Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 28, 2013

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Filed under: food — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm


The painting above is titled “Freedom from Want” or “The Thanksgiving Picture”, done by Norman Rockwell in 1943 in honor of FDR’s four freedoms (Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom of Worship were the 3 other freedoms, each one commemorated by a Rockwell painting as well.)

This was obviously a time of much more hope and a much stronger identification with the elites than that existing since the turbulent 60s when a New Left arose to challenge the CP’s facile identification with the New Deal and an American liberalism that was systematically destroying Vietnam. Despite being in complete sympathy with the spate of articles that appear traditionally on leftwing websites this time of year inspired by New Left revisionism about the hypocrisy of a holiday celebrating the feast of colonists and the native peoples they had come to slaughter, I not only look forward to Thanksgiving but even roast a turkey. This year I am trying out a dry brine recipe from the NY Times’s Melissa Clark, who along with the paper’s Mark Bittman, is one of my favorite cooking columnists.

Part of this has to do with the fact that so few people actually think much about the pilgrim’s feast when they sit down at the table to stuff themselves and watch football games afterwards. Mostly it is an opportunity to have relatives over and enjoy each others’ company.

As a nonobservant Jew, I wouldn’t be caught dead at our equivalent for such celebrations—the Seder being the obvious stand-in. When I was young, we’d have the traditional meal with roast chicken instead of turkey plus the herbs that customarily are set at the table with their biblical connection. After I became a socialist, this holiday struck me as singularly barbaric with its celebration of Yahweh’s slaughter of Egyptian children: “About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.”

My family is all gone now so as Thomas Wolfe once put it, “You can’t go home again”. Even when my mom was alive and I was a member of the SWP, there was no sense buying a round-trip ticket from Houston, Texas or Kansas City, Missouri to have dinner with her. At my apartment in such places, I always felt forlorn when Thanksgiving rolled around.

In November 1978, just a month before I would quit the SWP after a number of years of steadily growing disaffection, I suggested to the branch organizer that we organize a potluck dinner for people in the same boat as me. This was a particularly crass individual of the sort who ended up in leadership positions in the party and who once bet my closest friend in Kansas City five dollars that I would not be able to “make the turn”. She won the bet.

A week or so before the dinner was held, she announced to the branch that it would be taking place with words to this effect: “Comrades, we are going to having a Thanksgiving dinner so that anybody feeling homesick like Louis will have a place to go.” This was her way of showing what a tough Bolshevique she was. She wanted people to understand that our mission in Kansas City was not to provide a social framework that would help us make it through difficult times but a grand opportunity to become integrated into the working class and transform the party into a fighting organization of worker-Bolsheviks. She and virtually every member of the branch who were on the leading edge of “colonization” are now ex-members.

Despite the fact that it will only be me and my wife sitting down to enjoy an 11 pound bird, it will feel like a family event since she will be on the phone or Skypeing with her family back in Turkey throughout the day. Her sister was at our place a day ago and it is too bad that she couldn’t stick around to share the meal with us. My in-laws are really my family nowadays and I look forward to their visits.

Of course there is some irony in the fact that I am sharing a turkey with someone from Turkey. Turks don’t call the bird a turkey. For them it is hindi, the same word they use for Indians as in Hindu. However, the connection is not with India but American Indians. According to the online etymological dictionary, this was probably influenced by Middle French dinde (c.1600, contracted from poulet d’inde, literally “chicken from India,” Modern French dindon), based on the then-common misconception that the New World was eastern Asia.

That being the case, how in the world did the bird become associated with the Turkish nation? Although I have written about this in the past, my discussion could not begin to match the op-ed piece that appeared in today’s NY Times under the heading “The Turkey’s Turkey Connection”:

The Turkey’s Turkey Connection


Thanksgiving is the all-American holiday. Turkey is the all-American bird. It was here long before Columbus or the Pilgrims. Early explorers reported vast flocks of turkeys nesting in the magnolia forest. Turkeys are a lot more American than apple pie. But they’re named after a country 4,429 miles away.

