The first lady, the feast and the republic

The first lady, the feast and the republic


The table was stunning as one guest tells. An inverted cut crystal bowl was lit by little light bulbs and adorned with flowers, tiny plates holding caviar and butter were nested among the vine leaves swirling along the table. Every detail on the table was tastefully arranged with ultimate attention to detail, from the starched linen tablecloth and napkins to the finest porcelain tableware and silver cutlery. This was the celebration table set by the bride herself for a small group of guests to celebrate their marriage. It was a last-minute arrangement, nobody knew about the big breaking news, the marriage of Mustafa Kemal Pasha to Latife Uşakizade on Jan. 29, 1923, exactly 10 months before the declaration of the Republic of Turkey. This was the first formal table set by the to-be first first lady of Turkey. 

Mustafa Kemal, later gaining the honorary surname Atatürk, meaning father of Turks, was about to start a tour of Anatolia before a parliamentary election. He had met Latife only four months before their wedding, during the recapture of İzmir while he was staying in the residence of her family, one of the most prominent trading families of İzmir, with roots in the city of Uşak, hence the name Uşakizade. Latife was well-educated, studied law in Paris and London and spoke a number of foreign languages. During Mustafa Kemal’s stay in their family residence, she had drawn his attention with her knowledge and sharp wit at the lavish tables where they would talk and dine nightlong in the balmy days of September. Her progressive attire would soon to be exemplary for Turkish women, as would her tables in the Ankara culinary scene, the new capital of the young Turkish Republic. 

Ankara was a sleepy, dusty Anatolian village that had long lost its vibe of the past trading years. The city was far from being a capital; it was pretty dim with no social life and almost no restaurants where men and women could dine together. Markets and shops were poorly stocked, many items were not available, and setting up a home was immensely difficult for the new parliamentarians coming from across the country. Falih Rıfkı Atay, journalist and an MP, wrote in his memoirs that Ankara was pretty primitive in the early years. He said that setting a table with a set of similar plates, glasses, and cutlery was practically impossible, not even a pair of cups could be found in the market. Even finding a proper table was problematic, they had one ordered to be made, but the legs of the table were uneven and never stood stable. The arrival of Latife, the new first lady, to Ankara was quite phenomenal. Her dowry culminated to seven camel-loads of goods transported via the railway from İzmir to Ankara, among several items there were cut crystal Bohemian glassware, Sévres porcelain, silver cutlery, hand-embroidered tablecloths and napkins, chandeliers, and lots more. The dowry was soon to be followed by the experienced family cook Mahmut Efendi, whose apprentice was Nesim Efendi, a former African black immigrant that learned cooking in palace kitchens. The tables were ready to be set, backed by an experienced kitchen brigade led by the first lady. 

The echoes of these high tables would soon resonate in all Ankara tables. The image of harem-stuck, covered and backward image of Turkish women was dramatically changing. Upon a tea party given by Latife Hanım, leading foreign newspapers reported with captions resonating with sensation: “Mrs. Kemal Charms an American Visitor; “Beautiful Bride Pours Tea for Foreign Newspaper Man”; “She is for Women’s Rights” and “Kemal and Wife Pledge Liberty of Turkish Women.” The first lady pouring a cup of tea was interpreted as “shattering five centuries of tradition and bringing a modern European atmosphere into the life of the new Turkish government.” 

As İpek Çalışlar, the author of “Madam Atatürk: The First Lady of Modern Turkey,” claims, the revolution was led in her tables. She writes about her influence as, “Her confident and sophisticated poise and grasp of women’s issues and world problems had impressed every single journalist present. Her declaration of intent to work actively alongside her husband in the fields of education and politics, as she outlined her work as his wife, had reverberated in particular. Her offer of tea to male correspondents was deemed of equal importance to the victory of the Great Attack. The fusion of the oriental and the occidental they confronted in Çankaya fascinated the journalists.” No wonder we have a belief in Turkey that hearts are won over tables. Latife won the heart of Mustafa Kemal over the tables set at İzmir, started their marriage at a table she set herself, continued to influence the lifestyle in the early capital Ankara, and alas lost her marriage after disputes of the couple at tables only after two and a half years. Her marriage to Atatürk might have been short lived, but her influence over Ankara’s tables remained long. 

Fork of the Week 

Dainty small parcels of sweet savory triangular böreks were said to be favorites of Latife Uşakizade. The recipe is from one of her family relatives, tried and tested by myself and strongly recommended. You need a big chunk (about 400 g) of Turkish white cheese (beyaz peynir), made from sheep’s milk. Leave the cheese submerged in milk in the ridge to draw out excess salt. Next day, prepare the filling by mashing the cheese by 2 egg yolks and half a roll (about 100 g) of clotted cream (kaymak) until smooth. Add a cup each of finely grated aged kaşar cheese and finely chopped flat leaf parsley. Take 3 sheets of yufka and cut in 4.5-cm-wide long strips. Use ready-made baklava yufka (filo pastry) instead of normal yufka sheets. Take a heaped full teaspoon of filling and place to one end of the pastry strip. Fold into triangular parcels by folding one corner diagonally across to the other side to create a triangle and then fold over diagonally again, repeating the process crisscrossing the folding sides till the end of the strip. In a shallow pan submerge the folded parcels in icy cold iced water for a while, just before frying take them out of the water. Pat dry with a paper towel thoroughly and fry on both sides in olive oil until crisp and golden. Sprinkle with a dusting of powdered sugar and serve while still slightly warm. 

This final touch of a sweet veil of dusting sugar gives the börek an interesting appeal, the sweet and savory contrast charms palates, as Latife Hanım charmed the foreign journalists almost a century ago.

Cork of the Week 

Our bottle for the Republic Day has to be the good old Çankaya, one of the first-ever produced white wines of Ankara that kept appearing at Ankara tables since the very early days of the republic, especially those at the presidential residence in Çankaya. The red equivalent is Yakut, again one of the early wines of Ankara. Both still produced by Kavaklıdere winery, they are no longer considered among the premium bottles of the company, but they are still holding strong as good for value daily choices. At least they hold a strong nostalgic value for our generation that practically grew with them. Once white meant Çankaya and red meant Yakut for us.

Aylin Öney Tan,