Finding Home Again

Southern flair in the Ottoman Empire

Story Jessica Austin

People_JessicaAustinEarly morning on the Bosporus offers a soothing tableau of sapphire waves lapping at the sides of ferries shrouded in dense fog. Each time I take the ferry, I think of the broad Mississippi River.

That is only one of the many similarities between home and this faraway place.

Oddly, I can find bits of Mississippi in the juxtaposition of rambling streets, parks and the more than 17 million people that are Istanbul.

People always ask, “Why Istanbul?” I have a number of reasons, but the main one is that it is a city wholly different from anything I’ve ever known. I wanted to give myself a year outside the familiar cocoon of the West, a year to explore and to get lost.

I ran away — 3,000 miles and two continents away — to the cradle of the Ottoman Empire, almost as far from Columbus as I could get. And once here, I found my home again. I found home in the kindness of strangers, the sense of community in neighborhoods and the hospitality that imbues every facet of Turkish life. But more than anything else, I recognized glimpses of home in the food: in its extensive preparation, the pride surrounding regional delicacies, in meals that last for hours and the savoring of bites made more flavorful by family and friends. 

In Istanbul, food is a steamy love affair; from street food to major meals, every dish is labored over, and every bite is savored. Some of the traditional dishes date back to the days of the Ottomans, taking days to prepare. My father, Judge Curtis Austin, spent years perfecting his recipe for ribs. The actual preparation took two days. Here traditional dishes are prepared with the same dedication. 

I discuss Southern food with my roommate, recalling the dishes I grew up with and discussing the socioeconomic and cultural influences that shaped Southern cuisine. I rhapsodize about dishes made of neck bones and cornbread, gumbo and chicken and dumplings. His own descriptions of food in Istanbul are a veritable trove of information about that culture, too. There are similarities in how dishes were developed and the type of meats used. Soul food is often comprised of leftovers, people making do with what was available. The same is true for some Turkish food. In both areas, dishes reflect the influence of multiple cultures.

I recently prepared chicken and dumplings for my roommate and his friend. (They’ve asked for traditional Southern dishes, much to my delight.) Adding a bit of flair to the dish, I included some nontraditional ingredients like vegetables, garlic and saffron. Upon tasting the dish, they gave me the highest compliment: “This reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking.” I have promised my next feat of daring culinary acrobatics will be gumbo.

I’ve come to love the shop owners who know where and to whom I belong. I’ve come to enjoy the neighbors who’ve accepted a stranger with open arms and the local restaurants where the owners let me sample food out of the pot, just as my father did, not so long ago.

In this far corner of the world, in a place so different from home, I have found a culture and people who connect me with my Southern roots like no other place has.