Turkey, Interrupted

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I’d be hard pressed to tell you what year it is in our family room right now.

My wife is seated on a couch we purchased in 2005, piecing together a thousand-piece Christmas jigsaw puzzle based on a painting from 1958. My daughter is reading a book published in 1980 on a Kindle Paperwhite from 2012. I’m writing this on a 2013 laptop straight from the Dell box, a long-overdue tech refresh, while listening to music from the Montpelier Codex, a 13th-century book of vocal music, on an album released in 1994 and available to me through 2012 tech Spotify.

Oh, and by the way: we’re doing all of this in the wake of putting another cultural touchstone to the test, because none of us can stand turkey.

“Are you grateful for turkey?” I asked them this year. Heads shake in mute dissent. “Then why don’t we eat something we’re grateful for?”

“I thought we were supposed to eat turkey for Thanksgiving.”

“We’re not. We’re supposed to be grateful. If tryptophan stimulates your gratitude synapses, great. Otherwise, why don’t we come up with a meal featuring foods that do trigger those synapses? Why don’t we eat something we can chew and taste and swallow with a smile?” The resulting table did not look much like a Norman Rockwell print, but we were grateful for the food we ate, for the time we spent together cooking and baking it, and the fact that we focused the holiday on the mindset, rather than the meal.

This is the sort of thing that begins to happen with more regularity when you start homeschooling full time: everything falls under the lens of re-examination, and not all of it emerges on the other side. The way it’s always been done ceases to have a great deal of meaning when you’re forging entire curricula anew. Their scholarly time begins to migrate from the compliant – I need to finish multiplying these mixed numbers, Dad! – to the critical: when do I use this? What problems are relevant for this theorem? Is there a better way? And along the way, we discover – often, together – that the status quo is just bullshit. We are, in many ways, like the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlamp – not because that’s where we dropped them,  but because the light is better there.

Now, I hesitate to teach them that all that has gone before them is bullshit, because that tends toward a certain cultural nihilism that leaves them with a blank (and bleak) page to fill in on their own. But I also find myself with a responsibility to let them question the status quo and make their own decisions, and so with that in mind, we went in search of whether we were discarding a deep and historically relevant tradition, or another made-up Hallmark holiday. They’re always deeply disturbed to find out how recent all of this modern American culture is, and to be honest, so am I. Thanksgiving as a concept is an old holiday, dating to 1863, but it has only been since 1939 that the holiday has been celebrated in anything like its modern form, and only since 1947 that turkey became the gustatory meme of the season.  Nor did the Pilgrims likely eat turkey as the centerpiece of the meal; that would have been venison, courtesy of the Wampanoag (who were not, in fact, invited to dine with the Pilgrims, but simply happened by and felt bad that such a large number of people were eating eels and radishes and parsnips and liverwort). So we’re neither celebrating the original eely, parsnip-y Thanksgiving, nor are we honoring any sort of centuries-old tradition, either. But doesn’t it feel that way?

Weirder yet, most of our major holidays have comparatively recent scaffolding to them, at least in their secular forms. Santa in his current jolly red-and-white form dates to about 1906 (not the 1930 Coca-Cola myth, but not a great deal earlier, either.) Trick-or-treating only became a national holiday convention in the late 1940s, having begun in the Western U.S. and Canada and then stalled in its eastward expansion by wartime sugar rationing. What our kids tend to think of as timeless staples of holiday activity were relatively new to my own parents, and by the time I came along, many had been in place only for a few decades.

Weird, isn’t it? But these and other ‘givens,’ I teach them, are anything but. Credit cards in their current form were first issued in 1958. Automobile leasing – now considered just one among many acquisition options – was unheard of prior to the prime lending rate reaching 21.5% in December of 1980. Modern consumer advertising had its origins with the growth of television and suburban commuter populations in the late 1950s (and we’ve watched it grow up, in infinity-lens fashion, through Mad Men.) We tend to treat virtually anything that existed prior to our birth as belonging to a timeless, eternal continuum, but in reality, our own parents saw customs, goods, services, and cultural tropes born during their own lifetimes. So have we, and it seems normal to us, but to my children, life before the Internet must have been unthinkably primitive and bizarre.

From literature to mathematics to civics to science, we teach a common mantra: take from what has been done before, but never accept it as a flawless and unassailable brushed-steel given. In our house, we tend to borrow the best and question the rest, much like the crazy quilt of centuries in my living room right now. ‘Because we’ve always done it that way’ is a wobbly, worm-eaten plank at best – and we’ve found it to make fine firewood, the better to finish a jigsaw puzzle by.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. So then, I have to know, what DID you have???

    Reply

    • E wanted to do a cilantro/pepita pesto with goat cheese, and, ironically, the best match we could find for that as a main course was a panko bread crumb/parmesan crusted turkey breast! H wanted pasta (because H) and a fruit tart for dessert.

      (A claimed to be thankful only for nachos, and that’s exactly what he got, on the side, of course.)

      Reply

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