This story was published originally by The Magazine. We are republishing this version with permission of the author.
Hazelnuts. No one has talked of anything else for weeks in this small Turkish village, including my father-in-law, Muzaffer. Are they ready to harvest? Will the rains come before the nuts have dried? What price will a bushel fetch at market?
Each August a filbert frenzy seizes Beşikdüzü, my husband’s hometown on the eastern Black Sea. Men, women, and children comb the sprawling groves in the foothills, shaking the 10-foot trees, and scouring the ground for every last morsel. At dusk, the villagers head home, each keeling under a top-heavy sepet, the traditional woven harvesting basket.
An agricultural staple in the Black Sea region, the hazelnut has been grown here since 300 B.C., largely for its culinary and commercial appeal. Packed with fiber and vitamin E, the superfood purportedly lessens the risk of colon cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Today, Turkey produces roughly 75% of the world’s supply, enough to quell even the most insatiable Nutella cravings.
The harvest alone didn’t draw me to Beşikdüzü. With Muzaffer nearing 80, I know precious little time remains for bicultural bonding between my American-born sons Ayden and Noah and their grandfather. So in June we leave my husband Hakki to mind the office in Connecticut and settle into my in-laws’ crumbling one-story stucco house for the summer.
Muzaffer and his wife Sevim tend about 500 hazelnut trees on the hillside homestead where the family has lived for generations.
“There used to be a lot more hazelnuts,” Hakki reminisces when I phone home. “When I was young, the groves were so thick you couldn’t even see our house. But we lost a lot of land over the years when people died and my cousins sold off their plots.”
My no-nonsense in-laws waste no time on nostalgia, focusing instead on the herculean task of hand harvesting up to 25 pounds of nuts per tree.
Encased in a rock-hard shell, the hazelnut handles climate shifts smoothly. Even the Ice Age could not thwart the hardy plant. According to paleobotanists, the trees took root as soon as the glaciers retreated. Stone Age humans burned hazelnuts as fuel, leaving scorched shells in fire pits.
Long a symbol of wisdom and knowledge – hence the phrase “in a nutshell” – Corylus avellana has bewitched humans since Mesolithic times. The ancient Chinese revered the hazelnut as one of five sacred foods. The Greek tree nymph Karya presided over the hazel. In Celtic lore, salmons grew wise from the fruit of the nine hazel trees that encircled sacred springs. Even today modern mystics fashion divining rods from the hazel’s branches.
While many small-scale Turkish farmers still sell their crops to wholesalers, these days my in-laws mainly harvest for sustenance.
“I remember when we had to hire people to help and we’d pay them in nuts and lira. Once we filled eighty 125-pound bags,” Hakki says. “Now my parents can barely cover their costs and we keep all the nuts for ourselves.”
Although the family’s groves have slowly shrunk, the tradition of multi-generational harvesting continues. According to Jennifer White, an anthropology professor at Boston University, “Often Turkish villages survive with mostly elders living there. Younger people return to help with the harvest. In exchange, they take back produce to the otherwise expensive city.”
My relatives have drafted me as a farmhand, even though I don’t need the haul to sustain me through Connecticut’s cold winter. Rising at dawn, Muzaffer and I crouch beneath the shaggy shrub-like trees and root in the moist sod for fallen nuts. Without a common language, we must rely on gestures and one-word exchanges.
“Guzel?” I ask, holding up a crinkly, shriveled specimen. Good? Growing in clusters of five to 12, each nut shelters in a leathery green husk, or “hazel” from the Anglo-Saxon “haesel,” or headdress. As the fruit ripens, the leaves and stem dry out until the mature nuts drop to the ground.
“Tsk,” Muzaffer clicks his tongue, raising his eyebrows and chin in the Turkish-style no. Then he tosses the moldy mass over his shoulder and sits back on his heels. In his baggy pinstriped cotton pajamas and ribbed sleeveless undershirt my father-in-law looks like a Silk Road version of Bilbo Baggins.
A few feet away, Sevim and her thirty-something daughter Özge gossip in hushed tones. Last night a neighbor was wounded by a foraging wild boar. Today, everyone in our hillside community is on edge.
From time to time my mother-in-law shakes a branch and nuts rain down. I recall a conversation with Hakki.
“It’s pick, not pick up,” I’d chided.
“What’s the difference?” Hakki asked, “It’s the same word in Turkish.”
