When I was a little girl in Turkey, I used to help my grandmother make tarhana. It's the traditional Turkish soup mixture, which can literally take most of the summer months to make before it's placed in mason jars and then cooked during the colder months of autumn and winter. Like my family, most Turkish families make their tarhana during the hot months of summer when the plants and vegetables are plenty and cheap. Although, tarhana originated hundreds of years ago from the need to preserve, many families continue to make it despite being equipped with the latest refrigeration methods.
On the first day of tarhana making, my grandmother would prepare the fire oven on her rooftop as I'd wash and sort the tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. Once she'd set up the fire, she'd chop the vegetables enthusiastically as if she was hosting a cooking show, as if cutting the vegetables so proportionately would add to the taste of tarhana. She'd give me hand fulls of the vegetables she had cut and ask me to throw them in the copper pot on top of the fire oven. Then she'd add the yeast, yogurt, chickpeas, and flour into the mixture. "It's all about the consistency of the dough," my grandmother would say as she'd circle the wooden spoon around the copper pot. Once the mixture finished cooking, we'd wait for three to four days for it to ferment and settle.
After a few days, the dough would have been long fermented and settled at the bottom of the pot. We'd lay a large rectangular cotton fabric on my grandmother's rooftop and uncover the copper pot. Then, we'd start to roll small pieces of the dough like meat balls and line them on the fabric. Depending on the dryness or the humidity of the summer days, we'd wait for a week or two for the tarhana to dry and harden under the sun.
Once the tarhana balls were dried throughout, my grandmother, mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins would each grab a sieve from the kitchen, kneel around the fabric, and start pushing the dried tarhana through the small holes and watch it fall onto the fabric like talcum powder. After we'd finish sieving, we'd fill the mason jars with the powder and my grandmother would give us all a few jars to take home. Then, we'd cook a pot of the new tarhana with cubed lamb, set the table, toast some homemade bread, place the appetizers everyone had brought around the table, and have a joyous family dinner where the sounds of our conversations would create a lovely little harmony echoing around my grandmother's house.
Preparing meals together has always been a huge part of my family. When my immediate family and I immigrated into this country, my mother, who had spent most of my childhood as a stay-at-home-mom, had to start working. She'd work during the days while my father had to work multiple jobs during nighttime. Although they were beyond busy and tired, we'd always have a prepared meal in the kitchen. On certain weekends, we'd help my mother cook multiple meals for the week. Other days, we'd cook daily. Eating dinners as a family was important. Especially during a time in our lives where all we had was each other for support. So, for us, dinnertime wasn't just a time to chow down the food in front of us like savage animals. It was during dinners we'd talk about what had happened that day. My parents would ask us about school. They'd talk to each other about work and their finances. They'd talk about the progress they were making in a country where they were working so hard to obtain a better future. They'd tell us about the new goals they had set for themselves. They'd tell us about the dreams they had for us. We'd talk about the things that made us happy. We'd talk about the things that bothered us. We'd find ways to reason and come up with solutions. Dinners were a time to be reconnect, come up with new game plans and goals, and dinners continue to hold a special moment in all of our days.
Some of you may think cooking consistently well prepared meals is a Turkish thing. You may think it doesn't really exist in an American culture. Food is a part of every culture. We may all be different, but consuming food is what we all have in common. Take my amazing mother-in-law Marla and her phenomenal family, for example. She and her siblings were raised in Champion, Nebraska. When I asked her about what it was like for her to grow up in an American family that cooked together, this was her response:
"Growing up in a family of eight on a farm in Western Nebraska, I learned many lessons and values that I still cherish and practice today. One of the most important things my parents shared with me and my siblings is the importance of food preparation and mealtime. We grew most of our produce and raised our beef, pork and chicken. So, at an early age, I learned the skills of gardening and the nutritional value of home grown foods. I learned the skills of canning and freezing our produce. I learned how to milk cows and clean chickens. I learned to prepare foods from scratch rather than open a box mix or a can of already prepared food that just requires the microwaving. To this day I have never purchased or prepared instant potatoes or spaghetti from a can. I am a firm believer that if a person can read they can cook. There are a multitude of resources that can educate people to make nutritionally sound foods that are good for them and their families.You see, it's not just a Turkish thing. It's not something only other cultures do. Having a busy lifestyle and not knowing how to cook are just excuses to avoid adapting an important family ritual. Also, let it be known that I'm not perfect and I'm not going to pretend like I am perfect. My husband and I keep takeout menus on the top of our refrigerator for those times we desperately crave some greasy goodness and give into temptation. If we're lucky to get a babysitter, my husband and I try to plan date nights at various restaurants around the city. I'm not against occasional ordering take-out and going out to eat. What I don't agree with is ordering take-out and going out to eat replacing cooking all together. I'm not the only one who feels strongly about this. Many experts have done extensive research on the correlation between cooking and building strong family bonds. You can read about it here, here, here, and here.
My parents taught us to value our time together as we prepare family meals. Each of my brothers and sisters had a chore when it came to meal preparation. Everything from actually cooking together to setting the table to serving the food to cleaning up after the meal. Even today, when we are fortunate enough to get our family together, we still work together to make a memorable meal. It was very important to my parents that we sit down together as a family for meal time. Great conversation and comradery resulted from this habit. Today our conversations continue and our family relationships have grown stronger."
I don't believe in the sentiment that any food you eat is a meal as long as it is eaten with family. It's comical, really. Ice cream is food, too. You may argue with me about this, but ice cream is not a meal. Cooking a meal as a family takes initiative. It takes planning and preparation. It takes collecting ingredients. It takes everyone sharing responsibility to create something every family member can be proud of and enjoy. Cooking a meal means wanting to share stories, laugh and cry together around the dining-room table. Cooking a meal as a family is to build a strong family dynamic. It takes wanting to do something nice for yourself and your family on daily basis. And that is exactly what I want to do for my family.
[Photo: Summer of 2008 on my grandmother's rooftop]
Note: I'm not ignorant to those who can barely afford to buy food. I'm not ignorant to the fact that many Americans are on welfare and have to use food coupons. I understand that some people can only cook or eat what they can afford. This piece isn't directed at those experiencing financially difficult times.