The last day leaving Turkey was certainly bittersweet. I was sent off with great fanfare by the staff at Hotel Nena with my last scrumptious Turkish breakfast. Grilled eggplant, olive tapenade, salty feta cheese, and sesame bread adorned my plate. Speeding away from the old city of Sultanahmet I reminisced on the amazing array of food I have enjoyed during my visit. How integral that food is to the history of ten thousand years of humanity. I am certain I have tasted the spirit of cultures stretching back many centuries, well before written history. Agriculture played an instrumental role in this region throughout the ages, beginning with the first humans planting seeds in Western Anatolia, now the high plains of Turkey. This unique Turkish odyssey embodies the very history of food and agriculture, and the flavors of delectable Middle Eastern-Mediterranean cuisine.
The day after the IFOAM Congress ended, a group of us from the Organic Trade Association decided to take an excursion into the heart of Turkey. We had a few days before the NOSB meeting in Kentucky and had a hankering to explore more of this exotic land, its people, and its flavors. We landed in Ankara, the Capitol city. We were met by our guide Ertan Turgut, who greeted us with a contagious smile and effervescent English. We trundled into a prodigious van and sped away into the modern city of five million people, the second largest in Turkey.
As Ertan vivaciously expounded over a map of Turkey we soon realized we were in the company of an historical master. His knowledge of the terrain, history, facts and legends was impressive and quite frankly mind boggling. His energy never flagged the entire trip!
We visited the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara as a precursor to the rest of the voyage. Inside the walls were Ancient artifacts unearthed from the countryside we would soon visit. Prehistoric Neolithic spears and obsidian shards glimmered behind glass. These early Turkish citizens were hunter gatherers. Giant mastodon, gazelle, and bear once roamed these plains. Early art consisted of cave drawings and later small earthen sculptures of fertility goddesses. Rotund figurines representing the mother, life birth, and prosperity, it would be several thousand years before the first upright hominids would begin planting grains. With these plantings, civilization would sprout from these fertile plains.
I often wonder if this shift from hunter gatherer, with its communal matriarchal structure into agricultural societies, stockpiling grains and building cities, was really the mythical fall from Biblical Eden. It’s a fact that agricultural people have less varied diets than hunter gatherers. They work more hours to feed themselves and end up going to war on a regular basis to protect their lands. This shift first took place in Turkey some 7,000-10,000 years ago. Once done there was no going back. Populations boomed.
The glass cases offered up rudimentary examples of early obsidian scythes used to harvest grains and lentils. The first spoke wheels displayed before us were used to haul the bounty from field to settlement. As the people settled into cities, some planted and harvested while others ruled and protected the surplus.
Art and technology flourished as a result of this guaranteed source of calories. Metals such as copper and bronze were discovered and hammered into tools. Beautiful metal statues representing bulls and bucks were placed in the graves of the richest along with gold jewelry and intricate ornaments.
Early cuneiform writing was developed intricately etched onto clay tables that coincidentally resemble modern iPhones or tablets. These ancient precursors of the internet recorded the first peace treaty between cities and the first marriage annulment. The tablets kept record of grain storage, food surpluses, payment of workers, and taxes collected. Food now had to be dispensed and protected; the fields that produced this wealth were now property that had to be guarded. Governments rose as weapons were hewn.
The ancient history of this land goes something like this: before 7,500 BC, the ancient city of Çatal Höyük was founded some 4,000 years before the Pyramids were erected. From c.1,750-1,180 BC, the Hittite Kingdom rose with advancements in agriculture, society, and culture. Between c.1,180-750 BC, Turkey witnessed a multitude of invasions and the rise and fall of small kingdoms. Somewhere between c.750-600 BC the Phrygians rose, and from 690-546 BC, the Lydian golden age flourished. Later the Greeks, Romans and finally the Ottoman Turks all conquered and cooked!
Those ancient societies created a distinctive and flavorful culinary tradition. They all added their unique herbs and spices. They shish-ka-bobbed, fermented yogurt, curdled cheese, decanted wine, and brined olives. Lamb and goats were herded and orchards were planted. They saved and shared seeds, bred new vegetable varieties, and nurtured the soil.
All this history, made possible because of agriculture, was displayed by the many artifacts before us. All were unearthed from the Turkish countryside we were to visit. The enormity of the time that has come before us made me feel almost insignificant. It also gave me a sense of pride to be a distant relative of this lineage of people engaged in agriculture and food. It is in this tradition that I work with the UNFI Foundation to protect the biodiversity of our seeds and the fertility of our soils.
Modern industrial agriculture is a mere blip in the history of food and farming. It is time we honor and protect the traditions that have sustained us for many millenniums. Organic farming does just that. I give thanks to my Turkish odyssey for this food history lesson.