Decoding the Turkey

Sharing a meal is the oldest of rituals; the first hominids to share food with those beyond their family group took the first – and probably largest – step on the path toward civilization. What a transcendent act it must have been, 20,000 years ago, to give away food. It’s not surprising that eating or fasting or offerings of food are at the center of the human religious experience.

We Americans like to apply cultural chauvinism and declare our food holiday to be uniquely American, but it’s not. Late-autumn harvest festivals have been common throughout the northern hemisphere for centuries and for good reason: there was more food available then than at any other time of year.

Aside from the table creaking with its burden of food, we sit today with a millennia’s accretion of cultural baggage, to say nothing of familial or social tension. Given that, is it any wonder we’re apt to see the following people at today’s meal?

The Host and Hostess – They pre-emptively invite the whole clan “over to our place” every year or reluctantly agreed, “OK, we’ll do it at our place” four weeks ago; either way, you’re living in their world today. Sure you’re bringing a pie or a salad, but they’re cooking the bird and the stuffing, so just set whatever you’ve got on the counter over there and stay out of the way until they’ve got something for you to do. Why don’t you go into the den and feel guilty about never having Thanksgiving at your house? Nibbling cheese and crackers might calm your nerves, but don’t, because once you’re at the table, The Host and Hostess will be hectoring you into second and third platefuls. “C’mon, c’mon, clean this up! Get rid of it!” It’s the gastronomic equivalent of schoolyard whoop-ass. You can either eat it now or take it home in aluminum foil later.

The Dishwasher – This task is claimed by the person who feels most guilty for not hosting and The Host and Hostess’s urgings of “C’mon, clean this up!” are now answered with “You go sit down! Haven’t you’ve done enough already?” (This sounds vaguely like recrimination.) Other non-hosting guests may be dragooned into assisting The Dishwasher, whose reign in the post-meal kitchen is every bit as tyrannical as The Host and Hostess’s pre-meal administration.

The Loafer – Neurotic though the first two categories might be, they’re preferable to The Loafer – usually male – who brings no contribution to the meal and helps with neither preparation nor cleanup. Instead, he drinks too much, monopolizes the television’s remote control and offends other guests with his eructations.

The Vegetarian – This person, usually young, throws cold water on The Host and Hostess’s “C’mon! Eat!” exhortations by passing on the turkey, the star of the show. This is holiday jujitsu and The Host and Hostess, having been thrown, may attempt to regain equilibrium by piling even more squash and cranberry sauce on the abstainer’s plate. Do not push this guest too far, or you run the risk of a mealtime discourse on the ethics of consuming animal flesh. Some of these vegetarians will maintain their beliefs into adulthood and some will make so bold as to volunteer to host Thanksgiving dinner at their house. You know what they say about paybacks; just be glad they’re not vegans.

The Dieter – It’s sad to report that the waves of foul temper generated by The Loafer and The Vegetarian often break violently on the plates of these poor souls who are – let’s admit it – often the most sensible people in the room. “It’s only one day a year!”? The Host and Hostess scream, serving spoons loaded and cocked. One day a year, followed by six weeks of butter cookies and eggnog. Three centuries ago, the harvest feast was an efficient means of converting perishable food into a belt of body fat sustain one through long winter months in poorly-heated houses. Those days are gone; now we have mere gluttony.

We here at present the above guide as a holiday service to help identify your fellow diners. Whichever category they fall into, cut ’em some slack – and have a happy holiday.

© Mark Floegel, 2004

One Comment

  1. Azur Moulaert
    Posted 11/27/2004 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Another element to consider is both the shape and more important the sitting arrangement around the dinner table. The female host sits at one end of the table -or the round part- that is closer to the kitchen. This allows for prompt shoving of second and third offerings of dark meat, grandma’s high cholesterol chopped liver and booze. The male host sits at the other end of the table and entertains guests with his wit.

    The role of the dishwasher is more conspicuous and depends on the composition of the pack. If there be young people at the table one would expect their tacit collaboration but be weary of the quality of the task. Make sure to reinforce the need for rinsing the dishes prior to dishwasher entry. If no youngsters are around, seniority should prevail whereas older people are relieved of this task and yound individuals must oblige. With this in mind, make sure you sit the diswasher on the same end as the female host. Starting in the late 20th century, males have been assigned this task to counterbalance the efforts of the females. This also allows for much needed social interactions between family members of the opposite sex.

    Strategically locating the loafer can bring to the planning mind plenty of rejoice. I personally prefer isolating this individual between the grandparents and the vegetarian guest or maybe even relegate them to the children’s table. To the adventurous diners may I suggest placing this person in the “pass me spot” typically at the center of the traditional rectangular table (pass the gravy, pass the stuffing). In the case of a round table, I have little to offer – ignoring is best. You have other things to worry about.

    The vegetarian, location at the table is not that important. No matter where you sit this person make sure their chair is adjacent to the baked vegetables. Etiquette indicates of poor taste making remarks such as “how come you don’t eat meat” provided there is no “you would not eat this bird if you knew its upbringing”. Conversations revolving around “tofurkey and/or free range organic farming” along with the traditional “Popeye made the case for Spinach” joke are safe and ecouraged. Even though I wasn’t specific about sitting arrangements upon further reflexion -and personal preference- I suggest you place this individual next to the loafer on the dishwasher side, there is a simple reason for this decision, vegetarians bore as much as loafers do so why not create the lame side of the table instead of punishing the good guests? Again this is where the mythical children’s table should be kept even when there are no children left.

    The dieter can only be placed next to the vegetarian. Both have great things in common – do keep in mind one very inmportant exception: make sure you ask what type of diet this person is practicing, you would not want to sit Atkins enthusiasts next to vegetarians.

    You can also choose to ignore the above paragraphs and follow this rule of thumb. Sit close to the kitchen end, if you are not serving become the dishwasher and by all means avoid the other end of the table where the boring, crazy and lazy people sit. In the case of a round table, practice proper feng shui and push aside all vegetables to the opposite side – chances are the vegetarian will sit there along with the rest of its entourage of loosers.

    Good luck.

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