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McCallum: Pass The Potatoes

11/22/11 7:55AM By Mary McCallum
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(Host) Looking forward to Thanksgiving has commentator Mary McCallum remembering one so filled with contrasts that it gave her own holiday much food for thought.

(McCallum) The Great American Thanksgiving is a holiday centered around the importance of family and friends, of sharing our collective good fortune among them, and giving thanks for what we have. I love that it's more about tradition and less about shopping. Yet I recall vividly one Thanksgiving from the past that was a complete break from tradition.

In the late sixties I was a student in a small college on eastern Long Island. The tiny campus sat on a river, and classes were held in the genteel rooms of what had once been a grand old mansion. I got my first taste of political activism there when I fell in with a small group who fancied themselves radical thinkers. We got tear gassed protesting the Vietnam war, shut down classes during the Kent State shootings and started an edgy literary magazine.

One fall semester we partnered with a group of activists that ran a breakfast program for pre-school kids at Head Start on Long Island's east end. They were the children of migrant workers from the American south who followed the crops. That season they were pickers at the sprawling potato farms.

We students initiated a huge food drive, and for weeks gathered boxes of cereal, powdered milk, canned fruit, bags of oatmeal, and bottled juice. Early Thanksgiving morning we loaded a truck and headed east in the gray November chill to the Head Start office. We were to meet the two men in charge of the breakfast program, who happened to be members of the leftist Black Panther Party. The plan was to do the drop, talk some politics, then head home to our Thanksgiving dinners.

But the men wisely invited us middle class white students to follow them out to one of the migrant farms to meet some of the people our food would be going to. No problem, we could spare the time, our own holiday meals wouldn't be until dusk anyway.

It was 1969. Migrant labor conditions had not changed much since the 1950s when 40,000 acres of Long Island potatoes were cultivated and harvested by poor southerners of color. Entering the long dark wooden barracks lined with single metal beds and heated by a coal stove at each end was a step back in time. Outside, women stirred a large pot of stew over an open fire while men stood by, joked and passed around a bottle. Children played tag in the bleak November cold, stopping to warm hands at the fire.

A tiny wrinkled woman told me what it was like to stand at a conveyor belt all day grading potatoes by size with her arthritic hands. She told me she thought she was sixty-five, but didn't know for sure. She coughed a lot.

The ride back was quiet. The flat agricultural landscape gave way to subdivisions starkly lit by streetlights as darkness came on. At campus I got in my car and drove to my parents' home, where a long Thanksgiving weekend awaited. The house was warm, the smell of roasting turkey hung thick in the air, a large table was crowded with familiar foods that celebrated the bounty of harvest. We raised our wine glasses, toasted our good fortune and, to my acute discomfort, passed the potatoes.
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