CANCELLED: The Problematic History of Serf & Turf

Every year, Columbia students gather on Butler Lawn for a beloved tradition: Surf & Turf. But before you young Columbians fill your plates with those fly-infested mountains of shrimp and beef, you should educate yourselves on the painful history behind the term “Surf & Turf.”

Many people mistakenly believe that the term is a reference to the meal’s unique combination of seafood (“surf”) and meat (“turf”). However, the etymology can actually be traced back to peasant uprisings in medieval Europe. During the Middle Ages, many European societies—most notably Britain and France—were organized into a feudal system. Under feudalism, lords would be granted fiefdoms by the king. That is to say, in return for military and economic support of the king, these lords gained control over a plot of land.

Although the feudal system allowed the ruling class to maintain control over vast swaths of land, it systematically oppressed the peasant class, known as “serfs.” Serfs were bought and sold together with the land they farmed, enjoyed no political rights, and were subject to high tax rates from their lords. Eventually, the serfs became fed up and began protesting this insupportable existence.

Serf independence movements first emerged in Western Europe in the mid-14th century. Grassroots movements gradually gained traction in various provinces in Wales, Scotland, and southern France, and lords were overwhelmed with demands for “Turf for Serfs.” The document which best encompasses the sentiment of the Turf for Serfs movement is the zine circulated by 15th century bourgondien activist Guinevere Florian. In it she wrote, “Methinkith it according to reason to granteth us land. Natheless, ere you heareth not our cries, there be eight and sixty in our company, prepared for mortal battle. End thy tyranny!”

It is exactly this bloody history that underpins the modern term “surf & turf.” Although its usage developed over time with the growing rights of the serf population—it is with serfs’ later ascendence to the merchant class that we see the spelling changing to “surf,” reflecting their portside residence—the reality is that repurposing “surf & turf” for jovial events is an appropriation of the toils of the medieval men and women who paved the way for modern workers’ rights. Columbia, I hereby call on you to retire the use of the term “Surf & Turf” and to give credit where credit is due!