Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
October 19, 2021
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Mangia Bene

    The Ottoman rulers had imported slaves--often young Christian boys from lands conquered by the Ottomans--to Istanbul, as well as Egypt, where they were integrated into the military and became the elite guard known as the Janissary Corps. The Janissaries eventually became strong enough to be king makers, and they engaged in numerous revolts against some minister or another and, in several instances, the sultan himself. They were organized on the model of a kitchen. The reason for this may lie in the futuwwa (semireligious movement) and Bektashi (an order of dervishes) connections of the corps (and their relationship to the feeding of their members), or in the old Turkish custom of toy, the institutionalized state feeding of the sultan's subjects. The entire corps was known as the ojak (hearth) and was commanded by an aga (master). The qazan-i sharif, or sacred cauldron of shorba (soup), was the emblem of the whole Janissary corps, and the Janissary headgear was ornamented with a spoon. High-ranking officers were called shorbadji ("soupiers" or soupmen).* Other military ranks were designated by culinary terms--for instance, ascibashi (chief cook), the karakullukcu (scullion), the corekci (baker of round bread), and the gozlemici (pancake maker). The corps was composed of battalions, orta, and each battalion had two or three great kazans, cauldrons, to feed the battalion, which could number between one hundred and five hundred troops.** Typically the cauldrons were for cooking soup or pilaf. The head cook of each battalion kitchen was the most influential officer in the battalion. Important meetings were held in the kitchen around the cauldron. The Janissaries, who became quite powerful, would "overturn the cauldron" when displeased by the sultan, symbolizing a rejection of the sultan's food, and hence his policies and signaling the beginning of a rebellion. To this day "overturning the cauldron" is an expression in Turkish meaning the same. The Janissaries became so strong, and such a privileged class, that Christian parents soon begged to have their children enrolled.

* Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., S.v., "Matbakh," 809a-813b. The futuwwa or futuvvet was a semi-religious movement.

** Algar, Ayla Esen. The Complete Book of Turkish Cooking. London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1985, p. 5.