The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Monday, November 22, 2004

TURKEY DAY, YET AGAIN: Thanksgiving is almost upon us again, the date on which we look back on the year and give thanks to the Lord for His many blessings to us and our country. I suppose I should be thankful, simply as a matter of courtesy; after all, everyone else is thanking Him and I suppose I should, too; but there hasn’t been a lot to be thankful for this year. This is the year my father died, the Yankees lost (and to the Red Sox, of all people), and my doctor told me that I’m a diabetic. The only bright spot all year long was President Bush’s re-election, and as I am not a political junkie, that was not much of a lift. I’d ask what else could possibly go wrong in 2004, but frankly, I’m afraid if I do then I’ll find out. I think I’ll skip it then and save some fresh horrors for next year.

In any case, Thanksgiving has never been one of my favorite holidays. When I was a kid, Mom and Pop would pile all of us kids into the car and we’d go to some relative’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. These trips were, almost invariably, marked by parental discord, followed by my father blaming us kids for the quarrel and warning us that we’d better be quiet or we’d get the strap laid across our backsides. Then when we got to wherever we were going, we had to be polite and not run or jump or scream or knock over this particular relative’s collection of fine 18th century fine Dresden china, thereby breaking every single piece of it into pieces so small that they defied repair. But let’s not go there; there was plenty of blame to go around on that particular misadventure (no, it wasn’t my fault, really, I don’t care what my brother says, and yes, my aunt had all of that stuff insured).

The worst aspect of those Thanksgivings was not having anything to eat while waiting for the turkey to cook for fear we would ruin our appetites, and second, our parents not letting us play outside because they didn’t want us to dirty our clothes. So there we were, five growing and very hungry boys, stuck in a house full of the smells of Thanksgiving dinner, with sideboards groaning under the weight of cookies and cakes and pies of every description and we couldn't have any of it. We hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch, so there'd be plenty of space for dinner, and so at around three o'clock we were going out of our minds with hunger. Meanwhile, the grown-ups sat at the dining room table stuffing their faces with fruit and cookies as they yammered away about politics, family gossip, and who died that year and how they knew last Thanksgiving that the deceased wasn’t going to survive till next Thanksgiving. After all that, of course, we fell on our dinners with the avidity of a flock of vultures dining on an elephant carcass, only to listen to Mom and Pop complain all the way home that we hadn’t behaved ourselves after hours of the most appalling psychogastronomical torture imaginable. Frankly, as a kid, the one thing I gave thanks for on Thanksgiving was that Thanksgiving only came once a year.

And then there was biliary colic. Biliary colic is a condition I’d never even heard of until one Thanksgiving a few years ago. Biliary colic occurs when a gallstone lodges in the gall bladder’s bile duct, causing a major back up in the gland. This usually happens when the victim consumes large amounts of fat on an empty stomach, as when my brother and me consumed a two-pound bag of salted pistachios (we love salted pistachios, but you probably guessed that already) just before Thanksgiving dinner. I will spare the squeamish reader the gruesome details of how biliary colic manifests itself. I will say that Thanksgiving dinner is rarely as good coming up as it was going down and that this time was no exception to that rule, and that I still think that the trip to the emergency room was unnecessary; but my mother thought I was having a heart attack and she demanded that I go. I spent Thanksgiving night having tests done and sharing a cubicle with a correctional officer who’d nearly lost an ear in an altercation, as he put it, with a shank-wielding inmate. The man bore his wounds with a good deal of equanimity and my male ego, a delicate flower like all male egos, took a truly massive hit having to admit to this guy that I was the victim of a pistachio (though it was a very tough pistachio, for the record; really, it was).

Last Thanksgiving wasn’t so bad, all in all. I went to my brother’s house for dinner and a good time was had by all and sundry. The food was excellent and afterwards we all gathered in his living room to watch football. About an hour later the tryptophan started to kick in. Tryptophan, for those of you who’ve never heard of it, is an amino acid that occurs in most living things, but is especially prevalent in Thanksgiving turkeys. It is the bird’s revenge for being dinner. Tryptophan causes extreme sleepiness in most people and we were no exceptions. Two brothers fell asleep on the couch and another went into the bedroom and sprawled out amongst the gathered coats, hats, and gloves like a beached whale and promptly went into a coma.

This, apparently, is a common reaction to tryptophan, an effect well known to the public and public health authorities alike, and one must wonder why the government does not better regulate turkeys. Users of tobacco and alcohol are ceaselessly bombarded with public service advertisements warning them of the dangers of smoking and drinking, state attorneys general cannot wait to sue tobacco and liquor companies for every dime they can get out of them, and yet no one does anything about the menace of tryptophan. I have searched the Internet and medical databases alike looking for a study on the effects of this powerful narcotic on drivers’ reflexes, and all to no avail. Millions of drivers will take to the road this holiday with several pounds of turkey in their digestive tracts, and they will be eating turkey for the rest of the week as well, thousands of accidents will occur from one end of the country to the other, and yet no public health official in this country can say for certain if the mass ingestion of turkey played any role in these tragic events. This ignorance of tryptophan’s role seems to me to be the very height of folly. Given its well-known side effects, how can anyone say that eating turkey and driving is an intelligent thing for any person to do?

And yet there are no angry parents demanding that the government do its job and order this obviously unsafe product out of the nation’s supermarkets. The sale of tryptophan-laden turkeys goes on and on and no one seems to care one way or the other. That a young child can buy a turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise in any deli in the United States without a doctor’s prescription or a parent’s consent is nothing short of criminal, a burning mark of shame on the brow of any nation that calls itself civilized.

The trade in tryptophan is simply unacceptable by any rational standard and the government must do something to either control or ban such traffic outright. This may cause the traffic to go underground, and there is always the possibility of organized crime penetrating the cold cuts industry or organizing illegal delis in the same way they’ve organized crack houses, but the risk is worth it if we can prevent widespread addiction to tryptophan.

The most important step the government could take is to systematically educate the public away from its association of turkeys with Thanksgiving and to substitute some other foodstuff with the holiday. A family can just as easily thank the Lord for his blessings with a glazed ham or with a take-out pizza as with a turkey. Parents must take the lead in this matter; your children and a grateful nation will thank you for your brave choice someday. In the meantime, I’ll have the Sicilian slice with the extra cheese and Italian sausage.


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