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Notes from the Kitchen: Bread, Bread, Bread
*This is an original translation of Bread, Bread, Bread by Matthew Lundin of the Armenian-Turkish author Migirdiç Margosyan. The short story originally appeared in the compilation Gavur District as Ekmek, Ekmek, Ekmek.
Where we’re from, in Diyarbakir, we eat a lot of bread. Trying to eat food without bread, to try to fill up without eating any, is like never having heard of being hungry. We spoke every day about how deeply we loved bread, and how much we ate. You never said “come, let’s eat something”, you would said “come, let’s have some bread.” If a guest arrived while you were eating you wouldn’t ask “have you eaten?” or “are you hungry?” but instead “have you had your bread?” We held the belief that anyone who hadn’t eaten bread wasn’t full, and that they were definitely still hungry…
We had storerooms in our homes. They were full of big-bellied earthenware jars. We would put everything in them. For example: The biggest, fattest, jar would be full of flour. Alongside it, arranged according to size, would be our other jars full of cracked wheat, bulgur, lentils, chickpeas, beans and rice. There were other jars too, one for grape molasses, with its neighbor full of oil. Then there were the jars that the children loved the most, often causing our mothers to scold us as we looked into them, the dried grape, fruit leather, walnut, and churchela jars…
Where we’re from a person’s wealth was measured by the size of their storeroom, the number of jars it contained, and how big and fat they were. If all of the jars were empty, that house was in a bad state, unfortunate, troubled and tragic. We referred to this in our prayers by saying:
“God, please don’t leave anyone’s jars empty.”
“Please don’t let Halil Ibrahim’s blessing pass over anyone’s jars…”
On Sundays after church service, Father Arsen stingily gave out a pittance worth of holy bread, but it was still worth every effort our mother’s put in in order to get a piece. They took home that bread and put one tiny piece into each jar in order to increase its blessing. If every Sunday after church service Father Arsen’s hadn’t been so lazy and would have given out more than three to five thin, tiny wafers of holy bread, he could have avoided our mothers’ scramble to get their hands on a piece and assured that their jars stayed full, everyone would have been better off. Father Arsen had to have known this. The reason why he did it this way was a secret that no one else besides God knew.
Our jars usually came in two different colors. Some were the color of red soil or clay, and the others were enamed green. In the clay jars we stored flour, cracked wheat, green lentils, red lentils, chickpeas, beans and bulgur; in the green enamel jars were herb cheese which was melted and then braided, rock salt, grape molasses and oil.
When my mother kneaded dough or whenever she cooked Ayran soup, she would call out to one of my brothers or sisters without moving from the Tesht if she needed something from the storeroom:
“Hurry up dear, get me some salt from the storeroom.”
My sister would run to the salt jar, taking off the wooden cover, look for the cloth underneath, take a piece of salt, put the cover back on and run back to my mom and give it to her. She would toss the salt into the dough, whisper a prayer to herself, and continue kneading. A little later she would call out for something else.
“Sopeeeee, bring me the nozzle from the storeroom!”
Sope was my other sister. Actually her name wasn’t Sope, it was Ardemis. But for being short and round this name seemed more appropriate. There has once been an short old woman named Sope in Diyarbakir, along with a short boy. The boy’s name was Garabet. In order to keep their memory alive, out of respect for them, it became custom that all short boys be called Garabet, and short women be called Sope. Sope and the midget Garabet had long since passed away but there was another Sope and Garabet that lived on…
“Hurry up Sope, bring me the nozzle!”
Sope went to the storeroom, and when she was held up, mother called back out to her:
“Hey, tree cricket… where is that nozzle at?”
“Mama, where did you put the nozzle, I can’t find it?”
“You must be blind girl, you can’t see that long nozzle right in front of your nose?”
Sope stopped to look for the nozzle in front of her, but soon my mother’s patience was at an end and she started yelling again:
“You’re the blindest of all…girl, Look next to Apo’s pot, and Ani’s tray!”
