Charles Perry, Food Historian and Co-Founder, Culinary Historians of Southern California speaks at Pacifica Institute’s Luncheon Forum

Charles Perry was born in Los Angeles and developed an interest in Middle Eastern languages when he was in junior high school. He majored in this subject at Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley, from which he graduated in 1964. There followed a detour into Rock and Roll when he became an editor at Rolling Stone Magazine in 1968, later advancing to staff writer. From 1978 to 1990, he was a freelance food writer. From 1990 to 2008, he was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times food section.

He is a food historian and co-founder of the Culinary Historians of Southern California. He has made a specialty of studying the food of the Islamic world and has translated four medieval Arabic cookbooks, gathered from libraries in Cairo and Istanbul. One of his translations has been translated into Turkish and will be published in Istanbul next month.

Pacifica Institute’s first luncheon forum after the end of Ramazan was on the origins of baklava. This topic attracted great interest across the board and this was illustrated by the colorful attendance of the luncheon forum which included people of Armenian, Greek and Arab heritages. Mr. Perry’s presentation opened the floor for discussion from the attendants and the talk that ensued epitomized the vision of interfaith and intercultural dialogue of Pacifica Institute.

Mr. Charles Perry began his discussion by outlining the origins of the “yufka”, a thinly stretched dough that is the main ingredient in baklava. Mr. Perry said that the origin of the “yufka” is Central Asia. “Yufka” was used by inhabitants of Central Asia to create layered pastries. Greece, in fact the Mediterranean region in general does not have a history of using layered pastries. Layering came from Central Asia and Anatolia. This layering of bread became part of the Turkish repertoire. The orgins of the word “baklava” are also indicative. “Baklava” literally means a bundle or a stack of layers. In Central Asia where baklava originated the initial recipe consisted of just seven layers of yufka and in between those seven layers were six layers of walnuts.

In order to lead us to the history of the modern baklava, Mr. Perry took the audience on a trip down the political history Istanbul. Once Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks it was not only renamed Istanbul it was also repopulated with Turks and Greeks, Bulgarians, Germans, Armenians, Syrians and Egyptians. This led to an explosion of tastes in Istanbul. The chefs in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul were an amalgamation of individuals from all the different Ottoman territories. Now that the borders of the empire were set and the sultans had prime territory like Istanbul under their control they turned their attention to the arts and cuisine. Understandable, thus the Chefs in the Topkapi palace were under pressure to come up with newer and tastier and more delicate recipes. It was at this time that the chefs in the Topkapi Palace reinvented the baklava. They did so by adding butter and decreasing the amount of walnuts used. The walnuts were already sweetened so this baklava recipe did not require any sugary syrup. This baklava was crisp and crunchy; each layer had to be distinguishable from the next.

This sweet became such a sensation that the chefs hosted something known as “baklava halayi” in other words a baklava parade through Istanbul. At the end of of his discussion Mr. Perry reminded the audience that baklava was an urban creation and not an ethnic one. The Topkapi chefs came from all over the Ottoman territories but they created the baklava in Istanbul for the sultans of the Ottoman Empire.