Magazine article The New Yorker

FORBIDDEN FARE; Personal History

Magazine article The New Yorker

FORBIDDEN FARE; Personal History

Article excerpt

It was a cold afternoon in Istanbul, in January, 1964. I was standing just outside a buffet restaurant that occupied the ground floor of a Greek apartment building in a corner of Taksim Square (which was much smaller and more run-down then, because the old buildings hadn't yet been demolished to open up lanes for the avenues). I was awash in fear but also euphoric: in my hand was a frankfurter sandwich I'd just bought from the buffet. I took a big bite, but as I stood there, chewing away amid the great chaos of the city, watching the circling trolleybuses and the swarms of shoppers and young people rushing off to the movies, my joy left me: I had been caught. My brother was heading toward me down the sidewalk, and he had seen me. As he came closer, I could tell instantly that he was thrilled to have caught me committing a crime. "What do you think you're doing, eating that frankfurter sandwich?" he asked with a supercilious smile. I lowered my head and finished the sandwich guiltily. At home that night, it was just as I expected: my brother told my mother about my transgression in a lofty voice tinged with compassion. Eating frankfurter sandwiches on the street was one of the many things that my mother forbade us to do.

Until the early sixties, the frankfurter sandwich was known to Istanbullus as a special dish that was served only in German beer halls. From the sixties on, however, thanks to the arrival of compact butane stoves, to the decrease in the cost of domestically produced refrigerators, and to the opening of Coca-Cola and Pepsi factories in Turkey, "sandwich buffets" were suddenly opening up everywhere, and what they offered was soon an integral part of the national diet. Back then, when the doner sandwich (known in the United States by its Greek name, the gyro) had yet to be invented, the frankfurter sandwich was the height of fashion, and a staple for those of us who had taken to eating on the street. We'd gaze through the glass at the dark-red sauce that had been simmering all day and select one of the frankfurters wallowing in it like happy water buffalo in the mud; we'd point it out to the man with tongs in his hand and then wait impatiently for him to assemble the sandwich. He would, on request, slip white bread or a thin bun into the toaster, then spread the red sauce on it, place the frankfurter, pickles, and tomatoes on top of it, and finally add a layer of mustard. There were some fancy buffets that also offered the mayonnaise once known as Russian salad but now referred to as American salad because of the Cold War.

Most of these buffets and sandwich shops opened first in Beyoglu, the old European quarter, and, having changed the fast-food-eating habits of the local residents, went on, in the next twenty years, to do the same for all Istanbullus and all of Turkey. The first toasters arrived in Istanbul in the mid-nineteen-fifties, and at about the same time bakeries began to produce special sliced white bread for grilled cheese sandwiches. Once grilled cheese sandwiches had become a staple, the buffets of Beyoglu went on to reinvent the hamburger. Many of the first big sandwich shops of the era had names that invoked other lands and magical realms, such as the Atlantic and the Pacific; their walls were decorated with paintings of the heavenly islands of the Far East, and each establishment offered a very different hamburger. This suggests that Turkey's first hamburgers were, like so much in Istanbul, a synthesis of East and West. The hamburger--whose name evoked Europe and America for a young man in Beyo-glu--was actually a sandwich that a nice head-scarf-wearing matron in the kitchen, a woman who took pride in feeding young men, had made according to her own recipe, with her own fine hands.

And this was what my mother had taken against: with great disgust, she declared that the meat in these hamburgers was from "unknown parts of unknown animals" and she forbade us to eat not only hamburgers but frankfurters, salami, and garlic sausages, too, since, according to her, it was impossible to know which part of the animal any of them came from. …

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