Thanksgiving Dinner Reminds Us of What Food Can Mean

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart. 

Psalm 104:14-15

We’re in the run up to Thanksgiving, a week or so which allows us a brief respite from the irrepressible Christmas season. It’s a time to consider what we’re thankful for and to whom we are thankful. It’s also a time, before we gather with family and friends around a dinner table, to gather around the newsfeed with strangers and learn what it is everyone else is eating. This year, the internet rediscovered that the Western half of the country is big into salads as a side dish, which has the rest of us wondering if everyone out there is okay.

On the day itself, the online exchange of food happenings will continue. Food defines most holidays, but perhaps no more than Thanksgiving, and the internet will be appropriately resplendent with beautiful pics for the Gram, interspersed with tweets lamenting how long the dinner has been delayed.

It isn’t a very long run up, and the holiday’s true extended influence might be the leftovers that we continue to consume to the brink of December, just as Christmas scythes through whatever precious memories of autumn remain.

It’s a great holiday (my personal favorite) defined by the things we do with food – share it, discover it, talk about it, argue about it, make it, photograph it, eat it. It’s a pretty neat thing we’ve done in making a holiday which is about general thankfulness an excuse to immerse ourselves in the joys of conspicuous consumption.

There is, of course, a dark side, or at least a dark subtext to the way we celebrate Thanksgiving. Primarily, this relates to reveling in plenty while so many of our neighbors go without. It is, after all, a choice we make every day in this country to let people live in poverty. But it is also a reflection of a moment in our history when food is the dominating factor in our daily life. There’s a clip in the very underrated Over the Hedge which delivers some blazing social commentary as the raccoon explains to the other animals that “We eat to live, [humans] live to eat.” American culture is dominated by food, food apps, food science, diets, cookbooks, cooking shows, restauranteuring, foodies, and the politics of food. It is, more or less, what we do and the thing that we all have in common.

Food’s preeminence is not inherently bad, but I believe food-in-general holds a precarious position, both at a societal and individual level, between being an obsession and being taken for granted. Its omnipresence brings it to our table both as an opportunity to make choices – choices based on personal preference, the chance to customize, and life-altering health consequences – and as an afterthought, a satiation of base desires, a mechanical part of a routine. As individuals and as a collective, the way we do food is always at risk of being too much or not enough.

And so it is with Thanksgiving, when our great collective celebration of food, our exercise in excess, risks being not enough. Gatherings will lack certain friends or family, and lonely people will go without an invite. People with food-related illness will make requests for menu alterations or may have to pass a few plates or prepare themselves for digestive regrets. Meal planners might trade in their apron for a jacket as they pick up the dinner from someone else’s kitchen. Others will work hard all day to see their efforts either nibbled with apathy or consumed with ingratitude. Thank yous will go unthought and unsaid. And before the leftovers are in the fridge Christmas consumerism will sweep over the land in a wave of red and green.

I’m well-acquainted with some of these shortcomings. I was away from my family the last two Thanksgivings and didn’t even have a Friendsgiving to compensate. It was awful. I have a chronic food-related illness which drives me to think twice about every single thing I eat and sometimes forego foods I love. I wouldn’t say I have an eating disorder, but I’m clinically underweight and I obsess over what and how much I eat. I spend an unfathomable amount of mental energy thinking about what I am going to eat as part of a vain self-image project. When I let myself eat, I have a habit of eating too much and sometimes too quickly. And, being between jobs with an advanced degree, I find myself doing too much wishing and too little thanking.

However, my point in writing this is not so much to direct attention to the potential shortcomings of this food-focused holiday, but rather to highlight the grand opportunity it presents in spite of these various pitfalls. Rather than warn against excess and the value we place on the table next to the turkey and the pies, I would see us double down. Thanksgiving is not, like St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo, a culturally-appropriated excuse to eat, drink, and be merry. Thanksgiving is an observance and ritual of the things that deserve culinary celebration; it is a most excellent manifestation of a culture’s infatuation with food.

Thanksgiving incorporates the best parts of food culture into the holiday meal in authentic, meaningful ways.

The holiday is defined by gathering together. Food is key to Independence Day, but it just so happens that there are other people around you while you do it. At Thanksgiving, the gathering of family and friends around a table is a pillar of the dinner ritual, and this reminds us that family and community is not just a fact of proximity, but a life-giving, life-sustaining, joyful part of our existence. Families and friends and neighbors feed and support one another, and it is best when this happens through a gathering in a particular physical space like a dinner table.

