11/21/2014 12:14 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

Thanksgiving Bounty and Blowout

Getty Images

America may well stand alone in having a truly national meal that galvanizes the entire country. For while food marks all ritual meals --take Passover or Christmas--Thanksgiving is different. From the iconic turkey to mince pie, the foods that Americans put on their tables the fourth Thursday of November do not just mark the festivities, they give the reason to celebrate in the first place.

After all, the now legendary meal of 1621 was all about food --food generously offered, food gratefully received. Ever since the meal has been taken as a celebration of amity. As a really good meal should, this one turned strangers into friends--at least for the moment. Eating created a common space. It still does.

Fast forward almost 400 years. The nature of that space has changed, and so has the meaning of the meal. In America today, the lofty sentiments of the annual Presidential proclamation notwithstanding, Americans likely associate Thanksgiving mostly with food--and more food. One of my students, from Chile, on her way to New Jersey for her first Thanksgiving, asked what the holiday was all about. Her American friends didn't hesitate: "Eating lots and lots of food all afternoon long." Food is what the day is for. As another student said with anticipatory relish, Thanksgiving is pig-out time.

The food star is, of course, turkey, preferably enormous-- even if these days the turkey sometimes turns out to be tofu. Thanksgiving has become the day for turkey (just try to find a fresh turkey in July...), for mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes and apple pie and mince pie and whatever regional or family or even newfangled dishes find their way to the table. Dishes that no settler, no native American even imagined in the 17th century.

Thanksgiving, then, is not your regular meal. For starters, it does away with choice. Most of the time, as we must, we make food choices--this and not that. Stomachs, after all, have their limits. Thanksgiving declares time out from alimentary decision-making. No bothersome worries about nutrition or diet. The groaning board, the bounteous spread--we are meant to have it all. Literally. We are encouraged to stuff ourselves even more than the turkey.

So you can have all the turkey, dark meat and light meat too. You need not, indeed you should not, choose between your mother's mashed potatoes and your mother-in-law's sweet potatoes or between your cousin's mince pie, your grandmother's apple and a neighbor's pumpkin. You take it all. Then, in the true Thanksgiving spirit, you come back for seconds. Picky eaters have no place at the Thanksgiving table. Judgmental diners are even less welcome--food critics keep their thoughts to themselves.

It is not so far-fetched to see the very idea of selection at Thanksgiving as betraying the inclusive spirit of the holiday. It is unpatriotic, un-American really, to be choosy or, worse, critical on this day of national good will. The founding meal in Plymouth Colony hailed the bounty of the land. America, as so many immigrants over the next centuries would concur, was the proverbial land of plenty. New Americans gave thanks for the freedom from famine that so many of them had fled.

Evidence of one's thankfulness came from consumption. Eating made the patriot. It is fitting that Nathan's Famous Hot Dog contest traces its origins to the consumption decision of four immigrants on the 4th of July 1916 --to eat quantities of that all-American food, the hotdog. The sheer quantity of food ingested signaled the intensity of their commitment to their new country. Eating American meant being American.

The American obsession with portion size fits right in this culture of abundance. Since the 19th century Europeans have noted the large servings on American tables. More recently, Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking tells us that the original recipes had to be doubled to satisfy the American market. Then there are the temptations to lure the voracious: "All you can eat!" One upstate roadside diner recently promised a "Belly Buster." A "Small Mac" is a contradiction in terms.

We are a long way from November 1621, but on the mark for 2014. Thanksgiving and its food practices are embedded in American culture. The excessive consumption of the holiday slides into the norm for everyday overeating. We might do well to consider the implications of eating on this special, oh so American day. We are what we eat, or so we have been told. We are also, very much, as Thanksgiving shows, how we eat.

Besides, the best part of the meal comes on Friday. The turkey soup with its wonderful broth from the carcass. A piece of left-over pie for breakfast. The time for stuffing the tummy is past. Now is the time to savor the tastes.

Let Thanksgiving honor America not just for its bounty but for its marvels. An abundance of food, certainly, but of wonderful food. That's what 21st-century America should celebrate.

Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson teaches sociology at Columbia University. She is the author of Word of Mouth: What we talk about when we talk about food (2014) and a contributor to Food in time and place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History (2014).