Now I want to make it clear from the beginning that I am not a culinary snob or hung up on American cuisine which, as most people born somewhere else, seem to think is exemplified by the hamburger and hot dog (though the hot dog, or frankfurter, is actually German in origin but I must admit I am a bit of a snob when it comes to them but I’ll leave that for some other post). Hamburgers, though, should be judged by an objective panel who understands what constitutes the basic ingredients: ground beef, a bun, and ketchup, pickles and/onions optional.
So anyway, I’ve had 3 hamburgers now in 8 days here, which is a record for me since I didn’t eat 3 hamburgers in 8 days while living in the US, but that’s besides the point. The point here, or at least the one I’m trying to make in my usual way, is about what it’s like to eat what passes for hamburgers here in Turkey.
Now it started last weekend when I went to a former student’s (whom I have always been fond of) girlfriend’s art gallery. The art gallery, Space Debris Art, by the way, is new, as is the girlfriend who I found very charming, not only because she lived in the US for 10 years, and had been living in my grandparents’ old neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, near, I might add, the best steak house in all the world, Peter Luger’s, or because she has an artistic nature, studied theatre, art, sculpture, etc and got her MFA in art from Parsons (my Uncle Dominic’s old alma mater) but because she is charming. And the reason I bring this up, and there is a reason, is because below her gallery is a cafe where the owner, who also studied in the US, is trying to duplicate American cafe cuisine, and the one thing he has introduced is the bagel, which, according to Seyhan Musaoglu (Tunc’s girlfriend, Tunc Suzer being the former student), who is his food taster and critic, he doesn’t quite have it right. I explained it’s the water, which she immediately thought could be the reason, and well, not to get too involved in all this, let me say that after the art gallery, Tunc and Paul Hallam (a fellow writer/expat living here who teaches at Istanbul University to keep the wolves at bay while he does the things that matter to him most) went to a bar Paul frequents and I drank some wine, had some of the cheese platter, and finally left to meet another former student, Baris Keser, who also worked as a tutor for me while getting his MBA at a college in NY where I ran the ESL program, in Taksim where I took him to a bar I know and he drank beer, I drank more wine, and we shared a platter of French fries.
Okay, the point. After consuming 2 bottles of wine over the course of the afternoon, early evening, I made my way back toward the ferry stop at Karakoy and spied the newly opened Fatburger here in the city. Now I can’t remember if they use the original one word spelling or separate it into two words–Fat Burger–because my mind is a little unclear about that part of the evening, but I do know that when my fatburger arrived, it did not taste like what my memory felt it should have tasted like, from way back in the 70s in LA (and for those of you who think that’s an awfully long time to remember accurately what something tastes like, well all I can say is that you never lose the memory of taste, smell, sight, sound, touch of the things we learn to love in this world, including hamburgers). Of course in those days there was just the one Fatburger on Western Avenue which Rip Crystal introduced me to. It was a bit of heaven to find something that deliciously juicy for you in a city devoted to being young, beautiful, and healthy.
But back to my story. So I was disappointed and swore I would never do that again, except I did do it again but not at Fatburger, but at Burger King in my neighborhood a few nights later, where they pronounce the Whooper as rhyming with cooper instead of the way we pronounce it as rhyming with hopper (“we” being people from the US who know about these things) and lo and behold, I’m disappointed again. It’s not that they have the size wrong, it’s just the taste is almost tasteless when compared to the way it tastes back in say Hempstead, NY.
Okay, so last night on the way back from watching a high school production of Oliver which I had to do a Steve Cohen on (Steve Cohen, my dear, dear friend who worked for 20 odd years as associate producer for Joe Papp at The Public Theatre in NYC was infamous for leaving plays after the first act) because I couldn’t stand it any longer and on the way home, I stopped at Bambi Burger because for 4 years now I’ve been passing this place and wondering just what a Bambi Burger would taste like. Well, I tasted it last night and still do not know what I ate. I mean, apart from the potato salad with peas, pickles, tomatoes, and I think mayonaise, there was something that looked like meat but it was reddish in color, and I could not distinquish a taste. It was certainly not hamburger, but hey, this is a country where they put ketchup and mayonaise on your table when serving pizza.
Okay, so here’s my point. Some food does not necessarily transfer well from one place to another, and if you don’t believe me, ask Rita Wu who will tell you most Chinese food even in places like NYC are what she calls “junk” Chinese food, changed to appease American taste buds. There’s something lost in the translation, sotospeak. Think Mexican food in the US served at Taco Bell, for instance. Or what passes for pizza in Ohio.
Now there is one place that does serve a pretty good hamburger, though it’s a bit dry which breaks your heart when you bite into it and do not get the grease you’re expecting, but it’s the best I’ve found here so far. It’s in Hamburger Haven a block up from the Rex Theatre on Bar Street in Moda in case you come to Istanbul in the near future. It’s not quite the real thing, and thank God no one has dared tried to open up a White Castle here because heaven only knows what that will be like (and I know my brother Johnny and his wife Cecelia, who both have their birthday dinners at White Castle each year, would be outraged), but it’s the closest thing to a hamburger that I’ve found.
But you know, it’s kind of like that bagel in Karakoy. The people making them are trying to do the right thing, their hearts are in the right places, and it’s close but no cigar, as we like to say. I think it just has to be the water.