A Code Switch Thanksgiving Feast It's a Thanksgiving mashup episode! We speak to Lin-Manuel Miranda about Puerto Rico, a parenting expert about tense family gatherings, and a Native professor about the truth behind the holiday. And for desert, the debate of our time: pumpkin or sweet potato pie?
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A Code Switch Thanksgiving Feast

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A Code Switch Thanksgiving Feast

A Code Switch Thanksgiving Feast

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

On this day before Thanksgiving, I imagine the families here on the U.S. mainland who have reunited with their relatives from Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands - I imagine they'll be breaking bread tomorrow and giving thanks their loved ones are with them, that they survived Hurricane Maria's devastation - giving thanks that they're here and they're alive.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

But 73 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands, where 100,000 U.S. citizens reside, are still without power, even two months after Hurricane Maria.

MERAJI: Half of Puerto Rico, home to about 3 million U.S. citizens before the storm hit, is still without power, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Que bonita bandera, que bonita bandera, que bonita bandera es la bandera Puertorriquena. (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho (unintelligible) has to go. Hey, hey, ho, ho.

MERAJI: On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, hundreds of Puerto Ricans marched on Washington so the plight of those living in Puerto Rico without basic amenities remain top of mind for lawmakers. Pedro Figueroa (ph) came all the way from New Jersey.

PEDRO FIGUEROA: I do feel Puerto Rico has been treated differently. If you look at, say for instance, Florida and Texas, when they had their hurricanes, there was no issue sending supplies and stuff over there.

DEMBY: Right now, Congress is considering a $44 billion hurricane relief package. It was requested by the White House with funds specifically set aside for Texas and Florida.

MERAJI: And Puerto Rico is not even a part of that ask. Broadway star and unofficial Puerto Rican ambassador Lin-Manuel Miranda worries they'll be forgotten.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I think people were pretty surprised that my Twitter feed, which is usually puppies and rainbows and literally show tunes, has become this all-Puerto-Rico-all-the-time station. But that's just where we are.

DEMBY: I caught up with Lin-Manuel for a few minutes before he joined that march here in D.C. He told me he wants three simple things from legislators in Washington.

MIRANDA: One - reminder that we are U.S. citizens and that the aid that goes to Puerto Rico should be at least equal with that which went to Texas and went to Florida and their natural disasters. Two - suspension of the Jones Act, which is an over 70-year-old law which, at this point, is an impediment to aid reaching the island. We had a 10-day waiving of it, but that's not enough. And three - the forgiveness of the debt that Puerto Rico finds itself in. It was in a terrible debt crisis before all this happened. Write it off, move on and give Puerto Rico a fair chance to rebuild.

DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. And on this Thanksgiving episode, we've got a full meal prepared for y'all. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. We wanted to start off with greens - a healthy reminder that this holiday will be especially tough for Americans living in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where so many people don't have power, clean water or much, if any, fresh food.

DEMBY: We also know that a lot of people out there are conflicted about this very American holiday - and, you know, for good reason - people like Elizabeth Hoover. She's part Mohawk, and she's an American Studies professor at Brown University.

ELIZABETH HOOVER: So I'm of two minds about Thanksgiving. The general sentiment that people have today about this holiday is that it's supposed to be a time that you get together with your family and you talk about the things that you are thankful for, and you have a big meal. And that's really what the holidays should just be.

MERAJI: But that's hard to swallow, Hoover says, if you know the real history behind Thanksgivings.

HOOVER: Thanksgiving, by the English, was after massacres. So after events like the Pequot Massacre, where the English went in and burned people alive in their homes - and then everybody who ran out to try to avoid the flames was stabbed and shot. And so after the return of the English from that event, that was labeled as a Thanksgiving.

And the pilgrims' idea of Thanksgiving was not a big meal, sit around and hang out and have a nice time. They spent the entire day in cold churches praying. So it's a very different kind of event than we're celebrating today.

