A tale of two ladies
Claudia Roden, 83, is like the grand dame of food writing. She is the queen of Middle Eastern cuisine, a pioneer in writing about the culinary culture of countries like Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.
Born in Cairo to Jewish-Syrian parents, she studied first in Paris and then in London, finally settling in the latter. Her family had connections with Turkey, as the grandmother on her mother’s side was an Istanbulite lady, while her father’s side came from Ottoman Aleppo, as her grandfather’s father was the rabbi in an Antep synagogue.
But her books on cookery don’t only focus on the Middle East, as she also penned wonderful books on Italian and Spanish cookery. What’s more, her colossal work, “The Book of Jewish Food,” is much more than mere recipes; it is an odyssey to Jewish culture form Samarkand to Vilna.
Nevin Halıcı, 80, is a pioneer in researching Turkey’s regional cuisines. A graduate of the Girls’ Institute, she started teaching cooking in 1975 and served as a cooking teacher in various parts of Turkey. She published her first book on Konya’s cuisine as early as 1979, followed by her book on Aegean cuisine in 1981, later followed by the Mediterranean region in 1983 and many others. She was the driving force behind the International Food Congress organized by Konya Senator Feyzi Halıcı that began in 1986, occurring five times every two years until 1996. Nevin Halıcı’s “Turkish Cookbook,” which was published in the United Kingdom in 1989, was a great source for people interested in Turkish food, while “Sufi Cuisine,” published by Saqi Books, was first of its kind on Mevlevi cooking.
The tale of two ladies is set in several cities like, London, Konya, İzmir, Oxford and Istanbul. Their first meeting in Turkey occurred because of the charm of another lady and a lucky coincidence – something I would call a miraculous serendipity for Turkish cuisine. One day in the early 1980s, Roden paid a visit to the Turkish Embassy in London to ask for help in her research on Turkish cuisine. Luckily, she met the right person, Gülsen Kahraman, then the cultural attaché of Turkey in London. Kahraman wrote to the Tourism Board in Ankara, asking them to arrange a field trip to Turkey for Roden. The trip proved to have high and low points, but the highlight of all started with a visit to Konya, where she was in good hands with the great hospitality of Feyzi Halıcı, the brother of Nevin Halıcı. Roden ended up going to İzmir to meet Nevin Halıcı, who was a teacher there. The two spent great time together, and Nevin Halıcı eventually paid a return visit to London, participating in the Oxford Symposium of Food & Cookery with her first paper in 1987. All the Oxford gang would later start coming to Turkey to attend the symposium Nevin Halıcı organizes. Needless to say, that was the beginning of how her books were published in Britain.
I met Nevin Halıcı for the first time in the late 1990s, when my husband, Ahmet Tan, became tourism minister. Promoting gastronomic tourism was going to be one of the main goals of his agenda, and I suggested we start calling the very few people who had been writing about culinary culture. Actually, it was my own hidden agenda to meet all the people in the field, as I was passionate about food and had been an avid reader and collector of cookbooks. I called the late Muhtar Katırcıoğlu, a true gourmet and menu collector, whom I knew from my master’s thesis research on Assos, while Ahmet called the late Tuğrul Şavkay, a food columnist, whom he knew from journalism. I also had Nevin Halıcı on the list, as I’d already had her books, and the set of the proceedings of the symposiums they organized, but we never had a chance to meet in person. It was another member of the Halıcı family that introduced us, Emrehan Halıcı, who happened to also be a member of parliament and a close friend of my husband from the same political party. My husband’s short-lived service as minister was soon to end, but that was the start of our long relationship, and even the start of my shift from architecture to food writing. Katırcıoğlu made me a Slow Food Award jury member, and then came my food column in Cumhuriyet newspaper in 2003 and later this column, Fork & Cork, in 2013.
By 2007, I started to attend the Oxford symposium with the encouragement of food writer Fuchsia Dunlop, someone I had previously met for the shooting of a documentary on the funeral feast of King Midas. At Oxford, I was delighted to see everybody asking whether I knew Nevin Halıcı, as she apparently had great friends there. Funnily, I did not meet Roden until 2008, as she skipped the previous symposium because of the bar mitzvah of her grandchildren. It was in Istanbul at an event of Defne Koryürek when we first met. The first thing I asked was for her permission to do a paper on Sephardic cuisine and Ladino language for the forthcoming Food & Language year. After all, it was her territory, and I would never dare step into that field without her consent. To my delight, her reply was positive, and moreover, she gave me a helping hand, generously giving her time to read my paper as it was written. This is how I embarked on my research on Sephardic food.
Last week, the two ladies united again in Istanbul. They were charming, giggling about the old days, recalling wonderful memories of those symposiums arranged in Turkey. I had the privilege of spending time with them, visiting the Museum of Innocence, Pera Museum and the Sagalassos exhibition. We spent idle time sipping coffee and talking about the good old days. The final surprise was meeting Kahraman, who had helped this wonderful friendship happen. Nevin Halıcı says, thanks to her, meeting Roden was like a magic wand that opened the international world of gastronomy to her – a world into which fitted perfectly. I say Kahraman was indeed a heroine as her surname suggests, since she was the magic wand that connected the two ladies.
Thanks to the two ladies, their tales tell us more than just food recipes. Their works unite people and celebrate friendship and the crossing borders of countries, regions and religions. In today’s world, there is a lesson to be learned from their stories and from their friendship, which spans almost four decades.