The Simit Cart Rolls On in Cihangir | Culinary Backstreets
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The sound of bombs has become an all too frequent occurrence in Istanbul as of late, and residents of the city’s Cihangir neighborhood were spooked as ever when an explosion occurred in a building overlooking the main square early on a recent Sunday morning. Blasts sound no less scary when they are the result of gas leaks.

When the smoke cleared, 75-year-old Feridun Yükseltürk was found crushed under the fallen rubble, just steps from the spot where he sold simit from a cart daily for the past six years.

The tragedy sent shockwaves through Cihangir, where Feridun was a beloved figure renowned for his unwavering generosity. A candlelight vigil was held around his cart a few evenings later, and hundreds of people came out to pay their respects, leaving notes on the cart and decorating it with flowers.

The outpouring of neighborhood support reflected Feridun’s important role and the significance of the local simit seller. Many Istanbullites swear by their favorite simitçi, and Feridun had a legion of followers. He purchased his stock from the nearby Tarihi Tophane Taş Fırın. If a customer were to stop by the bakery himself, he might be able to get his hands on a product directly out of the oven.

But the freshness of the simit is beside the point. Feridun was a comforting, dependable force that local residents treasured. Those without money were not left empty-handed; Feridun let them pay later. His warm demeanor shone as a beacon of familiarity in a city where local, mom-and-pop values are being steamrolled by shopping malls and skyscrapers.

We heard rumors that Feridun’s son, Cemal, planned to carry on in his father’s position, and the cart only stayed empty for a few days before the younger Yükseltürk was selling simit to the customers who adored his old man.

“He wasn’t someone who liked to sit at home,” the friendly, soft-spoken Cemal told us, as we chatted about his late father during a recent visit to the cart. Feridun had already retired when he took up the life of a simitçi to make some extra money. Prior to that, he had worked for decades as a waiter at a number of hotels and had a stint tending bar at the British Consulate.

Feridun’s post-retirement spring-to-action was as circular as the sesame-seed dotted bread rings that he sold until his untimely demise. No stranger to the business, Feridun had a small simit enterprise of his own during his younger years. Shortly after returning from his mandatory military service in the 1960s, he ran a number of simit stands in the Eminönü area. His penchant for interacting with people on the street, perhaps acquired during those early years, remained well until his 60s and 70s, when he found himself once again behind the cart with tongs in hand.

A man who clearly saw the importance in improving his surroundings any way he could, the ebullient Feridun even planted peppers and tomatoes in the earthy soil between the bank and the sidewalk on which his cart stands, Cemal told us.

“He was a very charitable person and would give whatever he had in his pocket,” Cemal said. Sure enough, everyone we talked to in the neighborhood gushed about how generous and kind of a man Feridun was.

“We always would need change. He knew this and would come over every day with it on his own,” said shopkeeper Deniz Şantürk, his voice flickering with emotion.

An employee from the busy cafe across the street left a note on Feridun’s cart that read “It would be impossible to forget Mr. Feridun. May God bless him.”

It’s unlikely that Cihangir will forget Feridun anytime soon, and Cemal’s presence will help solidify his father’s memory. But we often forget how important street vendors are and may not realize how lucky we are to have these stalwarts on our side, against all odds. Street vendors are the most vulnerable to the elements and unprotected from potential disaster. Whatever happens on the street can happen to them. Our transactions with street vendors are often abrupt and occur in a rush, and we neglect the invaluable services they provide day and night.

Since Feridun was famed for his generosity, we decided it would be only appropriate to try and give back. Cemal is paying $120 a month in rent to the municipality for the cart, no small expense given the long hours and small profit margins that simit sellers endure. With your help, we hope to raise enough money to pay his rent for a year. All proceeds will go directly to Cemal, ensuring he will be able to maintain his father’s treasured legacy.

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Paul Benjamin Osterlund and Barry Yourgrau/Paris Review Daily

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