In our house, in order to make their work easier back when they were poor, my father Sike and my mother Hino had tried to keep all of the kids from killing each other when fights broke out by christening some of the pots and pans with the children’s names… and so the house’s newly bought copper pot was called Apo’s pot, the copper tray was called Ani’s tray or Sope’s bathroom bowl, and things were simplified. Sope found the nozzle in its spot and brought it by rolling it like a ball, then handed it to my mother. My mother cleaned the dough of her hands on the side of the caved-in “habesh”, inside she put a few pieces of glowing ember, placed a few pieces of coal neatly around it, and then began to puff on it through the nozzle.
My mother blew through the nozzle like a flute. This object we called a nozzle, as thin as a flute, was just as long and made of iron. From one corner you puffed and out of the other side air came out. Because the area where the air blew was narrow it was concentrated. My mom took a deep breath, puffing up her cheeks with air, looking like an angry turkey, and kept puffing. From the combination of my mother looking like a swollen up turkey, and a high pitched sound coming out of the other end of the nozzle that would have made any turkey jealous, the coal would slowly turn red out of embarrassment and salute my mothers efforts with flames.
When the fire was ready she put a trivet on top of the habesh. In our native language, the local Armenian, we called it a “Gesgerenk.” On top of the gesgerenk she put a metal plate. You used this steel plate to cook bread wafers, and if you kicked it in its middle as you were cooking, you could make the metal warp…
Once the steel plate had heated up in the fire as hot as the belly of hell, my mom would stand on one side of the round wooden tripod, take a chunk of dough with her expert hands, spread it out with a dough roller, then throw it atop the metal plate. The small patch of dough wouldn’t be able to take the heat and immediately puffed up. My mom would snatch the cooked dough off of the metal plate, rescuing it from the burning hell, and place it on the cloth on her side, then throwing on the second piece of dough. My mother would repeat the same motions forty to fifty times, as we closely and impatiently watched her work.
In the end the dough made a hissing sound on the metal plate as my mother picked it off, and a flopping sound when she collected them together. At this point our patience would have run out, and we would dash into the storeroom, taking pieces of dried cottage cheese and placing them in order by size in front our mother. She would give us a hot piece of dough, and just like our mother had taught us, we swaddled up the hot dough around the cheese, and ate it down.
Other times our mother cooked us “Zinginlik”. Zinginlik was also made from dough. Like I said earlier, we grew up on kneaded dough.
You put a little oil inside the fryer, it would heat up, then you’d pour in a spoonful of dough, which would puff up and sizzle, turning as round as a ball. You took this tortured piece of puffed up dough out of the oil and spread some grape molasses on it and ate it with great delight, that’s when you knew it was zinginlik.
If the dough on the metal sheet was thicker, almost as thick as my mother’s little finger, then you’d place it over the cinders on the metal sheet and the dough would slowly cook. Once it cooked it would look enticingly at you and with your ravenous appetite you took the hot bread, put it on a tin or copper tray, spread some pure karaca mountain butter over it, some sugar or some grape molasses according to your taste , and then ate it. That was stone bread.
There was also “jumur.” You kneaded the dough, made the sign of the cross over it, then covered it in a cloth and then put it in the hottest corner of the house, and while it sat there was nothing else you could do. I was somehow always the person to be around when it came time to carry over the tesht… My sense of timing always confused my mother, but nonetheless she would quickly put the dough tesht atop by head and send me off to the oven. This was my eternal duty. I also took the cooked bread and brought it home. With the scent of hot bread still overhead, hot steam pouring out, with the bread lightly burning our hands, we sat stooped around and tore the hot bread to pieces. As kids we felt bad thinking of the bread’s soul being burned up in the oven, and then having us all pinch at it, eating it piece by piece, only to be born again and again, and cooked again and again. It was no longer even bread as it was picked apart, we couldn’t decide what it was, but our curiosity was soon put to an end when it came time to spread butter over it. The bread, before even coming to its senses, was mixed with grape molasses and kneaded into different chunks, knew that it had become the right consistency to be eaten, and gave its thanks to God…We also thanked God for giving us Jumur. While my mother whispered her prayer of thanks, I ran out into the street with the ball of jumur in my hand, and made all of my friends have a taste in order to bribe them to let me join in on their game of tipcat.
Images by roboppy via the Flickr Creative Commons.