Since I do cover the alimentary canal, I feel compelled to talk about Turkish toilets. Trust me, you will always want those over the Western ones, which are neither as clean nor as sanitary. And if you’re a hoverer, they’re perfect. What amused me was seeing women always lining up for the Western ones when the Turkish was always empty. And that made me consider a solution to the perennial problem in New York of endless lines in the ladies’ room. Install one TT and I would never have to wait again.
And it’s taken me forever to focus this week, but I have more over on Trails. Including on Smorgasburg, where it was disturbing to see youngstahs building businesses on unsustainable ingredients. (Garlic from China? What, no exploding melons were available for rind-pickling?)
Just back from Istanbul, I have to say I’m ratcheting back on my fear of reincarnation. If I have to come back, I hope to allah it’s as a Turk. This is a country where you can be pretty certain the majority of people you pass are Muslim, the believers our country is doing its damnedest to make look unhinged. I went there expecting to totally dry out, but the bars are hopping. And not only are most of them churning out mojitos in multiples, at least half of them have blackboards out front touting “sex on the beach.” It’s live and let drink.
I should be embarrassed to admit I may know less about Turkish food than I did two weeks ago when I was suffering through the passenger chutes at JFK that Delta really should hire Temple Grandin to redesign. It’s a surprisingly complex cuisine and still evolving. I could resist acting like a typical American and making any pronouncements, but I will say it struck me that Slow Food is not a movement much needed there. Almost everything I ate was locally grown/produced; what was on my plate was what I saw in the gorgeous markets. So it was pretty sad that the food on the flight home, which my consort and I were actually looking forward to, appeared to have come from that universal supermarket in the sky, all little packets of processed crap arrayed around my “cannelloni” and his “chicken.” Thank the alcohol deities for the latest innovation on high. Box wine has to be a carbon offset, no?
Bob, who got there first by way of Phnom Penh/Bangkok, warned me Istanbul had lots of cats, but he forgot my old rule swiped from a New Yorker cartoon: Always exaggerate — it makes life more interesting. Otherwise I would have been prepared. Cats were literally everywhere. By the second day I was counting (72), and on the last, when we took a ferry over to the last of the Prince’s Islands, I saw 125 by the time my math hard drive melted down (three hours). Most of them were well-fed and cared for, although I noticed that once I started taking pictures for a Feline Turkey Tumblr, I ignored the ratty-ass ones. Mostly, though, I realized yet again the superiority of cats over dogs — the latter also run wild there, and are fat and healthy, but they need masters; without someone to obey they are sad sacks in fur. Cats, even street cats, always have staff. One night at dinner alone at a sidewalk cafe I ordered the house specialty, minced meat baked into pastry, and could not eat more than a couple of forkfuls because it seemed too close to Alpo. I managed to communicate that I would like to take it with me, with those sorry dogs in mind, but the first two I tried to foist it off on would not touch it. Cats saw a butler coming and hoovered it up.
Language was a real barrier. Almost no one spoke English, including cabdrivers and waiters. Luckily, the amazing Attaturk made everyone switch from Arabic letters when he force-birthed the republic in 1923, so at least it was relatively easy to decipher signs (the only two words I was sure of after seven days, though, were Bay and Bayan on WCs). And so I shouldn’t laugh that I spotted a hip Mexican restaurant with a sign outside promising “Borderline Cuisine.” Talk about truth in branding.
I was, however, happy to realize my suspicions about the most inescapable street food were correct: One of the young masterminds behind Istanbul Eats agreed when I said the grilled corn on the cob had to taste like burned starch. Because of the heat, he and someone else warned me off the tempting stuffed mussels for sale everywhere. And I can’t remember who killed Bob’s appetite for the grilled mackerel sandwich he was lusting after in the fish restaurants under and near the Galata Bridge by saying the main ingredient comes from horrifically polluted water. I didn’t know until just now that My Biggest Fan did an Istanbul episode. Apparently he too had reservations.
I broke my self-imposed internet rehab only long enough to connect with the smart guys at Istanbul Eats and learned that not everyone is happy to see the local cooking school training students in soufflés and other “Continental” conceits. My three years without using my passport must have made me more tolerant of globalization, because I could see why those skills may be needed; locals can get tired of local food. But I learned something from our lunch on the terrace of the Museum of Modern Art, where the menu was all over the shower curtain map. We tried to order stuff that at least seemed rooted where we were, and Bob got fabulous lamb kebabs with a warm grain salad and a mound of arugula tossed with herbs while I plowed through a “four-cheese dumpling” salad (not four cheeses but four fried balls on mixed greens). As we walked out, I saw sad pizzas and other travesties on other tables in the shadow of the monstrous cruise ship docked alongside the museum and realized we had ordered very luckily. And before we walked out, my chair faced an American-looking guy wearing a T-shirt reading: Fuck yoga. He wasn’t as ridiculous as the local girl we saw with bosoms behind “I’m not normal,” who clearly did not need a caption. But he made me think a whole style of food could be called Catering to the Fuck Yoga Crowd.
I was also ridiculously unprepared for the whole trip but did spend enough time skimming our (outdated) Eyewitness guidebook to get nervous about Turkish toilets. So of course the first one I encountered, in the airport that makes JFK look like Rwanda, was beyond super-sleek (and no wonder: when I got in line to hand over my $20US to pay for my “visa” and the clerk winked at me, I understood where shakedown money goes). And the second, in the restaurant where we headed for our first lunch, had a sit-down, flush-easy toilet equipped with a Japanese-style plastic-seat-covering doohickey. I had to plant my feet in the proper spots only twice, once at a shop on the island where a pit stop cost one Turkish lira, again in a cafe where the food was about as retro as the plumbing. But those were good experiences. To the point that four days later I felt brave enough to venture into a Port Authority toilet for the first time in the nearly 30 years I’ve lived in Manhattan. Trust me: Primitive was better.
