Joy Stocke’s Stockton, New Jersey, kitchen is as redolent as the Turkish countryside in spring. In fact the cumin, sumac, garlic, lemon, Aleppo pepper, and mint blend together and transport me to the sights, sounds, and smells of my travels in Turkey with Stocke five years ago. So much so that while today the two of us are whipping up recipes from her new cookbook, “Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking,” it is as if I’m surrounded by the same happy chatter and hearty welcome we experienced during our wanderings.
Regardless of where we had gone — the bustle of cosmopolitan Istanbul, the colorful Egyptian spice bazaar by the Bosporus, or a tiny town in Cappadocia — the invitation to share a meal signaled more than hospitality to a tourist. After all, food is a great equalizer, a common denominator across cultures. You can forget about divisive current affairs over a hot meal, warm smiles, and a little potent raki.
“Tree of Life” is the companion volume to the 2012 travel memoir “Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints.” Both are co-authored by Stocke and Angie Brenner.
Brenner is a California-based former travel bookshop owner who has a passion for traveling and writing. Stocke is a professional editor, journalist, and book publisher based in the Princeton area. Her decade-old Wild River Review — an online magazine she co-founded — focuses on underreported issues and perspectives
Stocke and Brenner’s days and nights in Turkey will come alive when the two arrive at Labyrinth Books on Thursday, April 27, at 6 p.m. for a “Tree of Life” evening that includes mezes (a variety of finger foods that traditionally start a meal), a discussion, and live presentations.
Stocke and Brenner discovered a shared love of history, literature, cooking, and local food traditions when they met on the balcony of a guesthouse in the small resort town of Kalkan in Turkey in 1997.
Their “Anatolian Days and Nights” chronicles their numerous trips to Greece and Turkey over 20 years of friendship. It could also fairly be called the adventures of traveling foodies.
After “Anatolian Days and Nights” was published, the authors returned to the region and traveled “kitchen to kitchen” in search of recipes to bring home as souvenirs to share with family and friends. The result is the 256-page “Tree of Life,” published by Burgess Lea Press, an imprint of Quarto Books, and selling for $30.
Stocke says that “Tree of Life” is “a natural outgrowth of our travels throughout Turkey. We began our wanderings long before the regional divides became so acute. Therefore we were able to visit areas that are no longer as accessible, gathering lore and recipes from everyday cooks.”
More than a richly photographed, well-researched cookbook, “Tree of Life” explores the culture and history of Turkish society and its diaspora. The recipes — some of which are classic dishes and some which Stocke and Brenner created and tested — come with stories and reveal the changes to cuisine that result from expanded trade. Throughout history, cooks have had new spices arrive with the opening of trade routes and strange foods appearing from newly discovered lands. “Turkish cuisine is the synthesis of that vibrant trade,” says Stocke.
“Tree of Life” also tells a larger story about culture, immigrants, traders, and the domestication of such ingredients as chickpeas, wheat, and pomegranates. “We wanted our recipes to celebrate these and many more ingredients,” says Stocke, “so we worked with traditional recipes such as melon with feta cheese and fresh pomegranate seeds; simits which are crisp/chewy, sesame-covered Turkish-style bagels; and dilled yogurt soup with chickpeas and rice, and adapted them for our home kitchens.”
I met Stocke at a party in Princeton and discovered a mutual love of the Levant — or the eastern region of the Mediterranean Sea. I had been to Syria several times. She longed to go there, and I had dreamed of Istanbul. She urged me to write about my travels, especially about my invitation to the opening of the Damascus Securities Exchange in 2010, and I became a contributor to Wild River Review. When “Anatolian Days and Nights” was launched in Turkey, Stocke and Brenner took a small group of friends with them on a two-week tour. One primary focus of the trip was to take cooking classes; being a novice chef, my contribution was to devour the results.
Food and creating new recipes have been constant themes in Stocke’s life. “I come from a family of immigrant and serious cooks on both sides,” she says. “I may not remember much about the houses they lived in, but I can still describe their kitchens in detail.”
Stocke says her father’s family is Polish and Czech. They emigrated to the south side of Milwaukee, bustling with Eastern Europeans, coming over as they said, “on the boat.” Her mother’s parents came to Milwaukee from East Germany in the mid-1920s.
“My grandma, Grete, by all accounts, was a precise and gifted cook. Her baked goods were perfect, her yeast breads properly springy, her chicken soup clear as crystal garnished with Farina dumplings as elegant as any French quenelle. I started cooking with her when I was 3. She kept a stool beside her for me to stand on and she taught me how to be at ease with any ingredient; how to peel potatoes and carrots, how to stuff a chicken, and how to cook them. She taught me that everyday food needn’t be complicated, but it should be delicious and beautiful.”
Stocke says her grandparents only had an eighth grade education, and her parents completed high school. “I became the first to graduate from college,” she says.
