The World is Hungry

Pop philosopher and noted stater of the obvious Thomas Friedman once wrote a book arguing that globalization is making our entire world closer, creating a planet where the playing field between countries is increasingly being leveled. His metaphor for the effect of globalization was his title: The World is Flat. With all due respect, I can think of a sentiment which both does a better job encapsulating our new global exchange and which has the benefit of not being obviously, uh, wrong. The world is hungry.

My recent trip to Istanbul suggested, powerfully, the idea of cuisine as means of globalization. Istanbul’s culture today is sharply divided into several camps: the “traditionalists” who are Turkish at heart, and more specifically Anatolian or (if you want to call them that) Middle Eastern, the hip youngsters who are defiantly European in outlook, and all manner of types in between. There are two axes (from axis not axe) to position yourself on: the eastern-western front, and the secular-religious one, obviously correlated but not the same thing.

The result is that where natives eat is a function of their economic status and their cultural orientation. As it happens, my family is at the far European end of the spectrum.

I was staying with my step-aunt M., and her Istanbul is one of hip cafes where waiters wear ties and Frank Sinatra croons on the muzak system. This is the Istanbul where I ate a superb hamburger, and a better steak than you can get here in England. (NOTE TO ENGLISH FOODIES: If you think you can disprove this, I’d be happy for you to!) But this is also an Istanbul where people think Lipton makes good tea. Something is gained, something is lost.

M. has an interesting way of explaining this dichotomy. “What annoys me most about the BBC and travel shows about Turkey is, they say that Turkey is ‘East Meets West,’ right, but then they only show the dervishes, or the old mosques. They never leave Sultanahmet [the historic district], they never show the European side of Turkey, so people still think we’re making carpets.”

And it’s true. The crux of the ‘East Meets West’ analogy remains, to this day, “Oh, goodness, part of the Middle East is on our continent!” That might be geographically true, but it misses the point; culturally, too, Istanbul is a mixture (“If there is only one word for Turkey,” M. repeats, “it’s mixture!”). That’s how this is a city where M. takes me to her favorite Catholic church, or where women in headscarves send texts on Blackberries, or where “Miss Turkey” has become an Idol-style TV show with a flamboyantly gay judge, or where my step-grandmother can sit in the living room reading a newspaper with a topless model on the front cover.

I bet this woman's on Twitter.

And that’s also how Istanbul served me maybe my favorite tiramisu.

There was a lot of alcohol in it. Not that that had anything to do with my critique

M. doesn’t really go to the traditional restaurants in Istanbul; she can eat that cuisine, and very well, at home with her mother. The “Turkish food” spots she does hit are often chains, or places with, for example, Mexican decor (though no Mexican food). So, strange to say, I went a whole week without eating börek, or good baklava, or even a kebab.

There are many sides to Istanbul; I got to see the European culture, maybe to the exclusion of the “Turkish” one, this time, and that was interesting because it’s not something you catch on TV shows. In a way, that makes sense. Why turn on the Travel Channel to watch a report on a subculture that wants to be more like you?

That’s the basic paradox of the hungry world. Our cultural imperialism means that Pabst Blue Ribbon is one of the most expensive beers in China, there is a McDonald’s at Dachau concentration camp, and one of the most popular shops in Turkey is Mango. We go to places like Istanbul to explore what the guidebook cliches might call “another world.” Only, there are an awful lot of people in that “other world” who really want their world to be more like ours.

The truth is that there are many Istanbuls, a different one for nearly every street. The Istanbul with world-class burgers and tiramisu is just as fascinating, in its way, as the Istanbul where fishermen sell their day’s catch, filleted, fried, and in a bun, for $2.50. (I am, though, confused that a nation with such a tradition of tea would drink Lipton. Do the Swiss eat Hershey’s bars? Do the Italians go to Pizza Hut?)

But the increasing mixture of Turkey will continue to confuse tourists, and I understand that. Of course they will want to see the dervishes and the Grand Bazaar, and skip the glitzy bistros. That’s not likely to change.

After all, does it make sense to go to places like Istanbul to See How the Locals Live when the locals want nothing more than to live like you?

"We have met the Turk, and he is us."

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