Ceremonial and Celebratory Meals
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Kitchen Organization, Ceremonial and Celebratory Meals in the Ottoman Empire

Later he would go to the Harem quarters, and from there into the selamlık (the men’s quarters), sit at his desk and call his head secretary. Here he would work with official matters until about 11:00. When lunch was ready, he would go to the Harem and sit down to eat with my mother. After lunch, he would lie on the chaise lounge and rest for 15-20 minutes. After the evening meal he would go out into the garden and stroll with the generals. During busy times he would remain in the Mabeyn until midnight. With only a few exceptions, during his twenty years as sultan he ate dinner every evening with my mother. In the evening lemonade or a sherbet of currants or pomegranate was taken to his bedroom.

The silverware was gold. It was an old palace custom that lunch was at eleven, and dinner at five. The kilercibaşı in front, followed by the second, third and fourth kilercis, would bring in the tableware which they put in basketweave cases, together with the tablakârbaşı, wearing a short silver embroidered jacket and broad shalvar, and a great tray on his head, would come out of the royal pantries to the courtyard beside the dining room. Here they would place the tray on a folding table, and prepare the dining table. Two guards waited at the door, and thekilercibaşı waited in the waiting room for the food to be laid out. As soon as it was ready, a treasurer would go to my mother and say “Our master wants you.” My mother would go immediately go and sit with my father at the table. Whichever foods on the list my father had chosen would come. As for the foods my father ate the most – for lunch, he would have soft boiled eggs or eggs cooked in butter or an omelet, a lamb cutlet or breaded cutlet. Of fish, he preferred whiting or rockling. Sometimes he had börek, and his favorite sweets werekadayıf with clotted cream, or muhallebi, his favorite western dessert was charlotte. He always ate a light dinner; meat broth, some soups and fruit, of which he preferred strawberries, melon, watermelon and peaches. After the meal, the kilercis would come and clear the table” (19).

Table Etiquette in the Divan

The government of the Ottoman Empire was known as the Divan-ı Hümayun (Royal Council), or Divan for short, and up until the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror, was presided over by the sultans. Sultan Mehmet delegated this duty to the Grand Vizier and observed the proceedings of the Divan meetings from an enclosed space known as the kafes (cage). We know that during the reign of Yıldırım Beyazid (1389-1402), Divan meetings were held in the open and in the presence of the people. After Edirne became the capitol, Divan meetings were held in a separate space behind closed doors. After Istanbul was taken and Topkapı Palace built, Divan meetings were held in a special building known as the Divanhane. This building was used until the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566); after this point a building called the Kubbealtı (“under the dome”) was built and the Divan meetings were moved here. The former divanhane was then reserved as a waiting area for ambassadors who were to have an audience with the sultan, and as a place from which to watch ceremonies. After the Grand Vizier, the most important members of the Divan-ı Hümayun were the viziers, who numbered as many as nine, followed by the military judges of Rumeli (the Balkans) and Anatolia (20). While the Divan met daily during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror, from the 16th century on the meetings were reduced to four per week, usually Fridays, Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. At the Divan, the first matter of business was issues concerning the people, followed by matters of state. At the Divan, all first- and second-degree governmental, military, administrative, economic and legal matters and disputes were settled (11). The Divan met at a very early hour. On that day, the Janissary Corps and the Mounted Guards would line up in two rows on either side of the Bab-ı Hümayun to meet the members of the Divan. The place where the Grand Vizier sat was half a meter above the surrounding area. On his right, in order of rank, sat the viziers, and on his left, the military judges of Rumeli and Anatolia. In front and to his right was the nişancı, who was responsible for signing the official tuğra, or seal of the Sultan, and to the left, the secretaries. During the summer, fragrant sherbet was ice was served, and in the winter, macun, brought in order of rank. The breaks were announced by the head attendant by hitting the floor with his scepter; upon which the attendants and servants would exit (20).

At this point, one of the servants would request permission from the Grand Vizier to prepare the food. The sofra was set for the Grand Vizier and one or two pashas. As this was being done, the servants would place a peşkir over everyone’s knees (4). If there was a foreign ambassador there, he was always seated at the Grand Vizier’s sofra. Absolutely no guests could sit at the sofra with the military judges (21).

The first meal consisted of meats such as mutton, turkey, pigeon, goose, lamb and chicken. The food was brought in large plates, one food to a plate, and placed on the broad trays. At the same time various fresh breads were brought. This was followed by pilaf, vegetables and sweets, and the meal was enjoyed in a merry atmosphere. The other members of the Divan ate at trays prepared for them and had whatever they desired brought from the kitchens (14). Other foods served included cabbage soup, baklava, borani with spinach and yogurt, lamb head and feet, rice porridge with eggs, yogurt tutmaç, yogurt sweet with grape molasses, chard, ayran and sherbet (13).

The foods were brought one by one; when one dish was eaten it was immediately replaced by the next. The meal finished very quickly and the remaining foods were given to the other divan members (17). The trays for the Grand Vizier and other viziers were prepared by theçaşnigirs, while those of the military judges were set by the muhzurbaşı (a Janissary officer). The mehterbaşı, ekmekçibaşı, the palace kitchen head and steward stood across from the Grand Vizier with their hands folded. At this point the water bearers brought toothpicks and towels and washed the diners’ hands with basins and pitchers. After the meal was finished, sherbet was served in gold-adorned bowls. The chamberlain also brought rose water and the kitchen head, incense, which was brought to everyone in order of rank (21). The other civil servants at the Divan, who numbered at least five hundred, ate soup and bread (14). In addition, everyone else at the Divan — soldiers, civilians, those with lawsuits — were brought food from the kitchen (20).

Mehmet the Conqueror had stated the protocol for meals following the Divan meetings:Divan-ı Hümayun'da makamda vüzerayi azam ile baş defterdar vesair vüzera ile defterdarlar ve nişancılar yerler ve kazaskerler başka yerler. (“At the Imperial Divan, the Grand Viziers eat with the head secretaries, the remaining viziers eat with the secretaries and the nişancıs, and the military judges eat separately”) (13). Thus three trays were laid out in the Divan chamber.

At the first sofra: The Grand Vizier and head secretary (Minister of Finance)

At the second sofra: The Viziers, secretaries and the nişancı

At the third sofra: The military judges.

During the reign of Sultan Mehmet IV (1648-1687), this protocol was changed. With this change, the nişancı and some viziers were included at the Grand Vizier’s table. Thus:

At the first sofra: The Grand Vizier, the head secretary, the nişancı and the second vizier if many viziers were present

At the second sofra: The secretaries of Anatolia and Rumeli

At the third sofra: The military judges.

In both protocols, we notice that the military judges ate separately. The foods given to the Divan members at this meal were not of many varieties, generally one food in sufficient quantity to satisfy them (13).

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