“Saint Anthony’s Bread” in Istanbul and “Problem-Solving Chickpeas” in Iran: July’s Religion-Related Research Get-Together dedicated to Food and Religion

Chickpeas. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2167657 by Eitan Ferman; Copyright: public domain resource

“Saint Anthony’s Bread” in Istanbul and “Problem-Solving Chickpeas” in Iran: July’s Religion-Related Research Get-Together was dedicated to Food and Religion

Author: Esther Voswinckel Filiz

14 August 2020

Since 2019, the research field “History of Religions” of the Orient-Institut Istanbul together with IFEA has been hosting a monthly networking meeting that brings together scholars of religion from different academic fields. Within this “Religion-Related Research Get-Together”, the focus was has been laid on “Materialities of Everyday Religiosity, Past and Present”, facilitating scholarly presentations and discussions on major subjects of the “material turn” within the study of religion(s).[1] While past meetings of the network were dedicated to topics such as “space and place”, “objects and things”, as well as “media”, the topic of July’s meeting was an ever-present element of religious practices: food.

ACN International, “Turkey: Assistance to the poor: Food bags during coronavirus”https://acninternational.org/turkey-assistance-to-the-poor-food-bags-during-coronavirus/?fbclid=IwAR0-sbCodExnSecHyp-IFR5y4A5MVEdbe6ed%E2%80%A6 (25 May 2020)

The first part of the meeting featured a presentation by Ottomanist Dr. Vanessa de Obaldía (University of Mainz, ERC MAMECS-Project) with the title “Saint Anthony’s Bread. Food and Charity in Istanbul’s Latin Catholic Church.” The distribution of bread which happens every Tuesday at the Catholic church of Sent Antuan on İstiklal Street (Beyoğlu) is one among uncountable examples of the importance of bread within everyday religious practices in Istanbul.[2] De Obaldía pointed to the fact that besides the commonly known role of sacramental bread within the Catholic mass, there exists also a vital practice of bread distribution as a source of blessing. This local tradition in Istanbul is by no means limited to a Christian clientele. On the contrary, a significant part of the receivers of “Saint Anthony’s bread” on İstiklal street are refugees from many different backgrounds. De Obaldía also highlighted the most recent adaptation of this local tradition in times of the pandemic: During the past months, instead of pieces of bread, food packages have been distributed.

In the second part of the meeting, a selection of literature on foodways was discussed. The article “Food and Holiness: Cooking as a Sacred Act among Middle-Eastern Jewish Women” by Susan Starr Sered[3] for example illuminates the everyday life of illiterate Jewish women of Kurdish origin in Jerusalem. By examining their repertoire of culinary practices, she demonstrates how these women ‘make’ the shabbat and all the events of the festive calendar by cooking for their relatives.[4] Starr Sered pays honor to the often dismissed role of women as religious experts: Her proposal to understand their cooking skills – including painstakingly time consuming activities such as sorting huge amounts of rice grain by grain for seven times as a preparation for Passover – as a significant kind of worship of its own can be considered seminal in the anthropological study of cuisine and religion. In handling the ingredients of festive foods, sensations such as touch, smell and taste, as well as a kind of “memory of the hands”[5] matter and make religion “happen […] materially, which is not to be confused with asking the much less helpful question of how religion is expressed in material form.”[6]

Another interesting food rite orchestrated by women can be observed in Iran. Both among Zoroastrians and among Shiite Muslim women of very different strata of society, it is a common tradition to organize and attend ritual food congregations (sofreh).[7] These gatherings all require a particular selection of ingredients and foodstuffs which are carefully displayed on a piece of cloth (sofreh). At the “sofreh-ye Imām Ḥasan” (sofreh of Imām Ḥasan, the second Imam), for example, all ingredients need to be green.[8] The cooking and distribution of the food for the sofreh is accompanied by prayers and songs and by the recitation of lengthy folk tales: Sofrehs are female performances of oral tradition. At the “sofreh of the problem-solving chickpeas” (sofreh-ye noḥūd-e mošgel gošā[9]) for example, many variations of the following story (as referred by anthropologist Sabine Kalinock) are told:

“[A] wood gatherer and his daughter […] are so sunk in poverty that the father despaired. One day three beings clad in green appear to him asking him some favours and bid him to buy noḥūd [chickpeas], perform the rite of noḥūd-e mošgel gošā [the problem-solving chickpeas] and distribute them. As a gift they give him some small stones. These turn out to be jewels and he and his daughter become even richer than the king himself. […] When her father goes on a pilgrimage, his daughter neglects the rite of noḥūd-e mošgel gošā. She is then accused of stealing and put in prison. Her father returns and the three beings appear to him again in a dream advising him to continue to perform the rite of noḥūd-e mošgel gošā. He does so and thereafter the innocence of his daughter is established; she marries the prince and goes on performing the rite.”[10]

