Thursday, September 25, 2014

On the Hunt for an Endangered Cuisine--Sightings in Alabama and Florida



Whales and languages are not the only things in danger of dying out. Whole cuisines are as well, and as food is an integral part of any culture, the loss will not be a trivial one but take with it memory and emotion and a host of subtle nuanced things I find difficult to describe. 
My sister's coconut cake--no equal in any restaurant, from Granny's recipe

The first time I took my wife to America, I desperately wanted to share with her some authentic Southern food in authentic Southern restaurant. But outside of my sister’s house, it proved impossible to find (and unless I threaten her, even she’s liable to take shortcuts on the creamed corn, for example, and buy a package.) Now you could find all the Applebee’s, Chick Filets, Golden Corals and Taco Bells that you wanted—and the depressing fact is those are becoming the new Southern food if you measure a cuisine by what its people consume. And so when we discovered three places this summer that served as refuges for endangered cuisine, we were happier than a fox in a coop full of chickens. So to speak. I’ll tell you how to find them and what you’re in for.
A familiar sight to anyone coming from Turkey (or Ferguson I suppose)
A hot Birmingham afternoon—we are downtown and have just wandered out of the Civil Rights Institute and taken a stroll through the park where we chatted with some of the homeless people relaxing there. There was one old man, a very dark, older black man with a do-rag who asked Delal if there were black people in Turkey. He also gave her some very useful advice about what angle to take a picture of one of the sculptures—a water cannon fired upon two children. This, of course, a scene we are rather accustomed to here in Turkey. The brutal echo of it in our own civil rights movement was rather sobering.

Two blocks down from the Civil Rights Institute on 4th and 16th Streets is a modest little corner restaurant called Mrs. B’s On Fourth—which served up maybe the best southern food I have ever had out on the town, period. D and I had both eaten just an hour before, so we weren’t hungry but we you couldn’t even read the menu on the window without working up an appetite. And I mean serious Southern appetites.  Sweet potato pie?
Mrs. B's impeccable barbecue chicken
The restaurant is laid out cafeteria style with trays of whatever the cook has whipped up that day. We ordered a plate of barbecued chicken to split—with two sides, oven baked mac’n cheese and broccoli and carrots. The broccoli and carrots combo was just a last minute whim, and I was doubtful, but it turned out to be out of this world delicious. When Delal took her first bite, her eyes went wide and she gave me the traditional Southern reaction to food that I’d trained her to do. “Mmm-mmm-mmmm! So good you want to slap your mama!” When she hit the chicken, she went on some kind of ecstatic high. And let’s not forget the cornbread—not too sweet like people make it nowadays but just the right dryness for dipping into the chicken drippings.

The staff is also incredibly friendly—laughing and joking with us and providing endless bucket-sized glasses of sweet tea. We topped off our meal with a bowl of fresh banana pudding. Banana pudding is extinct in my house, but it has a special nostalgiac meaning for me—it was one of the things my mother cooked and cooked well.  She used to use boxed pudding and it shook the world, but this pudding was homemade and was sure to give a shake to God’s kingdom itself. (Mom, I want banana pudding the next time I come home!)

Soul food—a perfect word for this. It not only nourishes the spirit, it builds the spirit as surely as it builds the muscle and bones—with every bite memories of my mother and father and Granny and grandma and a day out at the picnic pavilion on the rodeo grounds and church suppers out on the lawn in the summer and taking out food on a paper plate to eat with my cousins down on the lake.  
No Southern BBQ is worth its weight in sauce if it ain't got no pork kitsch
Our second stop is Ken’s Barbecue outside of the Birmingham city limit near Pinson. It has the best breakfast in the world with a crucial endangered species--full on Southern biscuits and sausage gravy. Not frozen or from a box or made with anything but the old recipe ingredients. These are real live buttery biscuits--with your traditional fair of eggs, bacon and grits on the side.
Biscuits in the back with sausage gravy on the side
Water Hyacinth on the river

My final eatery is the Outback Crab Shack—miles and miles out in the swamps to the West of St. Augustine, Florida. As a real life Floridian, I often listen to people malign my homestate. It’s not the South. It has no culture of its own. This sort of thing. Well the Outback Crab Shack is a real Florida seafood shack, the kind that have almost vanished from the swamps. They’ve got boiled shrimp, fried gator tail, crawdads and fresh hushpuppies (a Florida invention by the way). And best of all they have blue crabs. 

