January 24, 2006

Documentary explores foods, culture of Turkey

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- In the fall of 2001, Jan Thompson, an assistant professor in the radio-television department at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, had her crew ready to travel across the globe to Turkey to make yet another documentary about the food and culture of another country.

Then came Sept. 11, and everything changed. Everything, that is, except Thompson's desire to complete the project.

Family members tried to talk the independent film producer out of it. "Everyone was very, very concerned," Thompson said. In an attempt to ease her worried parents' minds, she told them she wouldn't go.

"But no way. We were too committed. My crew was committed," she said. "We had no idea what to expect because of the current events of the time. But once we got there, it was obvious everyone was very wrapped up in what had happened in New York. When they found out we were American, many, many people came up to offer their condolences and outrage about what had happened."

During the two weeks she spent in Turkey, Thompson's crew visited two regions and numerous traditional villages, capturing in pictures and words the daily culinary habits of the ancient culture. The result, "Hidden Turkey," airs at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29 on WSIU-TV.

Previously broadcast nationally on PBS stations across the country, the one-hour documentary dishes up traditional Turkish fare, spiced with revelations about the country's rich history and geography, its artisans, society and folkways. Thompson's husband, Bruce Kraig, an archaeologist and well-known food historian, is the on-camera narrator and tells the story of Turkey throughout the ages as interpreted through the palette.

The program is the latest in a series of food and culture documentaries Thompson produced for PBS. Previously, she and her crew presented "Hidden India," "Hidden Korea" and "Food for the Ancestors," which focused on Mexico's Days of the Dead observances.

"Food is a very non-threatening way into something to attract a different audience," Thompson said. "We wanted to help the image of some of these countries that might have somewhat of a stigma to Americans and open up the American audience on why these countries are so wonderful."

Turkey, with its unique geographic location spanning Europe and Asia, was ideally suited for exploration by the team of filmmakers. To get a complete picture of traditional life, the team visited two distinct and decidedly rural areas: the lush Black Sea coast and the arid, rocky interior. The people and the food reflected the changing landscape, Thompson found.

"The women I met were wonderful and they were kind of perplexed that I, a woman, was in charge of the film – the boss," Thompson said. "The Turkish men were very generous and respectful."

In the mountainous portion of the country, the single-person trams many households maintained to transport family members down to roads and villages below stunned Thompson.

And then there was the food.

The ancient coastal city of Trabzon offered them ekmek, traditional bread. Workers harvested tea and honey and milled grain using a mill powered by water. Women in one family cooked muchlama, a cheese and egg grit dish along with Kardeniz dolma, which is Black Sea stuffed chard leaves and rich egg omelets.

The team visited an area along the Silk Road, which for centuries saw caravans bring goods from as far away as China. They visited a silk weaving cooperative where young women make silk carpets. A mother and daughter make yufka, a bread that likely is the basis for all filled and cut pastas.

"It's a great country," Thompson said. "Most Americans would be very receptive to them."

Thompson, who teaches television and documentary production at SIUC, hopes to take a sabbatical year soon and finish a new documentary on the American soldiers who survived the battle of Battan and Corregidor during World War II and subsequent brutal internment by the Japanese. The project is personal to Thompson because her father is one of those who endured the captivity.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Documentary explores foods, culture of Turkey

Jan Thompson
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