Reclaiming the beauty of Thanksgiving
Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.
In a couple of days, we’ll celebrate our best, most important holiday. While celebrations of the harvest have existed for as long as civilization (for indeed it was agriculture that necessitated both), this particular holiday is uniquely American. Or at least it was until other former British colonies started having a festival called Thanksgiving too.
There are those who enjoy pointing out the tragic irony of the American Thanksgiving: that it was originally a celebration of the bountiful harvest provided by the native inhabitants of this land, who were subsequently slaughtered by the beneficiaries of that kindness. But the tragedy of one action does not undo the beauty of another.
The beauty of that original day of Thanksgiving rests in their acknowledgment of the good fortune which they received: divine grace, spiritual enlightenment, or karma; call it what you will. Those pilgrims and those natives saw the bounty before them and had the dignity, respect, and intelligence to be grateful.
As is so often said, our holidays are debased by crass commercialism and lose their meaning in a flurry of planning, worry, and family frenzy. Christmas becomes a day about Santa Claus, Easter about a rabbit, Independence Day about fireworks, and Thanksgiving about football and a four-day weekend (oh, and shopping for Christmas). We forget that the original point is to wallow not in gluttony, but gratitude.
Thoreau said, “He who distinguishes the true savor of his food cannot be a glutton. He who does not, cannot be otherwise.” That “true savor” must include respect and gratefulness for the source of the food, for the provider of the food, and for the food itself.
Lacking gratitude for the bounty we enjoy demonstrates not just a lack of respect for nature and God, but a lack of self-respect as well. Judeo-Christian (and other) prayers before a meal give thanks to God; Native American (and other) traditions thank the very animal on which they feast. Each represents a recognition of our own place in the world. To sit at a table with nourishing food in front of you and the people you love all around you yet not feel thankful reveals not only a lack of self-worth but a certain degree of foolishness as well.
And so, while gratitude should be acknowledged, felt, and practiced every day, we set aside one particular day each fall to celebrate the harvest and pay special attention to that which makes it possible for us to do everything else we do in this life. Food transforms us even as it is transformed into us. No truer cliché ever existed than “You are what you eat.” But if it is so, then most Americans are fast, cheap, and easy. Thanksgiving is the one day of the year that most people actually practice the ideals of Slow Food.
Next time you eat, whether around a sumptuous table or behind the wheel at the drive-thru, stop for just a moment to consider what makes you truly thankful.
I am thankful for my family more than anything else, for they are my true sources of sustenance and joy. I am thankful for my awareness of the importance and impact of my food. I am thankful for crisp autumn mornings and rain and my dogs. I am thankful that I am still on the right side of the grass.
And bacon. I am very thankful for bacon.
Chef Kurt’s Mom’s Wild Rice Dressing
4 cups chicken broth
1 pound pork sausage (I use homemade, but any high-quality breakfast sausage will do)
1/4 lb. butter
2 portobello mushrooms, or about 10 crimini mushrooms, diced
1/2 each onion, minced
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
1 pinch fresh thyme
Boil rice in broth for 20 minutes.
Brown pork in butter until fully cooked. Add remaining ingredients. Simmer 10 minutes, then mix in rice and remaining broth. Bake covered at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes, then uncovered to desired consistency.
Serve immediately or store; freezes well.
Get Grist in your inbox