"We can all speak to the unifying power of food, but in this setting, food gave me social purpose. The table gave me props to work with - I could sip my tea, stir in a sugar cube and spread jam on my toast without anyone questioning my actions."
The first time I met my husband's family was unplanned trip to his village due to the sudden passing of a beloved uncle. Salih and I had just started dating and I was certain that this was not how I planned our first family meeting to unfold. My Turkish was rusty and my romantic feelings towards Salih were in their infancy.
Upon arrival, I was left with the Turkish women of the village while the men organized the traditional funeral processional. As you may be aware, often times in traditional Turkish culture men and women are separated during ceremonial events. Awkward only begins to describe my behavior. Do I sit or do I stand? Do I kiss the hands of the elders (as a tradtional sign of respect)? Do I sit silently or try to comfort? And where do I put my hands?
Watching the village community try to interact with me was also challenging. While their warmth and kindness was felt, they did not know what to do with me until...the food arrived.
We can all speak to the unifying power of food, but in this setting, food gave me social purpose. The table gave me props to work with - I could sip my tea, stir in a sugar cube and spread jam on my toast without anyone questioning my actions. I could show my gratitude by refilling empty water cups or clearing the table. I could only hope for long meals gathered around the table because this was a familiar scene with predictable actions. With the help of Salih and food, I managed to interact and socialize with his family and village community that weekend, even with my broken Turkish.
The dining table continues to be a safe place where I can feel the social pressure dissipate. I know how my mother-in-law sets her table, prepares her rice and serves her tea. Over the past few years, all activities surrounding the preparation and consumption of food allow me to take one step closer towards my Turkish family. In an environment where the language is not native, small reactions and appreciation for the homemade cherry juice or freshly baked bread go a long way. It would not be too exaggerated to say that for me and my Turkish family, food carries more opportunity for connection than the actual use of the Turkish language.
"It would not be too exaggerated to say that for me and my Turkish family, food carries more opportunity for connection than the actual use of the Turkish language."
I also find that many of the other relationships I have with the village women have strengthened during the preparation and consumption of food. Learning how to make homemade gözleme in the village clay oven has given me the platform to connect and relate to the other women in the village community. They laugh at my inability to roll out a thin piece of dough with an oklava (Turkish rolling pin) and I am in awe of their ability to mass produce this crepe-like delicacy with such ease. Once again, when food enters the picture, the discomfort of a new relationship or situation seems to be a bit more manageable.
You might have gleaned that in Turkey, agriculture and food are the pride and joy of the nation. But certainly, this is not unique to Turkey. Every family, region and culture takes pride in what they produce - this an important subject when learning a new language and culture. And from my own experience, it is an easy ticket into finding your place and fitting in.
Have you ever noticed how the presence of a cup of coffee or tea in a social setting can significantly decrease anxiety, discomfort or worry? You don't have to travel to a new country or experience a new culture to see the power of food in action. We can see the ambiance shift when we go on a first date at the local pizzeria or bring donuts to the office meeting - there is an inexplicable comfort that comes with the presence of food.