Nektaria Anastasiadou had audacity to set her debut novel in the most sacred of all cities for Greeks and employ its revered history and urban landscape as the backdrop for an endearing story of love and food. And her boldness has paid rich dividends. This is a beautifully written story set in present-day Istanbul that tells how two Greek men vie for the hand of Daphne, a young American.
Daphne’s parents had lived in Istanbul before they emigrated to America and settled in Miami. The author may have chosen Miami for a reason. Most of those who emigrate from Istanbul gravitate to locations by the sea which reminds them of the Bosphorus, the narrow stretch of water around which the city is built. In Athens many stay in Paleo Faliro, a seaside residential neighborhood just south of the city center. And one of the places the family dines in Miami is a Cuban restaurant with chandeliers and mirrors that is reminiscent of an Istanbul pastry shop.
The elderly Fanis and the forty something Kosmas who still lives with his mother pursue Daphne in a gentlemanly, refined manner as it behooves the inheritors of the distinguished legacy the Greeks of that city created have built over many centuries. It is that century-long history that can evoke so many and so deep-seated emotions among Greeks. No other Greek city in history can rival than Constantinople in that sense. Indeed, when you say Η Πόλις (the City) in Greek everyone knows you mean Constantinople.
Constantine the Great, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, established the city in 330 C.E. It became the spiritual capital of Eastern Orthodox Christianity was the flourishing capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, called Vasileion tes Rhomanias by the Greeks and Rumelia by the Turks – the name Byzantium adopted much later.
After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 the city’s Greeks survived and multiplied thanks to the limited rights the Sultan granted the “Rum” as the Ottomans called the Greek Orthodox Christians. And many upper class Greek Constantinopolitans, known as Phanariots, became diplomats and officials of the Ottoman administration.
Even after Constantinople became part of the Republic of Turkey and was renamed Istanbul (which, ironically, derives of the Greek words for “going to the city”) there remained a substantial Greek presence in the city. The continued existence of the Rum community of the city was guaranteed by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 which excluded them from the massive exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey that was designed to bring peace between the two nations. But over the next decades a combination of hostile measures, harassment and violence directed against Greek lives and properties have brought a dramatic decline in numbers, from 100,000 in 1927 down to about three thousand presently.
In A Recipe for Daphne the distant and recent past is always in the background, especially the devastating anti-Greek pogrom in September 1955 which scarred the lives of some of the story’s main characters.
Yet Anastasiadou’s prose deftly combines that haunting Constantinopolitan history with the experiences of living in today’s vibrant Istanbul. She manages to evoke this dual sense of historical awareness and immersion into the present not only because she grew up there and lives there but also because she is a talented story teller. which she evokes as a true native but also as a skilled writer.
Daphne’s courtship by the elderly Fanis and the younger Kosmas is fast paced and takes us to many of the city’s old neighborhoods. Anastasiadou’s prose evokes the atmospheric crumbling Italianate buildings, atmospheric steep and narrow streets, and views across the shimmering waters of the Bosphorus. And city’s famous and sophisticated cuisine, a fusion of European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors is also featured prominently. We even get to visit Antigone, one of the Prince’s islands in the Bay of Marmara which were Byzantine and Ottoman places of exile before becoming a favored resort destination beginning in the 19th century.
While the courtship plot thickens at that point amid the joy of the excursion and the buzzing created by the cicadas and the wine the author does not forget her history. Daphne wonders whether the inhabitants of a deserted wooden cottage had been among those Rum deported in 1964. And when her hosts point to the nearby island of Halki just across the water she knows of the existence of the now closed Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary there.
Anastasiadou’s skillful blending of the ghosts of the historical past with the joys of living in present-day Istanbul sets this novel apart from everything else that Greeks, Jews and others have written about life in the erstwhile cosmopolitan port cities of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Whether they are writing in the present or about the past, fictionally or autobiographically, authors celebrate multi-ethnic cosmopolitan cities such as Alexandria, Constantinople, Salonica (present-day Thessaloniki) and Smyrna (present-day Izmir) with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. It is a perfectly understandable sentiment but very often it can fall into the trap of evoking a past that devalues the present.
This is definitely not the case with a A Recipe for Daphne where today’s city is very much alive and as much of a character in the story as are Daphne, her suitors, the other Rum along with their Jewish and Turkish friends and neighbors. While Anastasiadou never lets us forget the past, the way the Rum themselves cannot forget it, she conveys an engagement and fascination with present-day Istanbul.
Clearly there are things of the past that have survived the ups and downs of the Greek presence. One of them that is threaded through the book’s narrative is the city’s long tradition of elaborate patisserie creations. As the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire became gradually incorporated in the world economy through exporting and importing to Western Europe, its capital, Istanbul acquired a European-like bourgeois lifestyle. It was something the other cosmopolitan cities in the Eastern Mediterranean also experienced. As part of that process, Constantinople’s already rich culture of making sweets encountered delicacies such as éclairs, chocolate tarts, macaroons, madeleines, sachertortes and tiramisu.
Kosmas, one of Daphne’s two suitors is an award-winning pastry chef and inevitably one of the ways he will try to woo her is through her taste buds. Kosmas’ pastry-making skills is testament enough to the city’s cosmopolitanism. But there is more to this story. Kosmas wants to prepare a special dessert for Daphne, which is what gives the title to the book. It is based on a long-lost recipe for a very special dessert whose multiple ingredients symbolize each of the ethnic groups that lived side by side in the multiethnic Balkans of the Ottoman era.
Kosmas explains that it is a “coiled éclair” filled with creams of different flavors, one each for the peoples who coexisted harmoniously for centuries. It sounds like a very Constantinopolitan notion. A French dessert prepared in a way that evokes a cosmopolitan symbiosis. It is an old recipe but he is determined to reproduce it in the present.
Thus, the reader is presented with two plot lines that are intertwined, as if they were part of the same éclair. The quest for Daphne’s hand by her two suitors, and the quest to recreate the recipe that stands for multi-ethnicity. It all amounts to a beautifully crafted first novel that celebrates cosmopolitanism not only for what it was in the past but also for what it is in the present.
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