Coming in the wake of harvests and in the midst of hunting seasons, Thanksgiving is visibly connected to the work and processes which go into providing food. I have no idea how that hotdog on the Fourth of July ended up being something I am supposedly able to eat, but I can understand, with some accuracy and appreciation, how the Thanksgiving meal ended up on the table. The image of the cornucopia refers to the direct motion of field to plate, of the wild to the civilized, and the mythology of the first Thanksgiving is bound up in the miracle of growing corn with fish fertilizer. Whether or not what we eat on the day is actually ethically cultivated or free from wonky chemicals, the food itself is still symbolic of our dependence on the cultivation and harvesting of plants and animals.

Before eating, always take time to thank the food.

Arapaho Proverb

Our shared anxiety as the dinner’s start time continues to be pushed back is valid (for how is one supposed to exhibit patience in the face of cheesy broccoli?), but it calls to mind how much the significance of the meal itself is tied to its preparation. Halloween and Valentine’s Day are defined by treats we get in packages; no one gets a bag of candy or a box of chocolates and then expresses appreciation for the work that went into its preparation. But Thanksgiving dinner is, for those who prepare it, the Kentucky Derby of cooking. It involves hours of work to get multiple courses ready, potentially for more people than they will cook for at any other time of the year. It is the grand event of food preparation in this country because it demands to be really and truly prepared. If you want to go out to eat on Mother’s/Father’s Day or for Easter Sunday brunch, that’s well and good. Thanksgiving puts paramount importance on the preparation of food within the home. And it’s with good reason that “home-cooked” and “home-style” are still selling points. Thanksgiving celebrates the home-cooked meal and the people who prepare them.

The Thanksgiving dinner is also an opportunity to express heritage and tradition. There are common staples, of course, but each meal is just a little different. It’s one of the few holidays which allows – even encourages – diverse contributions to a common observance. Thanksgiving is an inclusive holiday, but also one that celebrates traditions and highlights regional pride. Food should be like this; it should be something shared and something to have in common, but also an expression of what makes us unique and diverse.

Each strength of Thanksgiving, each way in which this meal is an ideal expression of food culture, presents us with great opportunities for Thanksgiving Day and beyond. And this is where this essay becomes an exhortation.

Gather together. Revel in the company of others. Rejoice in the gifts of family and friendship. Extend your hospitality to someone who might be alone. Share your table.

If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.

Thorin to Bilbo
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Contemplate the earth and its bounty. Engage in its preservation and stewardship. Understand how it sustains you, and how you can love and protect it. Pray for the harvest and the harvester. Consider what you put in your body and where it comes from. Observe the change in seasons and the cycle of time.

Appreciate the preparation. Say thank you to the cooks. Share your recipes. Show your children how it’s done. Ask your parents how to do it. Engage in the process. Savor the results.

Take pride in your heritage. Keep your traditions alive. Find out how others do it and try something new.

As my generation grows older, as we begin to feed ourselves and buy our groceries and make our own food, we have the means to shape what food culture looks like in America. We have the chance to change (hopefully for the better) what and how we eat, and how that affects our bodies and the world around us. We’re already doing some of these things better than our parents and grandparents, but there are so many things to learn from them too. How we do Thanksgiving, how we live and work together as families and friends and communities, can be a nexus for greater changes in the dominating fact of our daily lives.

It burned in his spirit
To urge his folk to found a great building,
A mead-hall grander than men of the era
Ever had heard of, and in it to share
With young and old all of the blessings
The Lord had allowed him, save life and retainers.

Beowulf, Lines 79-84

Lastly, I don’t want us to forget that Thanksgiving is a feast. In today’s usage, feast seems to just refer to the amount of food served, but in bygone eras a feast was a big celebration in a big room with food and drink and merriment, and I think everyone – not just fans of fantasy stories like me – recognizes something wonderful about this. It’s like a wedding reception, only you actually get to eat as much as you want. So maybe a Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t feature live music and dancing, and maybe you won’t slosh around horns of ale and fill in bread trenchers with venison stews. There might not be a bard filling the mead hall with cries of Hwæt! But Thanksgiving recreates, to some degree, those things that make the feast something which captures our imagination. It’s a time for joy and a time to give thanks, to eat and drink freely, to laugh and tell stories. And maybe it’s a time to bring up politics, too. And if that’s the case remember that the Red Wedding was also a feast.

I love Thanksgiving, if you couldn’t tell. I’m thankful to be home for the holiday again, and I’m looking forward to setting aside my anxieties (food-related and otherwise) for a day and focusing on the many things I am grateful for. By focusing on what Thanksgiving compels us to see, I am able to work towards being free of the ways in which food burdens me. And what a great gift that is, especially when I can share it with my family. It’s a holiday unlike any other, and one I believe represents the best of food and food culture. For one day, we have the chance to celebrate the ways in which food brings us together and sustains us in this life.

Thinking about that for any amount of time must make one thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 

Colossians 3:15-17

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


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