March 15, 1997
William Morrow and Company Publishing, Inc.
Dear Sir or Madam:
Having long had respect for Jeff Smith’s well-written and informative books on cooking and its history, I was surprised to read some misinformation in his book, The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas. In it Mr. Smith tells us that Saint Nicholas was a bishop from Myra, the then-name of an area in Asia Minor which is now part of Turkey and now called Demre. Then, confusing geography with ethnicity, Mr. Smith concludes that Nicholas (Greek, meaning "victory to the people") was a "Turkish saint". Would similar confusion lead Smith to conclude that Montezuma was Spanish and Hiawatha Dutch?
Or should one assume that in addition to St. Nick’s subsequently ascribed ability to cavort midair with reindeer, he also time-traveled? That must be the case, because the earliest Turkish conquerors, the Seljuks, had not come west from the steppes of Central Asia until seven hundred years after the jolly one had given out his last present. Perhaps Mr. Smith is not familiar with the history of the Byzantine Empire, spanning eleven hundred years and long predating the Ottoman Empire (and the Turks themselves).
Myra, by the way, was a Byzantine mercantile center, almost equal to Venice in importance. Saint Nicholas had studied in Alexandria, one of the five patriarchates of the early Church, and flourished contemporaneously with another Greek: St. John Chrysostom, who was based in Constantinople which as we all know is now called Istanbul. Does that mean Chrysostom was also Turkish?
The irony of portraying St. Nicholas as a Turkish Saint is sharpened by the fact that the world to which he belonged was crushed eleven hundred years later by the Turks--a poignant similarity to the fate of Montezuma’s empire.
I am not implying that Mr. Smith or the publishers responsible for this handsome book have sought to revise history. But I do wish to emphasize that history is a complicated business, and that its accurate presentation is a responsibility. I say this not only as someone who respects his Greek Orthodox heritage, but also as someone who believes that a similar disregard for facts could easily allow future writers to rewrite history, saying that even wars, slavery and holocausts never occurred.
Given this serious factual error, I trust that future editions of your otherwise exceptional book will reflect this correction. If you have any questions or would like to discuss this matter further, please feel free to contact me. Otherwise, I look forward to your response.
Associate Media Director