It all begins with Aleppo pepper, a key ingredient in Anatolian cuisine—but in rare supply since the Syrian conflict. Peppers were first discovered in the New World and made their way East with Christopher Columbus, from Spain into North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, where growing conditions were ideal. As the peppers cross-bred, new varieties evolved, such as the Aleppo, known for its fruity and bright qualities. As such, it’s even made it back home to the Americas, where it is now sorely missed.
But Joy E. Stocke, co-author with Angie Brenner of “Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking” (Burgess Lea Press, 2017), will not be daunted. She experiments with Maras, a Turkish red pepper flake that is sweet and flavorful. She has invited a small group into her Stockton, N.J., kitchen—dubbed “Anatolian Kitchen East”—to cook a luncheon of Imam Bayeldi (translation: the imam fainted), Saffron Rice with Chick Peas and Mint, Flatbread and Cacik (yogurt dip with cucumber and mint). “It’s funny,” she says, flipping pages, “even though I wrote the recipes I still have to read them.”
We are each given an orange apron with the Anatolian Kitchen insignia, a cutting board and a sharp knife. Outside the window is a view of the author’s verdant garden where onions, leeks, tomatoes and greens poke through the soil. The outside air is redolent with lily of the valley and lilac, and soon the kitchen fills with the aromas of onions, garlic and eggplant. “I planted no onions; I tasted no flavor,” says a Turkish proverb, quoted in the book.
“The Aleppo pepper is a point of pride for the people of Anatolia,” says Stocke, “and as with wine, terroir gives it a distinct flavor. But the Maras we’re using has a similar flavor profile, sweet with a little heat at the end.”
Anatolia is “the land of the rising sun,” according to “Tree of Life.” “Once the name of Asia Minor, today Anatolia refers to the country called Turkey, whose borders stretch from Greece and the Balkans to Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Iraq and Syria.” In 2012, Stocke and Brenner explored the region with their co-authored “Anatolian Days & Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints (Wild River Books). “Tree of Life” extends the love affair to the land with “eight separate growing zones… a food-lover’s Eden… When a Turk has access to even the smallest plot of land, he or she will grow everything from greens and herbs to fruit- and nut-bearing vines.”
In the region where olives, lemon, hazelnuts, pomegranate and fennel grow abundantly, Stocke and Brenner met in 1997 on the balcony of a pension of a fishing village along the Turquoise Coast. Stocke, a writer, editor and co-founder of Wild River Review and Books, and Brenner, a travel writer and bookstore owner, sipped wine together as they forged a lasting friendship over adventure and cultural cuisine. Together they traveled “kitchen by kitchen” before returning to respective homes (Brenner lives on the West Coast) with “notebooks full of recipes from people whose faces we will never forget.”
The bound blue book, with trees and scrolls echoing Islamic art, is lush with magnificent photographs of antique spice grinders, mortar and pestle, copper measuring cups, antique metal bowls filled with spices and seeds, plates of preserved lemons and herbs, glistening cloves of garlic shedding their skin, and of course the food itself. Flipping through the pages transports the reader to a bay where Phoenician traders once dropped anchor, the ruins of an ancient city glimmering beneath cerulean water, the tomb of a dervish, a palace at sunset. We are guests at the table as the authors share their passion for exotic ingredients, people, custom and tradition.
Stocke learned the art of cooking at the knees of her German grandmother and mother, and in a Milwaukee high school won the Betty Crocker Family Living Leader of Tomorrow Award, which led her to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she majored in journalism and minored in food science. After a trip across Greece and Europe in 1982 she wrote a short story cookbook (unpublished). Each story had a recipe, and she learned how to test them. Today she says everything has come full circle.
“I believe a great recipe is a poem, with the colors of the ingredients. The kitchen, a place where aunties and grandmothers gather and talk, is about the safest place in the world.”
When people emigrate they take their food. “We carry our recipes with us,” Stocke continues. “We try to make sense of politics and never do, but a recipe is something you can nail. I’m interested in what brings us together.”
In the intro the authors write: “We had always planned to visit Aleppo’s medieval spice markets but now, trusting in the resilience of the Syrian people, we can only hope for peace to return to the region and for the cherished pepper plants to grow again in the fields.”
Burgess Lea Press donates 100 percent of after-tax profits to food-related causes, and profits from “Tree of Life” will go to Wholesome Wave, an organization seeking to get healthy foods to underprivileged families.