"Coffee should be black as Hell, strong as death, and sweet as love."
The first time I drank Turkish coffee, I was 16. You were supposed to wait, that was the rule. In my family, turning 16 earned you more than a coveted driver's license and the promise of that first taste of freedom. This was a year meant to celebrate your grandeur and your new, sudden authority in the family, as if by magic when you went to sleep the night before you just happened to wake up on the other side of 15 years and 365 days as a whole new girl. This was the year for ceremony, and I was giddy with the anticipation of this long-awaited ritual, of this tiny act of celebration that somehow felt too big for our kitchen.
As an immigrant daughter of Turkish parents living in Los Angeles in the '80s and '90s, we didn't really do ceremony. Aside from fighting with the Armenian kids in my neighborhood every April 24th, whatever traditions I might have practiced in my birthplace dissipated the moment we stepped off that long flight back to solid ground, after an entire ocean slipped by beneath us and we hardly even noticed.
A hot fincan of Turkish coffee made by my mother, enjoyed in the company of my loud siblings and my hovering parents, their eyebrows lifted in curiosity as they waited to see what I thought. That was the ceremony -- the capstone that shut the book on 15 for good. Many of my friends had already tried Turkish coffee, drinking it in the months before high school or freshman homecoming, long before their parents jingled keys to an old junker against the flat of their palm and yelled, "Surprise!" But I did not.
Instead, I had been patient. And now here I was -- the time had come, and I was ready. From the kitchen table, I watched my mother parade around in a beautiful silk dress and her traditional high-heeled home slippers. Perhaps she had dressed up just a little for me that day -- the nostalgia of that kind of pomp and circumstance is contagious and hard to ignore. I didn't take my eyes off her as she stirred and slowly cooked my coffee. My father made small talk, and though I was careful to respond to everything he said, I refused to flick my eyes away from my mother's attentive body at the stove for even an instant.
Each time, right at the moment when I was sure it really had to be done by now, she would ease the tiny brass cezve off the fire. I tried to smile my way to patience as my mouth watered, the sweet aroma filling the room. This was a smell that I felt the tiniest sliver of ownership over, a scent that couldn't help but call to mind the great discovery of my ancestors and the magnitude of the empire that was once responsible for the existence of coffee in Europe and the rest of the world. This is what I thought about while my mother waited for the foam to gently dissipate before she returned the pot to the fire for another round. The hotter, the frothier -- the better. This was a real labor of love.
Finally she took her teaspoon and carefully scooped the foam from the cezve and dropped it gently, tenderly into my cup. Then she filled it halfway, a slow pour. She scooped more foam on top until the fincan was full, and then she set it gingerly on a silver serving platter. She decorated around the cup with rose-flavored Turkish Delight. When she placed it in front of me at the table and told me happy birthday, the words slipped from her mouth like she had just reached up to touch one naked earlobe and realized that one of her favorite pearl earrings was missing.
I let it cool long enough that the minutes started to feel excruciating. Finally, my dad nodded his head toward the table, said, "Enjoy," with a little smile. I took my first sip. I can't imagine the look on my face, even now. It was the worst thing I had ever tasted. Strong, black, thick, all I wanted was to spit it back out and go for milkshakes. What on Earth was all the fuss about? I ate my coffee. Yes. Ate it. I cursed turning 16 and didn't talk to my mom for at least a few hours. It felt like such a disappointing trick, and I was so mad. What was this? Why had I spent all these years fighting every Armenian and Greek I knew, insisting, "It's Turkish coffee, asshole, not Greek." I would proudly taunt at even the slightest provocation, "We brought it to the Western world," as if I had been the very one to step off the plane in America holding that first bag of beans.
My mother sat me down and told me the story of this precious commodity, coaxed me to be patient with the flavor. "It's a lot like anything complicated," she reasoned, "You have to develop a taste for it." She was right, of course. Over the years, once I discovered that if I devoured this pasty coffee, my future could be told in the dregs at the bottom of my fincan, I was sold. I drank and drank endless amounts of coffee. I shuddered through each cup, a little less every day, until one morning I took my first sip of the day and let out the biggest, "Aaahhhhhh..." That's when I knew I was hooked -- a lifer.
Coffee is love. You have to create your own ritual for drinking it. You wait until the grounds settle at the bottom of your mug. You take your first sip delicately so as not to disturb all that foam. You suck it into your mouth in a few loud slurps. You bite into the flavor of Turkish Delight in-between your sips or indulge in chocolate, as I now do.
Today, I was reminded of my love for Turkish coffee when on Facebook I saw a few Turks posting a recent Dr. Oz episode about the benefits of Greek Coffee. What?! Those playground arguments came flooding right back. Greek coffee? Here we go again. But this time the offender is a Turk himself. Dr. Oz is, in fact, a Turk. How do I tell him, "This coffee is Turkish, asshole"? It's not quite as easy to taunt with my know-it-all attitude when the person I want to argue with has his own TV show. He's a quality product made by Turks, so I can't defame him too much. He's good for Turkey and he's good for America. No matter how horrible Coca Cola is, you don't see me dogging their Turkish CEO, Muhtar Kent.
Coffee actually got its start in Ethiopia, where the first plants were discovered sometime in the 11th century. They were thought to be magic with all manner of medicinal properties. Most days I still feel this way about coffee, so I can't say I'm surprised. Coffee reached Istanbul in 1543, where the Ottoman Palace broke away from the traditional Ethiopian recipe that had been used for hundreds of years, discovering that the beans could be roasted over a fire, ground, and then boiled. The resulting aroma and improved taste spread the drink quickly all over the city, making its way beneath mortar and pestle and into the first at-home coffeepots, called cezve, and eventually into coffeehouses that began cropping up across the country. The many merchants and refined travelers passing through the hub of Istanbul helped share coffee with the rest of Europe and eventually the world.
In the end, whether you call it Turkish or Greek, it doesn't matter. Enjoy it and pay homage to the ones who first made it for you or who know just how to make it for you now. In our case, in D.C. we are lucky.
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