Gator in the duckweed

Florida Blue Crab is another nostalgiac piece of my past. I have fond memories of going up to the Chassahowitzka River near Brooksville, Florida with my boyhood friend whose dad and stepmom had a little plot of land and trailer on the river shore. We’d go fishing for crabs in that crystal blue spring water as mullet swam in schools under the boat. We’d bait the hook with chicken guts and then throw the crabs that latched onto them in a bucket, later to be boiled back at camp in a kettle full of beer. We ate them with butter and lemon, and there’d be campfires and ghost stories and         sneaking off into the woods to play Hide and Seek.
Conch Fritters

The blue crab boil--they are only blue when they're in the water

We started off with conch fritters—which were not the best I’ve had but are hard enough to find that I was appreciative anyway. Then I talked Delal into getting the crabs here. Florida blues are not the most aesthetically pleasing meal in the world. The waitress demonstrated how to get at the meat. “First you break the face off.” And out spurts a spray of crab juice. But this is part of me—this is the swamp and skinny dipping out under the moonlight and the sounds of the mullet jumping at night and sunburns and the feel of the woods, the excitement of the treehouses and tarzan swings on the muscadine vines, and even the vegetal smell of the hot swamp mud.
6 Mile Creek

Outback Crabhouse

The atmosphere was impeccable. What locals are always calling and longing for as ‘the real Florida’. The restaurant has a white shell parking lot filled with pick up trucks and church vans. It sits on a tributary running off the Great St. Johns called Six Mile Creek and after dinner you can walk past the long boardwalk that lines the water. (There’s even a parking lot for boats—two spaces set aside for local churches) 

When we were there, a thunderstorm had just passed—the thunderheads towered behind the cypresses in the sky to the East, catching the pink and orange of the setting sun. The water reflected the sky perfectly, with shimmering waves of dark water and pink light reflections. The sounds—home. Alligator croaks and night crickets and frogs and bass jumping. The smells also home---the tannic river, the humidity, fried fish. (Though next time I want boiled shrimp—don’t get me wrong, the blue crab was great, but I think once for old time’s sake, is enough—unless I’m getting them from the river myself. And I miss those shrimp, too.)

Friday, September 19, 2014

One of Florida's Hidden Must-See Jewels

The turquoise waters of the aquifer at the Devil's Den

Florida has a soul that you might never feel if you stick to the retirement homes, amusement parks and tourist beaches. Off of Interstate 75 and down the historic Route 27 is the town of Williston and the mysterious cave called “Devil’s Den.” After traveling thirty countries and countless cities throughout the world, I find one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever been right in my old back yard.
The Florida live oaks--picture by Delal
You drive over through classic Cracker landscape—neon green pasture land filled with stately live oaks, churches and wooden houses choked with kudzu or muscadine vine. The oaks are enormous; they look like giant squid bursting out of the grass, their branches dripping with thick curtains of Spanish moss. The horizon astounds with towering thunderclouds that sail like galleons across the startlingly blue sky. My wife said it reminded here of the bayou country in “True Detective.” My mom couldn’t stop talking about how much she missed this place.

You pass through Williston, a quaint Old Florida town with traditional cracker houses and Southern mansions and a downtown that is not quite dead. Then, you turn down a small road lined with horse farms. More live oaks, pines, pecan trees and horses.

The galleons of clouds...