Now, running my hands through the leaves and grass, I realize my husband’s been right all along. Here, you don’t pick hazelnuts off the tree ¾; you wait and let nature do the work.
I make a mental note to apologize when Hakki calls from the U.S., and watch as Muzaffer stands abruptly.
“Tamam,” okay, he says, brushing a mosquito from his bald head before heaving the 50-pound sepet onto his shoulders. He motions for me to adjust the leather shoulder straps, and then with a muffled groan, lurches up the uneven slope toward the house.
From up the hill my children’s voices pierce our quiet communion.
“Look out!” shrieks seven-year-old Noah as he sprints after a run-away soccer ball.
“Careful,” I say, “You’ll trip Grandpa.”
But Muzaffer stops the ball with his foot and punts it into the pink-and-orange hammock strung between the house and the barn.
“Goal!” Sevim cries and then hands me a smaller funnel-shaped basket filled with nuts. She hooks a thick canvas strap around my waist and then, with a playful tap on my bottom, shoos me off toward the roof where we’ll lay the nuts out to dry.
The sepet bounces off my thighs as I shuffle along. Turks prize cleanliness and switch from indoor to outdoor shoes to avoid tracking dirt into their homes. My clunky Dr. Scholl knock-offs, a gift from Sevim, slap my heels as I walk.
I am struggling to keep my sandals from sliding off when the soccer ball careens into view again. Startled, I catch my foot on a tree root and topple face-first to the ground, the hazelnuts bouncing around me like badminton birdies.
Muzaffer stops, smirks, and then mutters something I can’t catch.
“Damn,” I hiss under my breath, “Stupid nuts!”
My ankle and my ego are still smarting a day later when we decamp to the garden for the next phase of the harvest.
Muzaffer strings up a green-and-white striped canopy between two mimosa trees and wedges its poles into a bed of bushy two-foot-high kale. Then, we drag the furniture onto the earthen patio – a pair of white plastic chairs, a matching table, a rusty couch frame, and a tree stump.
Even in the shade, the still air sizzles in the noon sun. I thumb through a newspaper, my sweat sticking to the pages, and try to decipher the Turkish. Muzaffer stretches out on the couch and dozes, his wooden russet-colored prayer beads dangling from his hand.
Across the yard Özge rakes a heap of nuts onto a large blue tarp and leaves them to bake. With only a few weeks left in the harvest season, everyone’s anxious to dry the last batches before the autumn rains. My sister-in-law checks for clouds and, seeing none, joins me under the tent. Then, wiping her brow, she plops onto the tree stump and starts peeling.
Deftly, she pries open the bonnets, pops the nuts free with her thumb, and flicks them into a red plastic basin. With her quicksilver practiced motion she could be a Vegas croupier. Soon, a mound of husks litters the table and ground.
I set down my dictionary and pick up a cluster. Wedging my fingers between the frills, I tug at the leaves. But the nut won’t budge.
“Difficult,” I sigh.
“My father?” Özge asks without looking up.
“No, learning Turkish,” I say. “But your dad’s tough, too. I mean, look at him sleeping while we do all the work.”
“I know,” she says with a chuckle.
I’m still struggling with the husk when Sevim appears with a fresh load. Bent under the sepet she looks like an overgrown wasp, her flowered kerchief barely visible above the enormous basket. She wriggles out of the shoulder bindings and dumps her haul on another tarp.
More nuts. I sigh inwardly. Will it never end!?
A shout slices the afternoon ennui and Noah comes crashing into the table, sending the pile toppling.
“Mom, I’m so itchy,” he cries, clawing at red blotches on his arm.
“They’re just mosquito bites,” I say.
Muzaffer leaps up, points at Noah, and starts wheeling his arms in wide arcs.
“Deniz?!” he asks.
“The beach now? What for?” I wonder aloud.
Ayden offers, “Maybe he thinks the water will help?”
Frazzled by the heat, the hazelnuts and my inadequate Turkish, I spread my palms upward. Then, pursing my lips, I blow a jet of air, as if to say, “Who knows?!”
Immediately, I realize my mistake – to Turks this sound is the equivalent of passing gas.
Muzaffer recoils at my outburst, his rheumy eyes glaring.
Caught out, all I can sputter is “Ben yabanci!” I’m a foreigner, before slinking off to the roof in embarrassment.
