Friday, December 19, 2008


Chestnuts are not something that Californians are very familiar with, except of course at Christmas time when we sing that old familiar song that starts "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...." Well, we don't use Chestnuts and we don't have open fires, so no wonder they are unfamiliar to us.

I had never paid much attention to the chestnuts that appeared in bulk in our markets during the holidays. As far as I was concerned, they were for looks only, to sit in a bowl of nuts that one was supposed to have out on a table next to a nutcracker.

But when the cold weather of winter arrives in Istanbul, chestnut vendors with their hibachi-like grills were on every street corner.

We had been in Turkey for 6 months when winter came, and by that time we were fairly comfortable eating food off little carts and from little stalls. And so late one afternoon while we were at the dock waiting for the ferry that would take us across the Bosphorus to our home on the Asian side of the city, we bought a bag of roasted chestnuts from a vendor. It was cold and windy, we were bundled up within an inch of our lives, and I can't remember when anything warmed the cockles of our hearts the way those hot chestnuts did.

From that time on, we ate them whenever we could, always hot and from a little brown bag. We were sorry to see winter go, and happy when it came again, just because of the chestnuts. And we have not had a chestnut since.

It was not particularly hard to celebrate Christmas in Turkey because first, there are a lot of westerners there who do, in fact, keep to the holiday tradition. And it was possible, also, to buy Christmas trees, as attested by the photo below. At the time we were there, in the early 1990s, the only thing we had difficulty finding were tree decorations, so for the most part, I hand-made them. We were very fortunate to make the acquaintance of a young teenaged Turkish girl, Gulsum Ozturk, who was studying the English language. We became very close friends, and we invited her to come to our house to share Christmas with us and help us decorate the tree. She is the one who introduced us to roasted chestnuts.

Gulsum is probably the brightest and most dedicated person I've ever met in my whole life. When she makes up her mind to do something, she will do it. She put herself through the University of Istanbul with a major in Comparative English Literature, then came to San Diego State University where she got a Masters in both Comparative English Literature AND in business administration. She is now married, has two children, and holds a management position in a San Diego firm. And she is well on her way toward American Citizenship. Of everything we experienced in Turkey, becoming friends with Gulsum and her entire family, both in Turkey and here in the States, has been the most delightful and rewarding.

But I have never thought to ask her if she roasts chestnuts here in San Diego's sunny winter weather.

NOTE: I borrowed the picture of the chestnut vendor from off the web. I attempted to find "Paul" who is the photographer to ask his permission to use the photo, but to no avail. By means of this note, if he should see his photo pasted here, I want him to know that I have been totally enchanted by his many posted photos of Turkey -- and wish I had been able to make mine as visually appealing as he did his.

1 comment:

Gulsum said...

Mom, I never saw this post. Thank you so much for all your kind words. I do still love chestnuts, and I buy them as soon as it comes to the stores in November - December. But I have a hilarious chestnut story to tell. As you know Ali and I got married in Istanbul in November 25. We stayed at the Marmara Hotel on the night of the 25th, and our return flight to US was on the 26th morning. It was almost midnight after the wedding party. As a newly married couple, guess what we preferred to do. We thought that "Tonight is our last night in Istanbul Beyoglu for a while, lets go outside and buy some street chestnuts." That was the beginning of our honeymoon night...Chestnusts in Beyoglu:-)