America’s national feast has seen better days, but remains well worth preserving
In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.
Does Thanksgiving suck?
There’s certainly a potent case to be made. In a land where communal eating is honored mostly in the breach, pulling off a tolerable national feast poses challenges.
In more and more households, people tend to eat separately. Even when they do get together, they often convene over different foods (soy patties for some, microwaved pizza for others), and even different entertainment media (Tivo-ed sports events, iPods).
Cooking, meanwhile, is an increasingly rare art. Americans, on average, spend half of their food budget outside of the home; much of the other half goes to heat-and-serve convenience foods. Not surprisingly, people are increasingly turning to restaurant food to ease the burden of Thanksgiving cooking.
All these trends combine to make a potentially toxic mix: people who aren’t used to interacting over food or cooking suddenly find themselves staring across the table at one another — and someone’s responsible for the giant Butterball (or tofu log) sizzling in the oven. No wonder, then, that the “dysfunctional” family Thanksgiving has become a source of middle-class humor — to the point of cliché. People not socialized to cook and eat together can be expected to bare their fangs when they’re forced to do so.
Then there’s the atrocious history. Thanksgiving is supposed to celebrate Colonial-era friendship between European settlers and indigenous Americans. But that friendship eventually obliterated the indigenous population in what became the eastern United States. Too often, the holiday serves as a vehicle for shuttling this dark story into the vast hollows of American historical amnesia.
Must we then burn Thanksgiving?
Let’s not. In a nation with such a shaky, uncertain food culture, an entrenched national feast is too rare and precious a thing to discard. It’s a miracle, when you think about it — a nationwide celebration of convivial feasting in the land that invented car food.
Instead, let’s revive Thanksgiving as a sumptuous feast, a banquet, a party to awaken the sensual pleasures of cooking and eating together.
This is not mere hedonism talking. I fervently believe that the fate of the sustainable-food movement — on which much rides — rests on its ability to seduce people with the vibrant flavors of carefully grown, well-prepared fare.
Appeal to people’s sense of guilt or duty, and they quickly backslide, cramming themselves with “Thickburgers” and other noxious junk. Appeal to their senses — say, through a deftly prepared butternut squash soup, or turkey not dried out by bad cooking technique or made flavorless by industrial agriculture — and you’ve potentially got a convert on your hands.
From there, you might be looking at a budding environmentalist. In an era when life for many means shuffling from climate-controlled vessel to climate-controlled vessel, food is what tethers us to the earth. We’ve fetishized cleanliness and demonized dirt, but not even the most high-tech agriculture can sever its tie to the ground beneath our feet. Highly processed and packaged food obscures the connection and encourages ignorance; fresh food displays its provenance and imparts a hunger for knowing.
So, no, Thanksgiving doesn’t have to suck. It’s your excuse to spend the day (or two) hanging out with your friends and family in the kitchen, blow a wad of cash at the farmers’ market, break out a challenging cookbook, try a sumptuous recipe, open a great bottle (or case) of wine. Eat, drink, and be merry — and a pox on industrial food, historical amnesia, and social dysfunction.