The doorbell rang a few days ago and who should I see but my friendly postman bearing a parcel for me. When I had to sign for it, I felt a surge of anticipation as to what was going to be inside as I had had prior notice. Sure enough, there it was, a treasure trove of ancient cookbooks sent by an old Peace Corps volunteer who now lives in Ankara and who thought I would like them. Well, I do! I really really do! Thank you! I felt just like the people in 84 Charing Cross Road when they received a parcel from the States – do you know that book? All I wanted to do was curl up and read these books that hold not only recipes but history of How It Used To be.
One is the original Basic Cookery for Peace Corps Volunteers in Turkey written by Margot Higgins in 1966. The next is the Iran Peace Corps Cookbook dated 1969 which has many of its recipes taken from the Afghan Peace Corps Bookbook compiled with the help of an American missionary who lived in Afghanistan for many years. And the third is called The Armenian Cookbook by Rachel Hogrogrian, printed in 1975 and dedicated to ‘the Hogrogians, the Ansoorians, the Boyajians, the Tashjians, the Manoukians, the Vartenissians, the Kherdians and for all their ‘’ ians’’ to come’! There they all are, battered and used, with all their stories.
Can you imagine how those young Americans must have felt when they embarked on what must have been the adventure of their lives to come to these countries in the late sixties, early seventies? I imagine they barely knew how to cook in their own native land let alone in a wild country such as Turkey. I know because I was here then too but I didn’t have to fend for myself as I was first of all in a city, Ankara, and then my own parents were here for the first year of my married life, and after that, I had my husband’s lovely family to help me at every step.
Old Margot sounds just up my street: direct and no nonsense. She tells it how it is. Her very first words are as follows:’ if you eat properly and sensibly, you are more likely to be healthy. If you are healthy, you are more likely to be happy. Agreed? If not, don’t bother to read another word. Give this book to somebody else.’ OK Margot, we agree. She says that if you don’t have butane gas for the oven, ‘you will need a pump-up stove (primus) to supplement your big wood or kerosene stove and to replace it in hot weather. And then she adds dryly: ‘Some people get along fine with these, some don’t.’ Today it is hard to think of contending with wood-burning fires to cook a meal but then that’s how it was. I just can’t help thinking of those volunteers, all probably from solid middle-class American families. What did they think, I wonder? How did they survive?
The book is full of practical, down to earth recipes with asides that are now quite hilarious to read. Eg Koç (pron: koch) Yumurtası: She says, ‘The first time I saw Koç Yumurtası on a menu, I asked the waiter what it meant. This proved a tricky question for him to answer, but it simply hadn’t occurred to me that an item could be listed on a menu which was too delicate to be discussed in normal conversation.Let’s face it. It means ram’s (or lamb’s) testicles. Once over that hurdle, we can relax and enjoy them. They are delicious, not expensive, and simplicity itself to cook.’ To this day, I haven’t eaten them myself!
Over the years we have met a fair number of ex-Peace Corps Volunteers and of these, without exception, they have all retained a love and special affinity with Turkey and the Turkish people. Many of them married locals and stayed on while others based their entire working careers on their experiences here. Others simply kept their memories in their hearts. I remember one ex-Peace Corps guy called Bill whom we met when we were living in Tokyo in the eighties. I had met his wife through playgroup. One day she said she and Bill would like to go out to dinner with us as Bill had heard that my husband was Turkish and wanted to meet him. And so we did. We had the most wonderful evening. Turned out that Bill had spent a fantastic year in the tiny village of Köyceğiz in south-west Turkey, and had never forgotten it. He was thrilled to meet Turhan.