I’ve climbed into the simit delivery car with Orhan Abi and quickly realize it’s rush hour for the pastries. “First station is Galata Bridge,” says Orhan Abi. “We provide simit for vendors in Karaköy, Kabataş and Taksim. Of course, we are not the only providers of simit in these areas, but simit vendors prefer us to do business. We give “taş fırın” simits – cooked in masonry oven.” The old fashioned way.
The delivery route looked simple. We arrive at our first stop quickly. On the “Perşembe Pazarı” side of the bridge, Orhan gets out of car and delivers simits to our first vendor.
After just a few moments it’s already time to move to our next vendor. We head for the Bosphorus part of Galata Bridge, the opposite direction of our first stop. Orhan Abi gives a phone call to the next vendor. “He makes me wait sometimes”, says Orhan. When we get there, it seems Orhan was shrewd to call our vendor ahead of time–I see him waiting for us near the road. “What a surprise,” Orhan jokes to the vendor, teasing him about his sluggishness. We all laugh together.
We have still one more simit delivery. Orhan Abi cuts his jokes short and tells me, “com’on Mustafa is waiting for us at Kabataş.” Kabataş lies at an intersection point of different transportation lines–tram, bus and ferry. Passengers pass through like busy bees, which only pause for a few moments before accelerating to their next stop. In all the buzz around Mustafa’s stand, luckily, I was still able to talk with him about working as a simit vendor. Mustafa is a relative of Sami Bey. He has been selling simit since his childhood, like Sami Bey. “It seems that simit is a kind of tradition in your family” I remarked. “Unfortunately,” said Mustafa. “I wish I could do another job, at least a job which has some days off. I am here working whole week from 7.30 a.m. to 7.00 p.m.”
While I was listening to him, customers would periodically interrupt our conversation. He needed to serve his customers as fast as possible. “You shall not ignore simit” he says. “Even though I am selling a simple food item, I also act as a watchman here. I’m aware of what is going on around this neighborhood. People ask me for addresses, the times for busses or suggestions for places to eat.” In this account, he is fairly right. A street vendor is one of the most important components of what shapes the culture of street life. In Istanbul, and maybe overall Turkey, simit is the key symbol of this street culture.
I asked Mustafa, “What is the reaction of customers to the recent change in simit prices?” There was a 40 % increase in simit prices moving it from 1 Turkish Lira to 1.40 Turkish Lira. His answer was reproachful. “Some people try to buy cheaper simits, but they don’t realize that what they’re eating could not be called a simit. When you look at a simit, you need to distinguish its cracked skin. Otherwise, there is no difference between a piece of bread and a simit. We’re selling simit according to a standard that is regulated by the municipality. Therefore, people need to be aware of minimum standards of simit both in quality and price.”
He was right again–there ought to be more awareness about the effort and labor involved in the independent simit business. His last comments were ironic “If you want to find a good simit, you can look at the simit stands in front of big cafeterias, which are also selling simit. Even if these cafes prepare their quick simits at lower prices, people prefer to buy simit from a small street vendor perched in front of those cafes or franchises. In old times, simit was palace food. Today, it belongs to street culture. Changes in prices and consumption patterns threaten our existence, but independent simit stalls can’t be pushed out–we are part of urban culture.”
After wishing Mustafa luck in his day ahead, I turned back to our delivery car.
During our car ride, I learn that Orhan Abi is from Hatay, the south of Turkey. He came to Istanbul two years ago. He used to be a repairmen in his hometown, but he has debts and needs to make extra money. He started working for Sami Bey last year. He says, “He gave me a place to stay and a job to work, so I’m appreciative.” While I was listening to his life story, I was thinking about how interesting it was to learn about all the different backgrounds and stories found in just one bakery in Istanbul. Something as simple as simit had brought all of these people together, for one reason or another.
We ate simit during our tour and, after passing through Taksim, we returned to the bakery again. I left the car and thanked all of them for letting me spend the morning with them.
As I walked away, I started to think again about what I had just seen and heard. There were almost five completely different stories found in one place and through one item – Kardeşler Bakery and simit. I held one last simit in my hand. I was back to how I had started my day: walking the old, narrow, hilly streets of Istanbul, where each person is living their own story. Each person, like myself and the five men I had met today, all of them have their own circle. The circle of simit is more than taste. It is about being part of a circle in Istanbul. You wake up, you go to a simit seller, take your simit, eat it, enjoy the taste and smell, and walk to work, or if it is a holiday, as Sundays are always to be, idly walk in the streets of Istanbul, watching the people, cats, dogs, seagulls around the Bosphorus. The rhythm of your walk unfolds surprises, just as the very simple food item, simit, could unfold the surprising miracles in feeding cities. Therefore the circle of the city and the simit itself, must stay alive.