This tale is about miraculous transformations: Stones turn into jewels and a poor girl into a princess; vows to perform the “rite of the problem-solving chickpeas”, and attending these rites, are believed to turn affliction into abundance and to bring about blessing. Organizing and participating in such sofrehs – a practice which is often despised by male representatives of scriptural orthodoxy, both in Shiite Islam and in Zoroastrianism[11] – is a domain of the religious everyday life in which women evade the dominance and control of male religious authority and create a space of domestic “supernatural intercession to earthly problems.”[12]

Why chickpeas? While a large number of recent publications pertaining to the “material turn(s)” within the study of religion has focused on foodways, for more insight into the ritual importance of chickpeas in Iran we may consult a much older source on religious traditions in Iran and in the Middle East: the writings of British anthropologist Lady E. S. Drower. Her opus magnum Water into Wine. A Study of Ritual Idiom in the Middle East[13] is abundant in detailed accounts about chickpeas, lentils, beans, grains and seeds and in ponderings about their symbolism. Lady Drower calls them “life-foods” and links their ritual meaning not only to their nutritional value, but also to the fact that “they bear dormant life”[14] in their hidden inside. Dry chickpeas may appear like stones at first sight. Yet, “by the magic of sun and water they germinate […].”[15] Drower stresses the symbolism of birth, rebirth and fecundity which is often connected to pulse and grains and points to the ubiquity of cooked wheat, raisins, pomegranate seeds, chickpeas and other small grains in religious food rites related both to mourning as well as to birth and salvation.[16]

After comparing such ethnographic accounts of ritual food practices, the discussion dwelled upon the problem of religious food proscriptions and prescriptions as boundary makers.[17] Moreover, a closer look at Medieval Arabic culinary literature allowed for grasping the closeness between this genre and the large number of Medieval Arabic healing manuals.[18] In this context, OII research associate Shahrzad Irannejad, a historian of humoral medicine, pointed to the principles of humoral medicine which can be discovered in numerous recipes of classic Persian cuisine cooked for centuries to this day. Finally, the discussion shifted to the contemporary popularity of styles of alimentation such as veganism, Paleo-diet and gluten-free alimentation and then to the question whether these have come to take over several functions traditionally held by religion, as scholar of religion Benjamin Zeller suggests.[19]

Scholarly engagements with food practices, it can be summarized, allow for recognizing manifold dimensions of religiosity which are so embedded in everyday life that they often escape the attention of text-focused studies of religion. The production and consumption of food deserves attention as a vital “form of relating to others, all kinds of others – humans […] and non-humans (gods, plants, animals).”[20]

Anthropologist Starr Sered coins culinary practices a particular kind of “domestic” religiosity. Such domestic features of the (religious) everyday life have considerably gained in importance during the months of the Corona lockdown which saw the global rediscovery of time-consuming culinary practices. In March and April 2020, for example, the grain and flour-sales of local mills in Germany largely exceeded the Christmas sales; online bread-baking tutorials were sold out; yeast, baking powder and whole wheat flour was missing in the shelves of supermarkets of several European countries as well as in Turkey.[21] Extensive cooking and baking is usually connected to preparations of religious feasts. The fact that not only housewives, but also professionals of all kinds of backgrounds recently started to spend considerable time in the kitchen, and the genre of “Corona cuisine” blogging[22] which emerged as a result, point to changes in everyday practices in face of the pandemic which await more thorough research. While it is commonly known that a large part of social interaction has shifted into the realm of social media since March 2020 as a response to the global health crisis, less attention has so far been paid to the recent reappraisal of one of the most basic and local repositories of material and cultural sources of vitality: the kitchen.

[1] See Bräunlein, Peter J., Thinking Religion through Things. Reflections on the Material Turn in the Scientific Study of Religion/s (Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 28, 2016), 365-399.

[2] For a comparative study of bread within religious practices, see Plate, S. Brent, Bread, in: Plate, S. Brent, A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects. Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 175-178.

[3] Starr Sered, Susan, Food and Holiness: Cooking as a Sacred Act among Middle Eastern Jewish Women (Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Jul. 1988), 129-139.

[4] Ibid. p. 135. For the prominent concept of “making” within a study of material culture that integrates the disciplines of archaeology, architecture, art and anthropology, see Ingold, Tim, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture, (New York: Routledge, 2013). See also Pitrou, Perig, Life Form and Form of Life within an Agentive Configuration: A Birth Ritual among the Mixe of Oaxaca, Mexico (Current Anthropology 58, 2017), 360-380.