DEMBY: There was a meal, though, in the 1620s. It's a meal that Hoover describes, really, as a tense business meeting between the White colonists and the Wampanoag people. It bore almost no resemblance to the story that most of us know today - you know, Indians and pilgrims sitting down, chillin (ph), having a peaceful feast - that whole thing. It wasn't until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday as a way to unite the country after the Civil War.

MERAJI: The spread of that happy Thanksgiving meal myth, says Hoover, papered over the fact that within a generation of the tense meal that took place in the 1600s, there was the attempted genocide of Native Americans across the U.S.

HOOVER: On the holiday that's now reserved as Thanksgiving, some people take that opportunity to just get together with their relatives and have a nice meal. And some people organize protests and different events to try to make America more aware of the real history around this time and that the pilgrims were not great people. I guess that's my Thanksgiving spiel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Now, for those of you who are taking this federal holiday as a chance to give thanks with friends and family, break bread, our main course is on the way. We know that race and politics often show up at the Thanksgiving table. We're going to talk about that a little bit.

MERAJI: And we got dessert, too. Pie - sweet potato or pumpkin? We had a roiling debate on Twitter about this last week, and more than a thousand of you weighed in. Y'all take your pie seriously.

DEMBY: I'm team sweet potato. It tastes like reparations and creaminess. Shereen...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...You are team pumpkin but, like, mostly by default, right?

MERAJI: Growing up, we didn't have sweet potato pie. We had cherry pie because my dad is Persian. And while pie isn't necessarily a Persian thing, cherries are, so cherry pie. But someone always brought a pumpkin pie to the Thanksgiving potluck. And my mom puts pumpkin, aka calabaza, in the beans she makes. So, yeah, by default, team pumpkin.

DEMBY: You're going to learn today, Shereen. You're going to learn today (laughter). I actually got a chance to ask Lin-Manuel Miranda which pie he thinks reigns supreme.

MIRANDA: Oh, that is the CODE-SWITCHiest (ph) question of all time. I am...

DEMBY: Come on, Lin.

MIRANDA: Sweet potato pie. It's sweet potato pie for me. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: Shereen owes me $10.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Yeah. We put a bet on it to see which one he would come down on.

MERAJI: I did pay that $10 to Sami Yenigun, our editor.

DEMBY: You're a woman of your word.

MERAJI: Oh, Lin-Manuel Miranda, you have forsaken me.

DEMBY: More on all of this and this roiling debate over pies after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all, we're back with the main course. Joining us from the KQED studios in San Francisco is Carvell Wallace. He's here to help us answer an ask CODE SWITCH question.

MERAJI: Carvell gives advice on Slate's parenting podcast "Mom And Dad Are Fighting." So he's going to help us answer a question that we got from a woman who lives in Boston. She's white. She has a 12-year-old Latino son who was born in Guatemala and who she adopted when he was an infant. She says that after the election last year, she didn't go to her extended family's Thanksgiving dinner based on some, quote, "political differences." And she has strong reservations about going again this year.

It's not that she thinks someone will say something explicitly racist or anti-immigrant. It's just that there's a vibe that she feels really uncomfortable with and around, and she doesn't want to drop her son in the middle of it. She writes, quote, "should I attend holiday gatherings of my extended family with my son? If it was just me, I would go and confront any bigoted talk that came up. But I feel the need to protect my son and keep him away from people who hold these views," unquote. Carvell, what do you think?

CARVELL WALLACE: I know that everyone says that they would like to go and confront - they're going to go and fight everyone. And I find that people don't do that as much as they say. It's kind of like when you're sitting on the couch and you're watching an action movie, you're like, I wouldn't do that. If I was - if that was me, I'd shoot him right there. Then - you know what I mean? Like, I feel like people do that. That's the way we - that's the way human brains work.

I don't want to doubt this person, but I think it's much harder to do that. We look for outs when we're in situations like that - that's alone. I don't think that if you are planning on having confrontations with people that you think might be racist, I don't think it's necessary to drag your 12-year-old son into that. I think maybe kids who are older - maybe your kid is 18, 19 - they want to say the things. They're getting woke. They want to like - you know? Then maybe that's a different story. But I don't think - I don't think you want to put...

MERAJI: Twelve is too young?