The Den is a break in the surface of the skin of Florida itself. The whole state is a roof of limestone over the aquifer—a (dwindling) reserve of water that feeds Florida’s springs and lakes and keeps the state alive. Sometimes rain dissolves the limestone and creates either sink holes (These things swallow houses), springs, or in this case a break into the maze of caves that wind deep into the earth. This particular cave has been here a long time. You enter through a steep stairway that plunges straight down into the ground and emerge in room filled with bright turquoise water. Giant bream and bluegill, bigger than my head, swim lazily in schools. If you are a swimmer, you are required to have a snorkel and mask. Divers can explore the labyrinth of caves that start from the pool.
The break in the surface

There’s something almost mystical about this place. It’s over nine thousand years old. This puncture in the world has been trapping animals and humans for thousands of years. The remains of a man from 7500 years before were found among the stalactites at the bottom. He was probably a Timacuan, the local Indian tribe who were killed off by the Spanish before the English even arrived.  Fossils of a dire wolf, mastodon and sabretooths were found as well as lots of deer, bats, sloths and rats. It’s a record of all the living things that have lived in the state for the past nine millennia—all of them pulled out of the surface world and plunged into this darkness where they awaited discovery together.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Travels in Bingöl, the Castle of Xolxol (Yayladere)

Xolxol Castle (Yayladere Kalesi)
Okay, this may be a very commonplace sentiment, but here goes. 

Have you ever been to a place far from city lights and smog, laid out under the stars and thought about just how huge the universe is? Checked out the swath of Milky Way, the arm of our galaxy, one galaxy among millions? And meditating on these things, have you ever felt that quickening of awe in the center of your chest or maybe down in your gut when you see yourself and your life placed in context to all of that infinity? I get that feeling traveling in Bingöl sometimes, not just from the night sky, but from landscape and the ruins that fill the steppe and high pastures.

A hike for instance, a simple hike up into the mountains behind the town of Xolxol (Yayladere). 

We set out with our picnic supplies—chicken wings, tea (of course), a samovar for the tea, water, bread, makings for a shepherd’s salad, pargaç bread and a bit of beer. With all this on our backs, we trudged up the hill past all the houses, panting and sweating, and then up the dirt road that hugs the mountain called Berroj (Facing the Sun in Kurdish), then past the old cemetery with graves carved with the shamanic images of old Turkic tribes, and up and up toward the “Kele” or castle.
The hike up to Xolxol Castle

It’s a tough walk—up sandy ridges that give way with every footstep, through pathless fields of thorny gunî (milk vetch). Once in a while we stumble on a little goat path and traipse along until it hits a streambed and then  once more plunge forward through brambles or up a slippery rock face. I am in front, and on the eastern face of the Berroj we seem to hit covey after covey of partridges. They burst out of the gunî in a sudden thunder of wings and panicked coos that sends me stumbling back startled each time.

The castle appears on our left—a gigantic ship of red and black rock frozen in its passage over the high pastures. It looks utterly unassailable, with grooved sides that remind me of the great Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and the legend of its formation. Two children took refuge on the mountain after being chased by a bear. The gods, taking pity on them, caused the mountain to rise higher and higher into the sky, beyond the bear’s reach, and the bear, in a frenzy of hunger and rage, tried to climb up the sides, gouging out huge grooves with its claws. That’s what the Castle feels like--it looms heavy and remote and scarred, as befits something created by the magic of a mythical beast and ancient pagan gods.

We set up camp next to a curve of willow trees in the tall pasture grass and take a break for tea and water. Then we continue around toward the western slopes where the ascent is easiest. The climb is breathtaking. We scramble up huge rocks and boulders and occasionally look down toward the steep drop where dry streambeds and shepherds houses are visible. 

Our camp is getting tinier and tinier as we climb. The rock faces of the Castle are getting steeper and larger. Sometimes, after a particularly harrowing ascent up some crop of boulders, I stop and close my eyes to fight the vertigo. The landscape seems to be growing wilder and wilder--swallows and bats flutter from little hollows and nowhere do I see signs of human settlement. Everyone calls this rock the Castle and talks about the ruins on top but so far there is nothing but stone and brush. It’s enough, to be honest. The scenery grows in grandeur, every new vista takes your breath. 