[5] Hernandez, Michael and David Sutton, Hands That Remember. An Ethnographic Approach to Everyday Cooking, (Penn Museum Expedition Magazine Vol.45, No. 2, 2003), 30-37.

[6] Meyer, Morgan et al., The Origin and Mission of Material Religion (Religion 40, 2010), 207-211, quotation from page 209.

[7] See Kalinock, Sabine, Supernatural Intercession to Earthly Problems – Sofreh Rituals among Shiite Muslims and Zoroastrians in Iran, in: Stausberg, Michael (ed.), Zoroastrian Rituals in Context (Leiden/Boston: 2004), 531-546 and Shirazi, Faeghe, The Sofreh: Comfort and Community among Women in Iran (Iranian Studies 38/2), 293-309.

[8] For the design and display of sofreh gatherings in Iran, see for example http://www.payvand.com/news/06/oct/1283.html [August 2020].

[9] See Kalinock 2004, p. 538. Transliterations of colloquial Persian have been retained here as spelled by the author.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 546.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Drower, Ethel Stefana, Water into Wine. A Study of Ritual Idiom in the Middle East (London: John Murray, 1956).

[14] Ibid. p. 15.

[15] Ibid.

[16] For a detailed overview over the ritual and symbolic connotations of chickpeas, grains, seeds and dry fruit and on festive foods containing them such as aşure (cooked among Muslims) anuşabur (an Armenian Christmas food) and koliva (a dish central in Greek orthodox mourning rites) see also: Sauner-Leroy, Marie Hélène, Temel Ezginin Üç Örneği: Aşure, Anuşabur, Koliva (Yemek ve Kültür, No. 13, 2008) 100-108. Sauner-Leroy (University Aix-Marseille/Galatasaray University Istanbul, http://cetobac.ehess.fr/index.php?1432) participated in July’s meeting.

[17] See Freidenreich, David M., Foreigners and Their Food. Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). For an anecdote on the dangers of essentializing such legal proscriptions, cf. Ahmed, Shahab, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 3.

[18] Waines, David, ‘Luxury Foods’ in Medieval Islamic Societies (World Archaeology No. 34/3, 2010), 571-580.

[19] Zeller, Benjamin, Totem and Taboo in the Grocery Store: Quasi-Religious Foodways in North America (Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis No. 26, 2015), 11-31.

[20] Janeja, Manpreet, Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative Lives of Everyday Bengali Food (New Delhi: Routledge, 2010) p.52. See https://religiousmatters.nl/ food-matters-in-an-entangled-world/ [August 2020].

[21] For the popularity of baking, online-tutorials in sourdough cultivation and for the shortages of flour, yeast and other baking ingredients during the Corona lockdown in several countries see e.g.: https://www.br.de/nachrichten/bayern/selber-brot-backen-in-corona-zeiten-auf-dem-

vormarsch,Ry8bdyt; https://www.idowa.de/inhalt.selbstversuch-sauerteigbrot-

backen-ein-erfahrungsbericht.37734b4c-e727-4b3c-90c8-609403813efc.html; for the increase in domestic bread baking since the outbreak of the pandemic in Turkey, see: https://www.trthaber.com/haber/yasam/koronavirus-onlemleri-evde-ekmek-yapimini-artirdi-471950.html [April 2020].

[22]See e.g. https://quarantinekitchen.com/ [August 2020] as well as “The Corona Cookbook” (https://indd.adobe.com/view/ef09068e-aa18-4ccc-a2b8-2d3f1ab49d0e) and De Zordo, Marc André, Cooking against Corona. Das Kochbuch, das verbindet (Köln: Neopubli e-book, Second Edition, May 2020).

Esther Voswinckel Filiz, M.A. is a fellow at the Orient-Institut Istanbul in the research field “History of Religions of Anatolia”. She studied Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies. Her Ph.D. thesis with the title Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi in Istanbul – Biography of a Place (Ruhr-Universität Bochum) was completed in June 2020.

Citation: Voswinckel, Esther. “‘Saint Anthony’s Bread’ in Istanbul and ‘Problem-Solving Chickpeas’ in Iran: July’s Religion-Related Research Get-Together Was Dedicated to Food and Religion,” Orient-Institut Istanbul Blog, 14 August 2020. https://www.oiist.org/saint-anthonys-bread-in-istanbul-and-problem-solving-chickpeas-in-iran-julys-religion-related-research-get-together-dedicated-to-food-and-religio/

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