From my hideaway on the terrace, I watch a backhoe cart debris from the stream at the hill’s base. The town is widening the sea channel to contain floodwaters and soon a modern road will pave over more hazelnut groves. A jackhammer churns and dusty gray earth tumbles into the snowmelt trickling down from ice pockets in the 12,000-foot-high Kaçkar Mountains.
Back in our yard, Muzaffer spreads a prayer rug under a tree near a mound of hazelnuts. As he bends forward, his pajamas billow around his bowed legs. From their spot on the hammock Ayden and Noah stifle a snicker.
Well, I think with relief, at least they’ve learned to be respectful.
Muzaffer is finishing up his prayers when our neighbor Ahmet ambles into the yard. They chat a few moments and then Muzaffer summons me from the roof. Last night, Ahmet’s mother fell ill so we head up the hill to help with the sorting.
Our neighbors’ haul lies on a sloping dirt patio, penned in by a makeshift dam of branches and broom handles.
Özge and Sevim hike up their skirts and gingerly take spots on the plastic’s edge, careful not to dislodge the pile.
I watch as the women jiggle a handful like dice.
“We’re checking to see if they’re hollow,” Özge explains. “Shake one and listen.”
As I reach for a nut, my elbow grazes a branch and slowly the pile starts rolling free.
“Oh!” I gasp and wedge the stick back into place. “Maybe I’ll take the kids for ice cream before I mess everything up again.”
I stand and begin to slip on my sandals when Muzaffer points to a smooth wooden pole leaning against the house. Jutting his chin toward the rocky path, he makes a growling sound.
Perplexed, I turn to Ayden.
“Maybe it’s for chasing away dogs?” he offers.
“Oh, right,” I say, suppressing an urge to roll my eyes.
“Mom!” Ayden warns.
“Oops,” I say. Then, smiling weakly at Muzaffer, I take the staff and the boys and I clomp off down the hill.
Along the way, thousands of acorn-sized nuts bask in the late afternoon sun. With their shiny brown hulls, they look like chocolate-colored marbles ready for a game of keepsies.
Ayden scuffs at a few wayward nuts.
“Mom,” he asks, “you wouldn’t really hit a dog, would you?”
“Of course not,” I say. “I’m just trying to keep your grandfather happy.”
The footpath dead-ends into a gully where we stop to snack on wild raspberries and hunt for toads. Boulders and tree roots clog the mud-choked rivulet. A dump truck clatters by with a tangle of limp hazelnut branches.
“Why are they cutting everything down?” Ayden worries. “Don’t they know we’re farmers?”
“Who? Us?” I ask.
“Of course,” Ayden says, “Everybody who lives here is.”
“Hmm, I don’t know if I’d call myself a farmer,” I say.
“Why? Don’t you like it?” Ayden asks, squatting down to examine an anthill.
“No, it’s not that exactly,” I say, my mind a blank of confusion.
I sidestep the awkwardness: “Hey, why don’t you guys play torpedo?” I say.
“Okay,” Ayden says as he sprint offs. “Hey, Noah, let’s find some sticks that’ll float!”
I watch as the boys lob rock-bombs into the stream, whooping and cheering over every hit. Closing my eyes, I imagine their father, uncles, and all the generations of village boys that came before.
“We used to fish here all the time,” Hakki told me once. “I even fell in one day when my mom was washing our clothes in the stream.”
Belonging is what we came here for, I think, and while I’m not enamored of Beşikdüzü, my sons are quite content. Why not humor the fantasy?
“You’re right, Ayden,” I call out over their victory cries, “We are farmers.”
“I know,” he says over his shoulder with a smile.
I am mulling over this exchange when Mehmet, the elderly neighbor who runs the local gristmill, appears. “Hoş geldiniz,” welcome, he says and ushers us toward his house.
A rusty mechanical harvester sits in the yard, its orange sides embellished with naïf paintings of hazelnuts. Eager to get his money’s worth — the machine rents for $170 dollars an hour — Mehmet stands nearby, ready to shovel the nuts toward the black vacuum hose.The machinist flicks a switch and the harvester twitches into action, sucking up nuts and then spitting them out, peeled, into burlap bags.
“Whoa! Look how fast they come out!” Noah cries, before leaping into a pile of cast-off husks.
We linger for an hour, the boys giddily chasing nuts that escape the vacuum. Then, as lightning flickers across the valley, we start hiking home.
