Fish or Fowl
Thanksgiving is a universal festival with a lot of variety.
In the USA the celebration is on the fourth Thursday of November. It features turkey. It is hard to imagine Thanksgiving without turkey, in fact. The fare is supposed to hearken back to the first harvest feast celebrated in America by the pilgrims. They went hunting for the meat to supplement the meager menu they had been able to grow and came back with poultry. Using imagination, and a modicum of written accounts, other suggestions are made about what they ate including pumpkins, yams, cranberries and … well, use your imagination.
Here in Thailand there is no particular date for a harvest festival, owing perhaps to the fact that there are several harvests a year. There is a “new rice” celebration in some parts of the country in which the first of the succulent grain is happily eaten, in December or January. But of course turkey is not the main feature. It could be (and this is my observation) that fish is the central dish for most events focused on food – except, of course, the annual Chinese vegetarian festival. I can’t remember a feast that was part of a major celebration that did not include fish in one form or another.
There are myriad ways to prepare fish here in Thailand, but they divide into a few categories: speared on a skewer and roasted, caked in salt and baked, fried in oil and served with sweet and sour sauce, steamed with herbs of three flavors, pickled and fermented fish, minced with spices and chilies, and tom yam pla stewed in soup with curry and coconut cream. The choice parts of a whole fish are the sides where the bones are fewest, and the cheeks. That’s the most precious part, often saved for the eldest person present. You see, parts of the world that cut off the heads of the fish are missing the best, most tender, sweetest bits. Raw fish is not likely here unless you go to one of the Japanese restaurants, the numbers of which are exploding.
In parts of Europe Martinmas features roast goose. Oktoberfest is probably Europe’s most-famous other harvest festival, featuring beer but also celebrating the grape harvest appropriately. November 23 is Labor Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday in Japan, having to do with the autumn rice harvest. In Vietnam the harvest is concluded with a festival to make up to children for having been left on their own as the adults worked so hard; Trung-Thu is the Children’s Festival in mid-Autumn. In Slovak cultures it is the soil that is thanked. From Alaska to Zimbabwe, the Internet informs us, there are harvest festivals with traditional culinary customs.
Another thing to be thankful for is our colorful diversity.
What do you do with the corpse?
After all my years in Thailand I still believe one of the biggest culture differences between here and home (the USA) is what happens when somebody dies. The anthropologist in me wants to share the gory details with you, but the Internet communicator says, "Keep it short and to the point."
The point is this: In Thailand when someone dies in the village the whole village is involved from the washing of the body to the gathering of the ashes after the cremation.
Death is an undeniable reality of life. Everything is passing. In the USA, at least in the cultural mainstream in the Midwest where I grew up as officiated at hundreds of funerals, the emphasis is on remembering deceased persons as they were and as the survivors prefer to remember them. The body is handled and arrangements are "undertaken" by professionals out of sight and as far from
sensibilities as possible.
Nothing could symbolize this more clearly than how the body is presented before it is disposed of. A village funeral usually includes nights of chanting and a sermon by a Buddhist priest. On the final night the body is situated in a wooden coffin on the cart on which it is to be moved to the cremation grounds. The coffin is covered with flowers, as in the USA, but there the similarity ends. The cart is enclosed in thousands of little colored lights, many of them blinking in wave-like patterns. The deceased
is being sent away with the highest honors the village can muster.
By contrast, the typical wake in Illinois is muted, pastel and subdued. The corpse is made to look as "natural" as possible, as if merely asleep. The casket is meant to look as comfortable as possible for the sleep may be a long one. All of this is reinforced by a religious emphasis on the transition that is taking place.
These are two very different concepts of death. Neither is better than the other. Neither is how things will be a few generations from now. The point is that cultures differ. That's the point.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.