WALLACE: ...Your 12-year-old in that. It's too young. And it's a holiday. And like, you know, there's a reason why they invented Friendsgiving (ph). You know what I'm saying? Like, there's a reason they invented that, and this is that reason - so that you can have fellowship, community, partnership, togetherness with like-minded folks that don't leave you feeling depleted and less than and hurt.

You want to be with people that make you feel uplifted and together and like you're a part of something beautiful and like you can go on as a community. And that's not what I think this young man is going to get out of being with his family. So I would say if you feel like it's not right to do, don't do it.

MERAJI: She says that it's not that she thinks someone's going to say something explicitly racist or anti-immigrant. It's just this vibe that she gets.

WALLACE: She's a white woman. And the son is not. And I think that, for white people, stuff that's a vibe for people of color is pretty explicit. You know what I mean? So there's the possibility that what to her seems like, I don't know, this seems a little weird, for that 12-year-old, it's like - yo, what the? So I think if you're feeling that there might be racist vibes - I think that alone is enough to protect your 12-year-old on what is supposed to be a holiday.

My kids' mom's family, who is white - when my kids go down to visit their family on their mom's side, they come back feeling like they have survived, you know - that they have navigated a very difficult situation.

DEMBY: Right.

WALLACE: And they want to kiss the ground when they get back to Oakland. And for their mom, you know, she has a different take on it, and she's really good at recognizing that they're going to have different takes and that what they're experiencing is valid even if she doesn't experience it the same way. And so for that reason, they don't go there a super-duper lot, but when they do, they get through it.

DEMBY: How does she feel about the fact that, you know, that her own children feel this way about her family?

WALLACE: What I've picked up for her is that it's a very difficult thing because she recognizes that her family - it's not that, like, her whole family are all these terrible people, but we know that there's all these layers, everything from being outright racist to being just not anti-racist enough.

DEMBY: Sure.

WALLACE: And I think she also feels like she knows it's different for them and it's difficult for them, and she respects that. And she also knows that this is their family and they have some - I don't want to say obligation, but they have some level of interaction with them that is regular. And when they go, they also have a good time.

Like, they like what they experience, and they also come back with a lot of questions. And this is what I was going to say, is that part of the thing is that we show our kids how to interact with people who are different from them. How do you share the world with people that you have these differences with?

MERAJI: But that kind of goes against the advice that you're giving our listener when you're saying, OK, don't bring your son to that family Thanksgiving. I mean, if she doesn't bring him, it's not that teaching moment.

WALLACE: Yeah. I guess what I'm saying is that that's a long-term project (laughter) 'cause you can't never see your family. I mean, you can, but I don't know that that's always the right move for everything. But I do think that on a holiday, I think holidays are actually pretty important. And I think the way I have taken Thanksgiving and made it mean something to me and my people is that it's a time of building community. You know, it's a time of being grateful for the community that we're a part of and for building community.

And that's the energy we need to go out and do the work that we need to do in order to survive here. And so to me the fact that it's Thanksgiving isn't just incidental. That's actually a big part of why I'm like, yeah, that's not the day that I need to be putting my son in positions of difficulty. It's complex. I mean, it's a complex thing. I mean, (laughter) you know?

MERAJI: So it is good to expose your kids to people who are different and see things differently politically, et cetera, but just don't do it on a special holiday that's about community and love and togetherness. Is that what you're saying?

WALLACE: The thing is because it's family, you're going to have to bring the kid around anyway. Funerals, weddings. That's why I feel like the Thanksgiving thing is actually negotiable 'cause there are some things that are less negotiable. And so but I do think the mother has to run interference.

DEMBY: So we've been having this heated debate on our team, Carvell, and we want you to weigh in.

WALLACE: OK.

DEMBY: Sweet potato pie or pumpkin pie?

WALLACE: I don't even understand what the question is. Like, sweet potato pie is the pie. Pumpkin pie is some other thing. I don't even know. Like, who - where they do that at? Like, I don't even know who...

DEMBY: At Shereen's house, apparently.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: I mean...

