Origin myths

From my back files, in a story in the April 19, 2010 New Yorker (“The Memory Kitchen: A chef recovers the foods that Turkey forgot” by Elif Batuman, about Istanbul chef Musa Dağdevireyn):

“Our people are ashamed of themselves,” he remarks, alluding to Turkish chefs’ penchant for Western cuisine. “They have a complex. Go to Iran — you’ll find characteristic Iranian regional cooking. Here you open a book called ‘Modern Turkish Cooking,’ and the first recipe is for risotto.”

The other side of this shame, he continues, is false pride, which recently gave rise to an “Ottomania” fad, with restaurants claiming to serve the dishes of Sultan Suleyman’s court. There are, he says, no surviving recipes from Suleyman’s court: “People just want to think that they’re the descendants of kings.” Musa is particularly outraged by people who claim that their ancestors invented various foods. His latest historical work debunks the origin myth of döner kebab, the rotating roasted meat that forms the cornerstone of Turkish street food: a chef called Iskender is supposed to have invented it in Bursa, in the eighteen-sixties. Once, at a symbosium, Musa met a descendant of Iskender. “He was talking about how his ancestor, who was born in 1948, invented döner kebab,” Musa told me. “He had no sources. He was just going around saying this.” Combing libraries, used bookstores, and flea markets, Musa found döner represented in an 1850 engraving and an 1855 photograph. “I wanted to ask that guy, ‘So your grandpa invented döner when he was two years old?’ “

(The article is pretty much guaranteed to make you feel hungry.) Origin myths abound in the world of food, as they do in the world of word and phrase origins, and in fact amateur scholar Barry Popik has managed to do serious research in the intersection of these two worlds, for instance on the origin of the name hot dog.

It’s easy to tell (and pass on) plausible stories about origins, especially stories that are colorful, full of specific details, and favor people you admire or revere. [Note multiple-level coordination, which I didn’t notice until I was proofreading.] But it can take grinding work to check out these stories, and then many of them, especially the best ones, turn out to be false, as Musa discovered when he investigated the döner story.

3 Responses to “Origin myths”

  1. Food and drink postings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] myths (link) […]

  2. Brief mention: Origin myths « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] origin myths for food, from an earlier posting on this blog: Origin myths abound in the world of food, as they do in the world of word and phrase […]

  3. On the -mageddon watch | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] kebabs (which are often sold in pita sandwiches), for instance the Turkish döner kebab (discussed here), and the Greek gyro(s) (also often sold in pita sandwiches). My local Israeli restaurant […]

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