It’s not a coincidence. It’s not that the two words just sound alike. Turkeys are named after Turkey. But there is a connection. You just have to go to Madagascar to find it. Let me explain.

Once upon a time, English mealtimes were miserable things. There were no potatoes, no cigars and definitely no turkey. Then people began to import a strange, exotic bird. Its scientific name was Numida meleagris; its normal name now is the helmeted guinea fowl, because it’s got this weird bony protuberance on its forehead that looks a bit like a helmet. It came all the way from Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa, but the English didn’t know that. All the English knew was that it was delicious, and that it was imported to Europe by merchants from Turkey. They were the Turkey merchants, and so, soon enough, the bird just got called the turkey.

But that’s not the turkey you’ll be serving with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. As I said, that’s an American bird. When the Spanish arrived in the New World they found a bird whose scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. But the Spaniards didn’t care about science. All they cared about was that this bird was really, really delicious. It tasted well, it tasted just like turkey, only better.

They started exporting the birds to Europe, and soon enough they arrived on English dinner tables at just about the same time that the English were setting up their first colonies in America. The Pilgrims didn’t care about any subtle distinctions. They just tasted this great bird and thought, turkey. That’s the way the English language goes.

That’s why the bird you’re going to eat is named for a country on the Black Sea. Other languages don’t make the same mistake. They make different ones. In France it’s called dinde, because they thought it was from India, or, in French, d’Inde. And in Turkey a lot of people thought that, too, so it’s called Hindi.

There was a 19th-century American joke about two hunters — an American and a Native American — who go hunting all day but only get an owl and a turkey. So the American turns to his companion and says: “Let’s divide up. You get the owl and I get the turkey.” The Native American says: “No. Let’s do it the other way round.” So the American says, “O.K., I’ll get the turkey and you get the owl.” And the Native American replies, “You don’t talk turkey at all.”

That’s where the phrase let’s talk turkey comes from. Let’s do real business. Then, in the early 20th century, people got even tougher and started saying “Let’s talk cold turkey.” And then when people tried the toughest way of giving up drugs they went cold turkey.

It’s got nothing to do with the leftovers you’ll be eating for weeks and weeks and weeks. Happy Thanksgiving.

Mark Forsyth is the author of “The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language.”


  1. We don’t care much for turkey, so we’ll roast a chicken today. Two sons are here, which is nice. I used to cook Thai food on Thanksgiving! When I was younger and still went back to my parents’ house for the holiday, I never much enjoyed the dinner. A brother and sister I could barely stand and two nieces I really couldn’t tolerate. A step-grandfather who was abusive to my grandmother. I could bear it if I got in a five-mile run in the morning. It was a relief to get back to my tiny apartment in Johnstown, PA. Better to be lonely than bored and unhappy. Better still on Monday when I could get back in the college gym and play basketball. We often wonder how these holidays keep going. Same dumb crap year after year. Still, if you enjoy it, bless you.

    Comment by michael yates — November 28, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

  2. Like you, I rely upon my wife’s social relations for Thanksgiving. We will be visiting one of her friends from Holy Cross back in the day in SF. My son likes her older boys, and there will be a lot of nice people in a small cramped apartment in the Sunset. Out here in Northern California, Thanksgiving is primarily a ski holiday, with people taking the week off and heading for the Sierras. Not much snow this year, though. Looks like you are going to have a good day, too. Sad about how there were so many people in the SWP back then who lacked any empathy for people and the loneliness they can feel at times like this.

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 28, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

  3. Here in Brooklyn we are cooking codfish!

    Comment by Ian J. Seda-Irizarry — November 28, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

  4. “Not much snow this year.” And many future years as well.

    Comment by godoggo — November 28, 2013 @ 10:44 pm

  5. Maybe you can take up skateboarding.

    Comment by godoggo — November 28, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

  6. Does anyone else see a baby’s head in the fruit bowl at the bottom of the painting? The mushroom and bean dish I ate may have been magic.

    Comment by PeteM — November 30, 2013 @ 1:08 am

  7. Well it’s about the only non-commercial Holiday. So for that, enjoy it.

    Comment by jeff — December 3, 2013 @ 8:48 am

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