started reading a book. RM disappeared to fuss with her hair or something. I fiddled with the i-pod. We got hungrier and hungrier. RM called McDonalds again to confirm it was coming. I gave up on getting to work ontime by public transportation and decided to take a cab (MORE ON THAT LATER. Now that’s a story.) We danced a little and restlessly stalked around the apartment. I leaned out the window and squealed “Oh my god he just pulled up!” A moment later we were in the kitchen, fluffing our McDonald’s coffees (remember when I wouldn’t drink anything but fair trade organic shade grown?) with milk and sugar.
The hashbrowns were salty, tasteless, and weirdly over-starchy. The McMuffin, (which FYI in Turkey are made with “Hindi” which is a fake ham product resembling canadian bacon that you don’t want to think about too closely) was half cold, texturally suspicious, and gooey.
“Oh my God,” I said, with my mouth full. “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”
“Agreed,” JP said.
“Agreed,” RM said.