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Talking Turkey

The annual carbo-loading Day of Elastic Waistbands is around the corner, offering absolutely nothing surprising

By Christina Waters

THE TORTURE LOOMS. Three hours spent around a table piled high with the most boring meal ever conceived. Thanksgiving. Once a middle-American showcase for Calorie-Intensive Cuisine, now the kickoff to the Shopping Season--Thanksgiving is rife with paradox. (Surely the turkey growers of America paid someone to keep this bloated binge on the calendars.)

We will travel all day in order to sit around with the usual suspects. We will consume, during this official feast day, more cholesterol than during the entire rest of the year. Visualize the amount of fat collected from just one of Liz Taylor's liposuction sessions--butterball turkeys did that.

Armed with plenty of Rolaids, safe in the knowledge that at least there's aprés-dinner NFL to fill in the conversational gaps, we collectively enter this gala of gluttony willing to forget everything we know about hardening of the arteries and obesity. Many of us actually diet in advance, so that we can gorge on the fourth Thursday of November. Then we sign up with a personal trainer to help us cut through the flabby aftermath.

I'd like to see an honest show of hands. Who actually likes these foods in real life, I mean when it isn't an obligatory social ritual? Consider turkey--easily the blandest substance this side of tofu. It produces more gas than a bowl of beans and exists, I'm convinced, solely as a platform for gravy.

Gravy is a concept food. Everybody, especially men, loves the concept of gravy. It's believed to be sensuous and homey. Wrong. It's greasy, heavy and cloying. Furthermore, most people couldn't make decent gravy if their lives depended on it--and if they can, you can bet your waistline they've used a cup of heavy cream, two cubes of butter, a bottle of brandy and sodium-intensive chicken broth in order to do it.

Stuffing--now there's a low-brow culinary concept. Gee, I really don't have enough genuine protein for dinner, so I think I'll just add a lot of stale bread and sage to "stretch" this meal. Stuffing is an insult to guests, and evidence of hostess idiocy. One bite is all any normal human needs in a lifetime, yet it's there every year and we all keep faking enjoyment. "Mmmmm," we lie to the holiday hostess, smiling through our nausea. Stuffing deserves to be shot into space on the same rocket with Velveeta, salami, the Pillsbury dough boy and fruitcake.

Let's be candid here. Most of us wade through that platter of white food--white turkey, white mashed potatoes filled with white cream--in order to get to the homemade pumpkin pie, which is worth savoring. All that cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg packaged in the earthy custard of pumpkin. Not to mention the light, flaky crust. Yes, indeed, my mother could definitely go mano a mano with your mother in the pumpkin pie department.

But, hey, have you got any room left for that pie? Or for the pièce de résistance of Forbidden Food: whipped cream? The Romans had the right idea. What we all need is a stomach pump administered between Thanksgiving courses. Once room has been cleared out--by whatever means necessary--we could really get behind the pumpkin pie, the whipped cream and--Oh, what the hell--another glass or two of eggnog.

WHO AMONG US has not waddled home after the annual November pig-out swearing never to eat again? Or at least not for 12 hours or so. We get the holidays--holy days--we deserve. That we have turned a day of thanksgiving into a foolish spectacle of overindulgence and sloth is our just deserts. After all, the day celebrates one of the low points in the American saga.

Here's how most Americans envision the first Thanksgiving --through a filter of Hallmark hogwash: Plucky white Pilgrims--mostly guys--set out across the Atlantic Ocean and were rewarded with an entire continent of untold wealth that was essentially destined by the Almighty for their use. Oh, sure, there were a few unclothed savages already there, shuffling around in the dirt, slinging arrows here and there at equally filthy and equally wild animals. But that wasn't really a problem. (Journals and letters written by those first settlers contain shameless accounts of plunder and theft of native stores of food, tools and furs. If the Pilgrims found it, they took it.)

After working, praying and surviving a bitter winter, the Pilgrim Fathers brought in a bountiful harvest produced by careful tending of seeds they had brought from home. Inviting their heathen neighbors to join them, the Pilgrims gave thanks for their New World and its riches at a meal consisting of turkey, squash, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Afterward, the men sat around smoking and watching football while the women cleaned up.

Now what really happened was this. After two months and two deaths on the Mayflower crossing in 1620, the Pilgrims landed on the coast of Massachusetts, where dwelled an Algonquin-speaking group, the Wampanoags. Clad in leather garments--augmented by furs in wintertime--these native peoples skillfully cultivated corn, beans, squashes and pumpkins, while hunting in the woods for deer, elk, bear and the rivers for salmon and herring.

Like other members of what anthropologists now call the Woodland Culture, the Wampanoags looked upon deer, fish and turtle as totemic siblings, and had deep respect for every natural creature. When they hunted, they left offerings for other forest inhabitants, and they would never think of planting or harvesting without giving ritual thanks for the fertility of Mother Earth.

Well, from where the natives sat--especially one named Squanto, who'd learned English after being sold into slavery a few years earlier by a friendly white man--these Pilgrims were in deep buffalo chips.

The wheat brought from Europe was completely unsuited to the New England soil and failed to germinate. Half the settlers died during the first winter. Many of the English were defiantly proud and refused to dirty their hands with planting. Most of them were incapable of successful hunting.

Squanto and his friends took pity on this sorry situation and brought venison and furs to the luckless Anglos. He taught them how to plant corn using fish as fertilizer and to dig clams, how to tap maple trees for syrup and essentially not be so clueless. Now the Algonquin tribes already had the custom of celebrating six different thanksgiving festivals during the year, and one of them just happened to coincide with the dinner party thrown by Miles Standish and company.

Standish invited Squanto and a few of his friends and their families to come on down and share a meal. More than 90 Indians--we're talking extended family here--showed up. The Pilgrim menu wasn't going to cover that many guests. So a few of the Algonquin guys went out for an hour and came back with five deer, enough for three solid days of cross-cultural feasting.

The actual menu included venison, wild duck, wild geese, eels, clams, squash, corn bread, berries, nuts and "Indian pudding" the English called frumenty. That meal was one of the last untroubled moments the whites and natives ever spent together. Within 50 years, most of the Woodland peoples had been killed or claimed by European diseases or--if lucky--had disappeared into the woods. Today there are still 500 Wampanoags living in New England.

They do not celebrate Thanksgiving.

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From the November 1-8, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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