NOVEMBER 10, 2019
I HAVE NEVER BEEN to the Black Sea, but for years I have felt it in the distance, waiting. Of the four countries that Caroline Eden visits in Black Sea, her second book of culinary culturology, I have only been to one: Romania. It is also the only country of the four whose cuisine I am personally connected to — I grew up on the Romanian cooking of my grandmothers. When asked what Romanian food is like, I’ve usually described it as somewhat akin to Turkish food, and I felt justified in this vague answer as I read this book.
In Black Sea, Eden has successfully created, in her own words, “a way to ‘eat the culture’ and taste the journey.” She makes her way west and south along the coast of the Black Sea, starting with Odessa, Ukraine, then traveling through the port cities of Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, where she spends the bulk of her trip (and the book) between Istanbul and Trabzon. Even though I have never been to any of the cities and towns she visits and I have not eaten many of the foods whose recipes she includes, the flavors of the dishes, the rhythms of her interactions with the people she encounters, and the faces in the photos all felt familiar.
The spirit of hospitality that’s so characteristic of the region informs Eden’s book, and readers are invited to partake of the food and the stories as if we were there with her. That said, as I was reading the opening of the Istanbul section on the New York subway, the distance between the “soft, buttery and salty flavors of the koloti cheese […] meshed with the rich butter and cornmeal” of a dish called muhlama and the sensory stimuli of my own situation was quite stark. It left my mouth watering. Perhaps best not to read this book far from a good meal.
The food is only a part of the experience, however. Eden is deft at capturing the simultaneous strangeness, sadness, and beauty of the Black Sea’s coast. Of her first stop, Odessa, she writes that it is “eccentric, time-warped and strangely familiar,” which stopped me in my reading tracks because this is exactly how I thought of Romania when I was there in 2009. Back then I had the sensation that time had collapsed in on itself — we rented a car and within a few hours of leaving the capital we were passing horse-drawn carts with the remnants of communist-era industry falling into disrepair in the distance.
Memories of that trip and my family background made me particularly keen to read this book. When Eden arrives at Constanţa, “Romania’s oldest continually inhabited city,” she is exhausted from her bus journey:
Drugged by tiredness and grasping for the familiar, I fell into a long queue snaking outside a patisserie. Through the window, bakers paper-bagged up Romanian covrigi which looked a lot like Turkish simit, or large pretzels. Heavy in the hand, proving its thick apricot content, it delighted. Others fired out of the kitchen filled with sour cherries, cheese and sausages, feeding the hungry and the hungover.
She gets at the strange sense of collapsed time I felt in 2009 as she describes the “magisterial […] Casino, symbol of Constanţa.” Still stunning from the outside, this Art Nouveau building from 1910 that once hosted a grand meeting between Romanian King Carol I and Russia’s last tsar, Emperor Nicholas II, is in ruins inside; it “stands as a grand carcass on a bluff, overlooking the Black Sea, its best days long behind, its one remaining accolade that it is a strong contender for the finest wasted building in the world.”
Eden layers her own experiences atop those of previous travelers, showing how the Black Sea has gripped visitors for centuries. She quotes Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote of the Black Sea in the winter of 1934, “This was Europe’s easternmost rim […] Cherno More, Kara Su, Marea Neagra, the Euxine, the Black Sea […] Constanţa, Odessa, Batumi, Trebizond, Constantinople […] the names were intoxicating.” We come across another mention of the Euxine when Eden is in Istanbul reflecting on the Bosphorous entrance to the Black Sea and quotes this verse from Lord Byron:
The wind swept down the Euxine, and the wave
Broke foaming o’er the blue Symplegades;
’Tis a grand sight from off the Giant’s Grave
To watch the progress of those rolling seas
Between the Bosphorous, as they lash and lave.
The lashing of the waves hints at the darker aspect of life along the coast. Much of the welcome and warmth occurs against a backdrop of historical turmoil and present-day strife. Wars, refugee crises, the hardship of making a living — Eden does not elide the hard facts. One of the most striking people in this book is Elena, “the last fisherwoman left in Bulgaria.” Her husband died when their children were small, so she has had to fish in order to live and has survived three decades of the sea’s dangers in a profession dominated by men. And yet, the sea is also a place of peace and healing for her after the recent loss of her daughter. As Eden leaves her, Elena says, “What the sea can give you, nothing else can.”
Black Sea is about loss and persistence. Empires have come and gone, but there are still anchovies. And oh, those anchovies! As Eden travels in Turkey, we learn of the importance of hamsi (anchovies), and their much-anticipated arrival in the winter months. In Beyoğlu, in January, Eden “sat in awe of Chef Mehmet Gürs’ anchovies. These brackish and plump salt bombs came butterflied and suspended in paper-thin mini olive oil toasts. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, anywhere.” In Trabzon, hamsi are the focus of winter cuisine: “Grilled over charcoal and eaten with bread, and put into pilafs and even jams, they are a cheap and healthy fast-food. No other fish is as loved as hamsi.” This love extends back centuries. Eden quotes a fantastic passage from a 17th-century Ottoman traveler to Trabzon about how in winter, when the fishermen would arrive with hamsi at the harbor, they would sound a horn; “as soon as this sounding is heard, the whole town is in an uproar, and people who hear it, even when at prayer, instantly cease, and run like mad men after it.”
Not mentioned in the book, but hovering over the fact that anchovies, and much of the other ingredients that compose the Black Sea cuisines, are seasonal foods, is climate change. After I finished the book, I Googled “black sea climate change” and found out that, sure enough, the sea is beginning to warm. The question I find myself asking is: What happens when these foods that have nourished the residents across centuries go the way of the empires? Practically speaking, this will add to the hardships and dangers Black Sea people are already facing today, which Eden does address. In the closing chapter, “The Black Sea of the Mind,” she writes,
But as there is light, there is darkness. In the middle of my research, I travelled to Istanbul several times, staying at the Pera Palace as I usually do, eating, drinking, exploring and walking as normal. But times were not normal in Istanbul and I was shocked at just how abandoned the city felt.
The Grand Bazaar is “eerily quiet.” Seeing it this way, “[g]iven the usual buzz of crowds and trade found at this major tourist attraction, […] was a disconcerting experience.”
Eden’s book joins a canon of literature that captures the sea at a given moment, as it bears its volatile past into an uncertain future. When I was reading the first section, on Odessa, I made a note in the margins: “Odessa / the region => permanence in transience.” Reflecting on the future of the region brought me back to this idea. The people and countries of the Black Sea seem to have always existed in a state of transition. Their mythologies, histories, flavors have traveled the world, and yet the area remains inimitable, irreducible, full of idiosyncrasies and particularities.
The Black Sea is not waiting for me. It’s too busy and, after all, I am not an anchovy. I am waiting for it — and in the meantime I accept a slip of what makes the content of this book familiar to me: a fresh-from-the-oven cheese-filled puff pastry from Nita’s, the Romanian bakery in Queens I have gone to my whole life. It delights.
Lauren Goldenberg is deputy director at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. A former book scout and bookseller, she is also a member of the Editorial Board of Jewish Currents.