Big pots propped over piles of smoking wood, lined up at the rear of a parking lot caught my eye around 8:30 one Saturday morning, as Dave and I were driving up the Bozburun peninsula. We flew by, late for an appointment in Datca, before curiosity got the better of me. I made Dave backtrack so we could investigate. Turned out we were six hours early for a wedding feast.
Aliye T. is a caterer from a village near Aydin, an inland Aegean city approximately halfway between Marmaris and Izmir. She cooks for weddings, funerals, circumcision celebrations and other gatherings. On this sunny spring day, in this parking lot steps from a serene turquoise bay Aylin, her husband, her sister, assorted other relatives and a neighbor were preparing a wedding feast for 700, to be served at three that afternoon.
Aylin has been a caterer for seven years. "I'm known in my village as a good cook, but I didn't plan for this to be work," she told me. "Then one day a neighbor told a relative in another village about my fine food. They asked if I could cook for their daughter's wedding. I'd never cooked for so many people before, but I got my sisters to help, and we made a meal for 500. We cooked well, the wedding guests told us the food was delicious! And then strangers started calling, asking if I could cook for a wedding, a funeral ...."
Aliye charges 70 to 80 Turkish lira per person, catering six or seven weddings -- averaging 500-600 guests each, she estimates -- every month. She provides a fulls service, everything from food to tables and chairs to canopies to protect from sun and rain.
"I've cooked for weddings in Fethiye!" she told me, patting her chest and naming a city approximately 250 kilometers from her village.
I haven't a good idea as to Aliye's costs, but that struck me as a pretty decent part-time living for a Turkish villager; Aliye and her family also own a small farm. Is the money good, I asked? Aliye shrugged, allowed herself a small smile and held her hands out, palms to the sky. "I get by," she said.
When we arrived the women had already been cooking for two hours. On this day's menu: chickpeas stewed with salca (tomato-red pepper paste) and beef, keshkek (wheat berry porridge, which tastes much lovelier than it sounds), chicken sauteed with tomatoes, chips (it seems Turks are crazy for chips, aka French fries -- we see them everywhere we travel) and asure with sesame seeds and cinnamon.
"The menu changes according to the wishes of whoever hires me to cook for them," Aliye said. "I can do meze too. That's especially popular in spring and summer."
As the women lifted lids and stirred stews the men lingered at the breakfast table. Their work would begin when it was time to unstack the plastic chairs and tables and set up the canopies. In the meantime there were potatoes to slice.
"I've got to get back to work," Aliye said. "Next time you're in Aydin, call me. I'll cook for you. And you can come to a wedding with us."
You bet we will.