“My mom and dad believed in the power of a good education, so they raised me and my three siblings in a suburb of Milwaukee that had the best school system and arguably still does. Mom was a stay-at-home mom. My dad began his career as a salesman for RCA records and had many friends who were ‘cutting-edge foodies’ before that term was invented. My mother embraced Julia Child and was always up to date on the latest cookbooks and recipes. Her love of Julia Child inspired me to study French from grade school through college. Additionally, we had home economics classes starting in seventh grade and through high school where we learned techniques that you would find in culinary schools today.”
Her father’s work brought Stocke and her siblings in contact with some of the biggest names in music. “A few years later, my father headed up marketing for Warner Elektra Atlantic Records in New York City and reconnected with his good friend, Paul Rubinstein, son of pianist Arturo Rubinstein. Paul had published several cookbooks in the 1970s, and I read every word of them,” she says. “One particular book fascinated me, ‘Dinners for Two,’ which included romantic picnics arranged in fancy hampers.”
Stocke says Rubinstein took her under his wing and into fine restaurants like the Russian Tea Room and the Four Seasons. He also took her to the local neighborhood deli for kreplach soup. “He taught me how to make a perfect mirepoix, buerre meuniere, and pasta in a hand-cranked rolling machine.”
Stocke’s interest in food turned “technicolor,” she says, in 1982 once she found the cuisine of her dreams in Greece. Long before it became famously known as Mediterranean cooking, she learned the secrets of Greek recipes on the island of Kos, a short boat ride from the Turkish coast. “I discovered the food writer Elizabeth David in a second-hand bookshop in Athens,” she adds. “From her arose my lifelong passion for literary cookbooks.
“In addition, I had wanted to be a writer from the time I was 8, although of course I had no idea what that entailed. But I wanted to share my view of the world through stories. Because of my immigrant relatives, I have always been deeply interested in world history and the surprising connections that food creates between cultures. So it’s no accident that I found a confluence of so many different cuisines in the city of Istanbul.
“I also find it interesting that the seeds for what we become are very much planted before we realize it. To that point, I had three concentrations when I received my journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison — radio-broadcast journalism, French, and food science. I fell in love with a course of study called Literary Aspects of Journalism. It combined the two things I grew up with: colorful stories — often tinged with deep longing — with the quest for a larger truth hidden in those stories. Wild River Review and Wild River Consulting and Publishing, both of which I co-founded with Kim Nagy, is a direct outgrowth of that.”
A professional writer and editor of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for more than 25 years, Stocke embraced digital media early on and has worked in all aspects of publishing in print and on the web, and she has shepherded hundreds of writers from concept through first and subsequent drafts into print.
Stocke says it was the Literary Aspects of Journalism professor, Wilmott Ragsdale, who shared the idea that great journalism means great storytelling, that well-written fiction can reveal certain truths better than journalism. The approach has informed Stocke’s essays, op-eds, and articles to newspapers — including the Pennsylvania Law Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, and the New York Times — and short fiction to numerous literary journals.
In 1997 Stocke’s husband, Fred Young, began working for what was then First Union Bank in Summit. They moved with their daughter Sarah to Stockton to split the commute. “A few years later Fred joined the Princeton office of Glenmede Trust, and we became more involved in the Princeton community and with organizations including the Princeton Art Museum, Princeton Public Library, Arts Council of Princeton, and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.”
“Stockton is still the perfect location for us,” she says. “We’re in a beautiful rural setting, yet only an hour from Philadelphia where our daughter now lives and New York City. I work at least one day per week in Princeton meeting with clients as well as contributors to Wild River Review. Among our wonderful group of writers and collaborators is the former People and Money magazine editor and author, Landon Y. Jones; Dutch writer Pia de Jong, author of the forthcoming “Saving Charlotte, A Mother and the Power of Intuition”; and Virginia Harabin, general manager and book buyer for Labyrinth Books.”
Additionally, she says she is close to other family members. “My parents now live in Lumberton Leas, part of the Medford Leas complex, and my mother still makes my grandmother’s chicken soup and rouladen (stuffed rolls of thinly sliced beef) as the centerpiece for family gatherings.”
In 2006, Stocke, Nagy, and others launched Wild River Review. And in addition to publishing essays, opinion, interviews, features, fiction, and poetry, the writers became the official interviewers for the film “Quark Park,” architect Kevin Wilkes and landscape designer Peter Soderman’s pop-up park devoted to the intersection of science and art on Hullfish Street in Princeton.
Yet it has been Stocke’s love affair with food that has been the background to her work. “Writing and cooking and eating, transport me into a sensual world that began in the kitchens of my childhood,” she says. “Cooking is conversation, community, and, above all, continuity. The recipes I learned in Wisconsin are the same that generations of my family have made. Over the years, those recipes have become entwined with the cultures I’ve visited and the kitchens I’ve cooked in. From parent to child down the years, the dishes of home endure and take on the essence of adopted countries.”
Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking, Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, Princeton, Thursday, April 27, 6 p.m. Also presenting are Warren Bobrow with “Cocktail Whisperer” and poet Edmund Keeley reading “Moussaka.” Free. www.labyrinthbooks.com.