WALLACE: I didn't know Shereen was the one on team pumpkin pie.

MERAJI: I didn't have sweet potato pie till later on in life. But, you know, pumpkin pie is what I know.

WALLACE: Yeah. Like, you might not ride-or-die pumpkin pie. But you might ride, but maybe not ride-or-die. You might get out the car before, (laughter), before stuff starts to happen.

MERAJI: Exactly.

WALLACE: But I understand that, though, because if you grow up with pumpkin pie then that's what you know. I grew up with sweet potato pie. That was one of several key appearances at every Thanksgiving. I'm in fact making two sweet potato pies tomorrow to bring to my friends-giving. You know what I mean? And that is what we do. I have my mother's sweet potato pie recipe in a book that she left when she died that she never told anyone, but she told it to me, and I have it written down. And that's how I do my sweet potato pie. It's that serious. Maybe if you're a non-black American, you might have gotten exposed to pumpkin pie first and then sweet potato pie comes along later.

MERAJI: That's Carvell Wallace. Gene, I think he needs to be a CODE SWITCH play cousin. What do you think?

DEMBY: I agree, strong agree.

MERAJI: Yes. He also has a new podcast out, called, "Closer Than They Appear," and I'm on this week's Thanksgiving episode.

DEMBY: That's called a cross-promotion. I see that. I see that.

MERAJI: It's all about being American. And, speaking of that, let's keep talking about pie.

DEMBY: Let's.

MERAJI: We promised we'd close out this show with dessert, and we've got lots of sweets that matched.

DEMBY: Lots of tweets.

MERAJI: (Laughter) I mean tweets.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Still works, though.

MERAJI: We've got lots of sweet tweets that match what Carvell said - sweet potato for the POC pie win. Victoria M. Walker (ph) tweets, (reading) we don't acknowledge pumpkin pie. If you bring pumpkin pie to Thanksgiving, you're disrespecting the ancestors.

DEMBY: Mallory S. Begay (ph) said, quote, "I can't believe CODE SWITCH is spewing this kind of divisive rhetoric, but also, team pumpkin."

MERAJI: Yup. Brandy Fulwood (ph) tweeted, (reading) de-stabilize the pie-nary.

Then she followed up, (reading) at the same time, I have a lot of strong feelings about sweet potato pie.

Now, strong feelings in a good way or a bad way? Did we follow up with that?

DEMBY: I don't know.

MERAJI: Inquiring minds want to know.

DEMBY: I think it's only good strong feelings on sweet potato pie.

MERAJI: One of you sent us a 23-slide PowerPoint presentation making the argument that pumpkin pie isn't even pie at all.

DEMBY: (Laughter). We got some write-in candidates. There were a lot of recommendations for pecan pie, or pecan pie, or pecan pie. It depends.

MERAJI: Pecan. Pecan.

DEMBY: Depending on where you're from.

MERAJI: Pecan.

DEMBY: Got a few for cobbler, but, yo, that's not even what we talking about. Why don't you all chill?

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: We got a tweet from Ameesha Sampot (ph). She's South Asian American. She said that she grew up with mango pie. She even tweeted us the recipe.

MERAJI: Yum. I think that should be the winner. Remember what Hari said - Hari Kondabolu said on the podcast about mangoes and racism...

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: ...Being the two things that unite people of color?

DEMBY: They bring us all together (laughter). Some people said to us the sweet potato-pumpkin pie divide is more of a regional thing than a racial thing. There's, like, a North-South split there. And to the extent that black folks really eat it it's because so many of us have Southern roots.

MERAJI: So we called up Frederick Douglass Opie to help us out because, you know, there's just so much to...

DEMBY: By the way, Frederick Douglass Opie is the dopest name of any guest we've ever had on the show, so...

MERAJI: He's the author of "Southern Food And Civil Rights: Feeding The Revolution," and he's a food historian at Babson College.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS OPIE: Both the sweet potato and the pumpkins are indigenous to the Americas. That's the first thing we need to do if we're going to talk about this debate. Now, the African component to the sweet potato pie is that Africans come from West and Central Africa. One of the three staples that they survived on was the yam. And when Africans came to the Americas, they came and they just adapted the sweet potato and used it in the same way that they had used the yam.