And then we reach the top and I see the stairs. This is where the star-awe comes in. The stair winds from rock and ends in air. Overgrown with grass and lichen, when I first catch sight of it, it looks as if it were rising into the sky itself. For a second, I can imagine what is no longer visible—the crumbled castle walls and soldiers long dead. It's a haunting of some sort. I think of when this was last used—according to local legend, between 900 and 600BC. It was a fortress of the Urartu Empire, the Biblical Ararat, a nation that vanished three thousand years ago. I imagine the ghosts of these Mesopotamians climbing up or down these steps, their feet fall where my feet now fall. I look out over the same plains they looked out over.  Thousands upon thousands of generations between then and now.
The stairs

The view of our camp (where the trees are)

This is at the very peak of the Castle and is called Texte Kele (the Throne of the Keep)

The Urartu used cuneiform for their alphabet. In the Istanbul Archaeology Museum you can read cuneiform letters on small clay tablets. They have been thoughtfully translated. People write to loved ones moved far away for marriage. They write to doctors in the capital, desperate for medicines to help with fertility and virility. They write down details of business transactions. They write love letters. In other words, they write of all the things people write emails and letters about today. I think about these long dead souls and their letters, their worries and troubles and dreams, and there’s something about the continuity of it—generations and generations of similar problems and hopes and millions of millions of ordinary lives swallowed into the past—that quickens the blood. That vastness of time, all the multitude of dead ghosts that I will one day join. This is a palpable thing, an awareness of the immensity of time, here in a lost castle in the mountains that border Mesopotamia.

At the top of the castle, the view is dizzying. Experts think that the castle was part of a communication system, a long line of castles stretched from Mazgirt all the way to Van. If an enemy breached the borders in Mazgirt or Palu, a fire would be lit on top of the fortress there. The fortress in Xolxol would see the signal fire and light one of their own. The next castle east would do the same until the message reached all the way to the Urartuan captial of Tuşpa (now Van). 
Don't know what these were--some say stables for horses?

I never understood why the Urartuans wouldn’t just use Mt. Silbüs, the highest peak in the region and just a few kilometers to the West of us. Perhaps it was too holy. The Hittites believed their gods resided on the mount. But standing on the peak of the castle it seems to command a greater swath of land than Silbüs. It stands alone, it sticks out, where Silbüs is only the highest peak among other mountains.

That's Mt. Silbüs in the background

Looking out over Tujik--another mountain that looks like a castle

It’s dusk when we start our descent. The stars are popping out of the sky. We round the skirts of Berroj and pass the cemetery. As we cross into the town of Yayladere proper, two police tanks race up the hill toward us, their guns circling the surrounding houses. It never crosses our minds that they are there for us. The tanks say ‘Police—Special Operations’, but they look like soldiers, the boys who scramble out and train their guns on us.

Do we know they thought we were PKK guerillas? Didn’t we realize that they might have shot us by mistake? Why didn’t we ask them for permission to hike?

“Why would guerillas trying to hide from you carry around flashlights?” someone asks.

“Oh guerillas carry around flashlights,” the soldier in command says.

They harass for a while longer and then go back the way their came, the turret on the top of the tanks sweeps the houses with its gun all the way down. Of course they knew we were not guerillas. How could they not? There are cameras everywhere, both infrared and normal. They undoubtedly saw us going up earlier in the day. When we came down, we came down stumbling and carrying flashlights and talking loud. A guerilla would do none of these things. And why threaten to shoot us? Especially when the government has supposedly declared a cease-fire with the guerillas. And why train your guns on the houses as you go up and down?

This is another reality of travel here—the sights are remote and spellbinding, but the continued pointless adolescent pressure of the military often gets in the way. It’s almost as if they are trying to strangle any possibility of a normal life here. It was something we noticed throughout the whole visit to Bingöl this time, more security cameras, more military bases, more tanks on the road. It makes one wonder what this whole ‘peace process’ between the government and the Kurds really means.

The shadow of the Castle on the hills below

Mt. Silbüs in the sunset light