Cuma//joo mah: Beat the Wheat
This kicks off the first Hasat newsletter, "Cuma//joo mah" of 2022. Moving to a new country and the instability of relocation has zapped my creative energy and until recently, I had a hard time establishing everyday rhythms. However, stabilizing life circumstances of the past couple of weeks have allowed ideas to poke through the cracks, search for the light and grow. I am feeling more like myself. I getting back in the kitchen to continue my journey of learning about Turkish food, even when I am thousands of miles away from the source of my inspiration. Today, I am going to share a piece that I had published last year in Table Magazine, called Beat the Wheat. In this essay, I talk about gender norms surrounding Turkish food culture. I hope you enjoy!
Beat the Wheat
Last summer, we danced in circles in the streets of a small coastal village in Southwestern Turkey as we celebrated our nuptials. Loud drums and clarinets played Turkish folk songs to set the rhythm for our dance steps, as well as five young Turkish men ten feet away with a wooden mallet in hand. One by one they took a turn at swinging the mallet into a large pot filled with wheat and chicken to make a traditional wedding food locally known as keşkek. With towels draped over their shoulders, they waited for their turn to beat the wheat, patting foreheads dry in the humid August heat. But it was not just the group of young men standing around the steaming pot suspended over the open fire - there were other groups close by, clearly part of the production.
Keşkek is a traditional food made in the Aegean region of Turkey made with chicken, wheat, and butter especially to feed wedding guests. It is a thick meaty porridge doused with butter with a texture akin to oatmeal and the flavor profile of chicken soup. That day, at our wedding we fed over 500 people with “take out” trays of cacık, köfte, karnıyarık, pilav, helva, and keşkek. Think savory yogurt sauce, spiced beef, stewed eggplant, buttered rice, and a sesame dessert. But the starring role is taken by the keşkek.
The very preparation of keşkek is a ceremonial event, never prepared in isolation, and it provides a stage for members of the village to play out their expected role, gender, and familial positions. The young men beat the keşkek in time with the music, while the older women stir in the butter and spices, monitoring the mouth-feel and spice level. Watching and learning, the young teenage girls sit behind the pot, ready with a ladle in hand to dish out the keşkek onto the trays. Without explicit communication, the villagers migrate to their expected zones of influence. Turkish food culture is stocked with gendered ceremonial experiences - even the preparation of everyday Turkish coffee can become an encumbered process of gender performance. Because Turkish food ceremonies are steeped in tradition, they also serve as vehicles for furthering assumed and conventional gender roles within the community.
As an American woman who has married into a Turkish family, I battle with this expectation on a regular basis, especially in relation to the preparation and consumption of food and drink. My husband and I live in an egalitarian relationship in our home and community in Izmir. But when we visit the village, just one hour away, we enter into an old world. Because I am foreign, I am excused from many of the expectations of Turkish women but still the pressure hangs in the air. I feel this, especially when confronted by the expectations and subtle cultural signals faced by my younger sister-in-law. At any moment, she is commanded to bring water, brew the tea, clear the table and do the dishes, and the expectations and experiences on both sides assign this as “normal” behavior. The ceremony of a meal is often the place where most of the gender roles are taught and reinforced to my 20-year-old sister-in-law, and therefore validated again as “this is what we do” for all involved.
Out of respect for my inherited family and because of my deep love of food culture, I sometimes participate in the ceremony by making food and serving the meals. But I often feel the need to explain that I cook and love food because I see the power of food to build relationships. I almost always feel the need to clarify for those around me, witnessing this behavior - I do not cook because I am a woman. This is probably a wasted sentiment in this world.
Learning how to find my place and balance in this system continues to be in process. While the ceremony of food preparation and consumption is one of my favorite parts of Turkish culture, my "progressive" western perspective is often shocked by many of the restrictive gender norms. In America, at least we are taught to pretend to react with dismay.
The performance of many Turkish food ceremonies holds significant cultural weight such as the preparation of keşkek at wedding celebrations, as a way of celebrating history and heritage and bringing people together based on shared experiences. On the other hand, everyday food ceremonies automatically assigning the service roles exclusively to women make me want to roar like a lion. At what point is it acceptable to discuss or challenge the patterns of ceremonial and cultural gender roles? As a foreigner, do I have a place in this process? After all, I am honored that the keşkek ceremony took place at our wedding. However, the romance of ceremony has not distracted me from the impact of tradition in furthering a constrained gender performance. At the next wedding, I think it is time that the women of the village pick up the wooden mallet and take a swing to beat the wheat.
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All Photography by Madly Photography