“Wait until we tell Daddy what we saw!” Ayden says and then stops short.
Looking up, I see Muzaffer, a flashlight in hand. I can tell from his glare that we’re late. Behind him, Sevim is shelling nuts with a small hammer. Later, she will bake the nutmeat into baklava or sprinkle it over candied pumpkin.
“Ayip!” shame on you, Muzaffer scolds as we hurry past.
The insult stings and, wounded, I retreat to my room while the kids peel off to play hide-and-seek.
“How dare he!” I fume. “I’m 50 years old! Does he think I’m going to do everything his way?”
Through the window, I hear Sevim trying to calm Muzaffer.
“Amerikali,” she’s American, she murmurs.
An hour later I am getting ready for bed when the door opens and Muzaffer tiptoes in.
“Gelin,” daughter-in-law, he says, “I am not smart. I am not modern. But here,” he continues, jabbing his chest with a finger, “here I have a good heart.”
A burst of static crackles in the air before I can answer. The public radio whines and then the call to prayer floats over the valley.
Muzaffer leans over, kisses me on the forehead, and slips off to his evening ablutions.
Stunned, I fall back into bed turning over Muzaffer’s words. “Gelin” is derived from “gelmek”, to come, I realize. Why am I resisting the welcome?
I drift off to sleep, still puzzling over the day’s events. Outside, the hazelnuts, one by one, give way to gravity.
At sunrise hushed voices float through the open window. Through the cucumber vines that wend up Muzaffer’s homemade trellis, I see Sevim and Özge walking arm and arm toward our neighbors’ house. On the back porch Ayden and Noah spin in the hammock like onions in a mesh bag. Beyond them a thick haze descends from the slate gray sky.
I pull the sheer curtains closed and sigh. At last, a morning alone.
In the kitchen, Muzaffer’s white cap, a souvenir from his pilgrimage to Mecca, sits primly on a shelf next to the family’s Koran.
Like most Muslim men, my father-in-law wears a simple crocheted skullcap for everyday prayers, reserving his tagayi for Fridays and high holy days. I trace the hat’s fine gold embroidery and place it back on the folded prayer rug.
As I do, I glimpse a triangle of paper curling beneath the Koran. I tug the sheet free and am startled to see a photo of my younger self cradling newborn Ayden. Someone, most likely Muzaffer, placed the picture here for safekeeping.
I tuck the photo back and then turn to see Ayden and Noah skidding toward the kitchen door.
“Hey, stop right there,” I say. “You’ll get mud all over the carpet!”
“Mom, it’s pouring!” they cry in unison.
“Oh, that’s what that sound is,” I say as I watch the rain ricochet off the stone patio.
“The hazelnuts!” I shout, “They’ll get soaked!”
“Here, dry off.” I toss towels to the boys before sprinting outside barefoot.
A huddle of nuts lies in the middle of the roof. The wind snips at the pile’s edges, and for a moment I’m afraid it will sweep our precious cargo away. Frantically, I grab a tarp, but a gust yanks the plastic free from my rain-slicked hands. The crumpled sheet skids away like a gulet on the Bosphorus. With my bare feet I snare the plastic just before it sails over the roof’s edge. Then I spread it over the nuts and pin the corners down with cinder blocks.
There, I think, you’re safe now.
Two hours later we are all snug in the kitchen, listening to the thrum of rain. Özge slices a batch of baklava into diamond-shaped wedges and sets the platter on the table, along with four tulip-shaped glasses of tea. From the potbelly stove, Sevim slides out a pan and hands it to me. I tilt the tray and toasted nuts clatter into a white porcelain bowl.
From his spot on the sofa, Muzaffer suddenly remembers the stash on the roof. “Kim?” he asks, and points toward the ceiling. From his gesture I understand he’s wondering who kept the nuts dry.
“Ben,” me, I answer.
“Guzel,” he says, good.
I smile and together we plunge our fingers into the warm nuts, cradling them like prayer beads.
About Justine Ickes
Instructional designer and cultural anthropologist Justine Ickes has had her essays and articles published in Gastronomica, Language, and Parent & Child, among other magazines. Justine also develops and facilitates training programs, writes grants, and creates custom content for the United Nations, the Peace Corps, the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, Berlitz, and other government and business clients. Visit Justine's portfolio or follow her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.