Probably the biggest surprise in Istanbul was how easy it was to feel like a ghost. People flowed by in tsunamis in that city of 17 million (by one estimate), but Bob and I might as well have been invisible. I wore sundresses and only got flak at the Blue Mosque, from the flesh police; otherwise I was unhassled except in restaurants (women eating alone are not quite the respected customers they are in Sydney or Rome or Paris). Hucksters outside the cafes in the alleys off our hotel and on the “fish street” would relentlessly do the “lady, lady” come-on, but otherwise I walked in peace. And I found my Canon G9 was a essential interpreter. One day I snapped a cat hiding under a couch on a staircase lined with cafes and a woman darted out, scooped him/her up and posed, then said: “E-me, E-me.” I had no idea what she wanted till she ran back inside and brought out a business card with her email address. The same thing happened a few nights later at Ismet Baba in Uskudar, on the Asian side of the city: The waiters posed perfectly, then brought over a card with the email address. Near the end of the trip I stopped to take a mocking photo of the sign on the window at Bambi Cafe off Taksim Square and a counterman inside grabbed a co-worker to pose, both with huge smiles. So I’ll resist any jokes about venison kebabs.
For just short of forever I have been nattering about adding a page to Gastropoda, a sort of annual report for my retirement account, which happens to be memories of all the amazing travel I have been so lucky to have done thanks to my consort’s unbelievable generosity (and patience). It would be called One Perfect Day, and a leading candidate for Post One would be the just over 24 hours Bob and I spent together in Mumbai, near the end of his National Geographic story on caffeine in 2003. I had to fly home while he went on last minute to Vietnam for a coffee shoot, which made the time even more bittersweet after two weeks jaunting from Delhi to Kolkata to Bangalore to the Indian Tibetan settlement and back to Bangalore and finally Mumbai, which was pure and total magic. We got in very late to find a white Mercedes and driver waiting to take us to our hotel, where I crawled into bed with the covers over my head while Bob haggled with a tech guy for hours over connecting his computer to download his photos. But next morning we were up for the London-worthy breakfast downstairs after showers in a glass cube with sandalwood soap I can still smell. Afterward we walked over to the Gateway of India and saw the Taj Mahal hotel, passing this indescribable array of street food and street vendors and street life along the way. We had lunch at an awesome Gujarati place near the hotel, sleek and modern and wonderful, and took a cab to a famous mosque on the water where we were blown away by passing the most staggering display of human miseries combined with forbearance, then walked back toward the hotel, ducking into bookstores and gift shops and gaping at the intensity of the streetscape all the way (having read “Midnight’s Children” on the trip made the place even more cinematic). There is no place on the world like India, with the sounds, the smells, the colors — you need all five senses and could use five more. We had a surreal dinner together in one of the hotel’s restaurants, then walked down the surreal beach out front that was so close to skyscrapers’ glitter before I had one more revel in the glass cube of a shower and Bob took me in a cab to the airport (don’t ask about his ride back).
I got home on Thanksgiving afternoon exactly five years ago. And then all this shit happened, and it was like a flashback, because everything seemed so centered right where we had been. But I never made the connection till the morning after a couple of float parties where a few people mentioned the news. I dug out my food notebook and it was like a kick in the stomach to remember where we had stayed. Yep, it was the Oberoi.
I don’t think it was India’s 9/11, though, more India’s Columbine. And I would go back there tonight.
Wanna feel like a rube? Walk into the P.J. Clarke’s across from Lincoln Center around 10 and ask for a table. The host will smugly inform you that “the kitchen will only be open another three hours.” What he clearly didn’t realize when four of us dragged in out of the brutal cold was how often we have been turned away by Manhattan restaurants at the same hour in the last year. Not in Kansas anymore, my ass. But we were so happy to be welcomed at all that we sat down and I tried not to consider how much the place looked like one pane in a hall of mirrors. Eight years into a fresh century, why were we in a newish bar that could be either the Ginger Man or T.G.I.Fridays? But our friend’s recounting having shot the original for New York magazine back in the day did inspire me to pull down the first Britchky collection I ever bought, from 1980-81, to revel in his takedown of the prototype. Steak tartare was “spread across the bottom of dog bowls,” salmon “should have been poached sooner or caught later,” steaks “needed salt and pepper the way a peanut butter and jelly sandwich needs peanut butter and jelly,” and all of it was dispensed from “what looks like a small prison kitchen.” Could there have been a less likely candidate for cloning?
Some things I saw in Eutopia: Villeroy & Boch toilets, seatless by design, at a rest stop in Provence. Salmon steaks grilled over blazing grapevines in a very formal dining room in Nardonne on a blazing hot afternoon. A chef in Montpellier, at a restaurant where the food had come slowly and been cooked erratically, sporting a black eye. A 200-year-old wood oven in continuous use in Nardonne (even day-old on the road, the croissant and pain au chocolat from it were outstanding). Tiny saucisse wrapped like little candies on the plate with the olives at Le Jardin du Manon in Arles. Chamber pots used as planters at Osteria Delle Grotte in Singalunga in Tuscany. A waitress at a cafe in Montpellier tying the tricolor flag around her dog’s neck on Bastille morning after delivering us a perfect croissant and cafe creme. Cats ready for the Apocalypse with a pup tent and stockpiled food, in a park in the Aventine in Rome. And, best of all, box wine poured from a crystal decanter in Languedoc — talk about style trumping substance.