Catherine de Medici Jaffee

Food Anthropologist

Expeditions Council Grantee

Photo: Beekeeping in Turkey

Photograph courtesy Catherine Jaffee

Photo: Cat Jaffee

Photograph by Claire Bangser

Birthplace: Highlands, Colorado

Current City: Kars, Turkey

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

An ornithologist, a storm chaser, a seismic communication physicist (studying the way that large animals like elephants talk to one another) ... Not for one day did I ever think that I would be building a honey-tasting walking heritage route. Ironically, honey hunting does involve spending a lot of time with incredible bird species, dodging some of the mighty storms of the Anatolian steppes, and studying communication patterns of everything from bees to Kangal dogs (some of which are definitely the size of a small elephant). So you could say I am living my dreams!

How did you get started in your field of work?

In 2008, I was on a Fulbright scholarship studying internal migration in Turkey, concentrating particularly on women migrants from rural agricultural communities. When I stumbled across Kars, I tdiscovered something of a UN for Turkish beekeepers—fields packed full of beekeepers from Giresun and Urdu to Mugla and Hakkari. Then only one region away was Ardahan and Artvin, these hidden provinces where honey transforms in taste every few kilometers, and pockets of biospheres harbor ancient beekeeping traditions that have continued across centuries. I knew then that this was something sacred, that it might be possible to build the world's very first honey-tasting heritage trail and find ways to bring economic livelihoods right into the villages and homes of rural women and their communities. For the next four years, I began planning how I would make it back to the region to work with local communities to bring something like this to life.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to food anthropology?

The 3:30 a.m. sunrises; the blizzards in July; the way no beekeeper requeens a hive the same way; the ancient stories about propolis used for everything from Islamic medicine to World War I wound treatment; Caucasian bees so calm you can kiss their wings; the wisdom of shepherds and the nomads of the steppes; kettles of tea balanced nimbly on high mountain ridges; bees flying through fog; the way women clean their hives with a dried goose wing; connecting people from across the world through traditional culinary experiences; baking bread with fresh milked cream in a hot, wood-burning oven; hugging and kissing Caucasian grandmothers who squeeze your arms tightly in stories and blankets; the tangy, sweet, sticky, sour, bitter, dark chocolate, champagne gold, thick crimson colors, flavors, and textures of honey; the risk that these traditions will be lost; the threat of customs dying off with the elderly; the wisdom left behind with migrations to cities for more prosperous livelihoods and opportunities; the temptation that I can harness honey and food experiences as an agent for social good ... This region and topic is dangerously addicting, taking me down a path from which I cannot return, because I am obsessed with its remarkable history and its powerfully sticky sweet potent potential.

What's a normal day like for you?

I have a five-to-nine day. We wake up at 5 a.m. with the shepherds to eat breakfast; milk cows; walk the high mountain trails; move from beekeeper to beekeeper; nap in traditional canvas tents on top of sheep fluff; gorge on shepherd's cheese, milk, cream, butter, bread, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, apricots, nuts, and wild herbs; shoot some film; tell stories; help women cook and clean and take care of children; drink 30 cups of tea; harvest and clean hives; ride a horse on a plateau; shiver from an afternoon storm; boil water for a shower; clean clothes; roll out dough for bread; burn off some arm hair while smacking some bread to the side of a tandoor; eat with families; clean; fall asleep in a room of five to six little girls; wake up and do it again.

Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?

I have many heroes from across the world: Vincent Lingiari (Australia), Fidaa Abu Turkey (Palestine), Jill Vialet (U.S.A.), Ishita Khanna (India), Cagan Sekercioglu (Turkey), Toshihiro Takami (Japan). All of these individuals share several basic principles that are core values for me: compassion for the environment around them and the living, moving, breathing world; a drive to solve issues related to rural livelihoods through creative solutions; a sticky obsession with overcoming serious obstacles instead of settling for the status quo; a steady aspiration to change the world while living a good and full life.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?

My favorite experiences are watching different beekeepers over the years grow and change with their bees. Visiting the same families over and over, I get to become closer to their lives and their hives like a member of a special tribe. I value my local relationships deeply, and I work hard to attend weddings, funerals, engagements, festivals, and ceremonies, and to sleep in their homes, visit their relatives, and follow-up with their lives to maintain my close connections. This is the true heart of my work. The most challenging aspect of my work is the lifestyle of the region—the harsh climate, the terrible roads, the lack of infrastructure or support, the isolation.

What are your other passions?

I have found a way to link almost all of my passions—art, reading, writing, photography, animals, nature, people, trekking, travel, food, culture, Anatolian/Caucasian traditions, and bees—into my research and work. If pushed to think about something completely unrelated to Turkey or Balyolu or my work, I have always loved rowing, skiing, and basketball, Korean food, any kind of hot bathing ritual (hammam, onsen, jimjibang), and everything and anything to do with the mountains. I was born around 9,000 feet, and I thrive on thin air, tundra, and goat products.

What do you do in your free time?


If you could have people do one thing to help save honeybees and dying ethnoculinary traditions, what would it be?

I ask people to do two things: Know where your food is coming from and support your local food producers. The best thing we can be is smart consumers. Take the time and effort to inform yourself on your local food systems, to become involved in what you eat, grow, and plant, and make an effort to connect with other people around good food and the natural growing world around us.

In Their Words

Take the time and effort to inform yourself on your local food systems, to become involved in what you eat, grow, and plant, and make an effort to connect with other people around good food and the natural growing world around us.

—Catherine Jaffee


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Listen to Catherine Jaffee

Listen to Catherine Jaffee

Hear an interview with Jaffee on National Geographic Weekend.

  • 00:09:00 Catherine Jaffee

    Turkey is famed for its honey, which is music to Boyd's ears—he has a notorious sweet tooth. He visited National Geographic grantee Cat Jaffee, a beekeeper who left her job in Washington, D.C. to make honey in rural Turkey. She says that bees harvest pollen from their surroundings: the best honey comes from bees with natural surroundings, large meadows, rather than urban environments. Most people, Jaffee says, eat honey that is basically a synthetic mix of sugars from all over the world.

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