So the other thing in common with both the pumpkin pie and the sweet potato pie is neither those in the Americas or those in Africa made pies. Both of them were introduced to pies when they had that cultural encounter with Europeans; in the case of Africans, the British folks; in the case of those in the Americas, English and Spanish imperialists.

MERAJI: So we shouldn't be eating pie at all is what you're saying.

OPIE: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Right, de-colonize the Thanksgiving table.

OPIE: Well, if I had the choice - and my family knows this - don't bring me a cake on my birthday. Bring me a pie. So I think you're talking to the right guy. I'm a pie guy.

DEMBY: OK. What kind of pie, though (laughter)?

OPIE: Now, this is the thing that I think you should know. After Halloween is over, there are all these pumpkins that people want to discard. So I'll take that pumpkin, and I will harvest the meat out of the inside, and I will create the filling for a pie. Now, I don't just make a pumpkin or sweet potato pie. I create a hybrid. So I'm sorry, but I'm on the fence.

MERAJI: It's a mash-up.

OPIE: It's a mash-up, exactly.

MERAJI: You're bringing us together.

OPIE: (Laughter) I'm trying to create a new, blended family in that...

MERAJI: I love that.

OPIE: ...In the studio.

DEMBY: It's a Persia-Rican (ph) pie.

MERAJI: As a blended person, yes.

OPIE: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Pi-sia-rican (ph).

OPIE: I love that term.

MERAJI: I support this pie 100 percent.

OPIE: I think it'll make everybody happy.

DEMBY: Fred Opie is a food historian at Babson College. Thank you so much for doing this, man.

OPIE: No problem at all. My pleasure.

DEMBY: Happy Thanksgiving.

OPIE: You too.

MERAJI: Pie-nary (ph) officially destabilized - mixed pie for the win.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET POTATO PIE")

AL JARREAU: (Singing) Anyone that ever had sweet potato pie really don't want pumpkin again.

MERAJI: And to end the show, we need an after-dinner drink, don't you think?

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: That should be the song giving us life. What is that song, G.D.?

DEMBY: It's called "Sweet Potato Pie" by Al Jarreau.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET POTATO PIE")

JARREAU: (Singing) Anyone who's ever had some sweet potato pie don't want to do pumpkin again. Really don't want no pumpkin again 'cause it don't taste right, no.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: That is such a weirdly specific song. He's like, yo, get that pumpkin pie out of my face.

MERAJI: I actually think it depends on who's making the pie...

DEMBY: That's true. That's true.

MERAJI: ...But I digress.

DEMBY: That's true. But y'all, that's our show for this week. Happy Thanksgiving.

MERAJI: Yes, Happy Thanksgiving.

DEMBY: Follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed.

MERAJI: Leah Donnella.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: Team pecan.

MERAJI: Maria Paz Gutierrez.

MARIA PAZ GUTIERREZ, BYLINE: Team aborrajado.

MERAJI: And I produced this episode. It was edited by Sami Yenigun.

YENIGUN: Team pumpkin.

DEMBY: And a shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Steve Drummond.

STEVE DRUMMOND, BYLINE: Pumpkin pie.

DEMBY: Walter Ray Watson.

WALTER RAY WATSON, BYLINE: Definitely in the sweet potato camp.

DEMBY: Karen Grigsby Bates.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Oh, please - sweet potato.

DEMBY: Kat Chow.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: Both are so inferior compared to egg custard tarts.

DEMBY: Adrian Florido.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Sweet potato is actually my favorite food. I just like pumpkin pie better, you know?

DEMBY: Our intern is Nana Boateng.

NANA BOATENG, BYLINE: I actually converted to sweet potato pie.

MERAJI: We had original music by Ramtin Arablouei.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby - team sweet potato, obviously.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji - team pumpkin flan and cherry pie.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET POTATO PIE")

JARREAU: (Singing) You know, I'm thankful for witnessing the things I've seen.

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