One of the great things about Thanksgiving is how it inspires us to reflect and to wax philosophic about gratitude, family, and the holiday's true meaning. As a lover of rituals, I particularly love the fact that we all partake in this family dinner together as a nation. Nora Ephron got it right when she wrote that it is "a miracle that once a year so many millions of Americans sit down to exactly the same meal they grew up eating."
But is our Thanksgiving exactly the same as it's always been? How close does our family feast really come to the holiday's original intentions?
The actual giving of thanks that took place during that first Thanksgiving feast in the 1600s was probably motivated by pure relief. After a winter of scurvy, freezing temperatures, and deadly diseases, only about half of the people who came over on the Mayflower even survived to see the spring. It was truly a blessing that the rest made it until autumn. If not for the hospitality of Native Americans, who knows when or even if they would have figured out how to grow corn, or catch fish from the rivers, or get sweet maple sap from the trees.
This first feast, a celebration of the Pilgrims' first successful corn harvest, was a giving of thanks for the bounty of the earth, in all its seasonal, local glory. There was no pumpkin pie (a tragedy, I know) -- the Pilgrims had nearly run out of sugar by that point, and there were no ovens to be found. There's even some debate over whether there was turkey at the first Thanksgiving. Can you imagine filling your belly this Thursday with lobster? Or how about some seal?
Somewhere along the way, we've lost touch with the original intent of Thanksgiving. Along with forsaking many of our traditional rituals, we have also discarded the traditions of how to eat. The abundant fall harvest -- fresh, local, and seasonal food -- was the original reason for this special day. The gratitude was palpable: heartfelt thank yous to the sun, rain, and earth for providing enough healthy food for us to survive another year.
Now, each Thanksgiving, we obsess over serving turkey, but conveniently forget that it was likely shipped long distances after first being pumped full of antibiotics and hormones to make it grow bigger and faster (I'll let you read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals to learn more about that). We open a can of cranberry sauce and pass around our Idaho mashed potatoes -- regardless of where we live. Even those green beans in our casserole were probably shipped in from somewhere far away. And if you really want to get persnickety, green beans are actually supposed to be a summer crop, gone by the time November rolls around. And you can bet that the fried onions on top of that casserole didn't just pop out of the ground that morning.
Today, there are over 50,000 items in supermarkets all year long. With the takeover of industrialized food in our country, we can now eat whatever we want, whenever we want it. Seasons mean next to nothing. Forget giving thanks for the precious vegetables and grains and meat that only are available where we live, right now. You want a strawberry in January? Well, get out the shortcake and start slicing. No need to wait for corn that's knee high by the Fourth of July. You can buy it anytime of the year.
Of course all this "convenience" comes with a price. Much of our food has lost its integrity. It doesn't taste the way it is supposed to. It isn't as fresh or as healthy as it could be.
Our dining habits are on a serious thirty-year decline too. Contributing to that is the microwave and the trillion dollar processed food industry it helped to spawn. This magic box is helping to destroy the age-old ritual of family dinner with its eat-quick, eat-processed, and eat-alone meals.
But back to Thursday. Of all the holidays, Thanksgiving should be a reminder for us to give thanks not only for the flavors and family moments of that day, but for the miracle that nature provides. This year, find out what's grown in your area, and who grows it, and whether it's pumped full of chemicals or grown with just water, healthy soil and sunlight. Be part of the harvest - buy your sweet potatoes from a local farmer rather than a grocery store shelf. Meet the person who can sell you a humanely raised bird to complement your prize-winning centerpiece. Cook great food at home that is in season and local. And then sit down, share it with your loved ones and tell stories about when you were young.
Let's make this Thanksgiving the one at which we start to rekindle the spirit of the original thankful feast -- one where we remember the meaning of local, fresh food. Maybe even talk about growing some of it yourself. You can eat better by choosing the menu with love for your family and the earth, and appreciate it more fully by making the food together. Who knows, you might even want to do it again next week, and every week after that. Revel in the spiritual and physical benefits that eating more often with your family will provide. This year, you'll find yourself giving more thanks than ever.
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