Our great harvest feast is upon us, a brief blip of gratitude between the sugary horror of Halloween and the shimmery commercialism of Christmas. I am not one to get wrapped up in holidays. On the fourth of July, you find me participating just as much as I need to in able to give the youngest members of our family a sense of tradition and then calling it good. The same often goes for Easter, Christmas, Halloween. But Thanksgiving is different for me somehow. It embodies core values that I can whole heartedly get behind.
Thanksgiving has several different meanings, of course. There is the political, the story of a feast between the Pilgrims and the Native inhabitants of this land. The plot seems almost a caricature, our own mythological passed down story of innocence and sharing. The story, of course, is only the fictionalized prologue to a national history built on genocidal destruction.
I always flash to the scene in Addams Family Values, where a young Wednesday Adams ruins the production of the Thanksgiving play. Dressed as a Native she interjects the following monologue:
“We cannot break bread with you. You have taken the land which is rightfully ours. Years from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans, and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the road sides, you will play golf, and enjoy hot hors d’oeuvres. My people will have pain and degradation. Your people will have stick shifts. The gods of my tribe have spoken. They have said, “Do not trust the Pilgrims.”
Thanksgiving is, of course, an antiquated nod to the story that first European settlers had a moment of peace with the indigenous people they found here before they began to exert their genocidal wrath. But, as is the story of many holidays, Thanksgiving did not appear as an isolated event. It instead was the adaptation of an existing holiday. A harvest feast, a communal moment at the beginning of the winter. Thanks givings, as religious events, were common at that point.
There is also a long history of harvest feasts are agricultural celebrations, likely as ancient as the harvest itself. They occur in many temperate climates, before the long winter. They are all characterized by copious amounts of food, often as a sign of gratitude for the successful harvest.
When you look at Thanksgiving in the United States, two other symbolic meanings have recently begun to be associated with this holiday. Or, perhaps, as we have removed these themes from our daily lives, Thanksgiving is where they have remained. These are the parts of Thanksgiving that I love, what I look forward to and appreciate that we as a Nation still take a moment to remember.
Thanksgiving is a time that we eat food. Real food, locally harvestable food, in season.
Thanksgiving is a time that we eat food together. At a table. Sitting down. With forks.
Both of these acts are going out of style, as of late, it seems. Thanksgiving still gives each of these acts at least one day of national attention.
Thanksgiving is one of the last remnants of a food culture that assumes that foods have seasons. Pumpkins and cranberries and sweet potatoes and turkey (not as a sandwich pressed meat product but as an entire bird) are associated with this season and this meal. Apples and potatoes and the last pulled in crops are the foundation of a Thanksgiving table.
We seem to have lost track of how seasons work, around here. Fruits and vegetables are always in season, always accessible. You can have spring mix in December, asparagus in August, you might even have noticed that raspberries were on sale last week. They may not taste or smell or feel like their seasonal counterparts, but they look about the same and are always waiting for us in the produce aisle.
Yet almost all fruits and vegetables should have a window of availability. Except for small sections of California that act as a commercial fertile crescent, we should have seasons. Spring mix comes to us in the *spring*, the thinnings from the patch. Asparagus should only be available for a few weeks during the spring, the first delicate shoots from the savory storage roots. Raspberries? Well, they shouldn’t be on sale for .99 cents a package in November, that is for sure.
Moreover, the food that we are consuming, more and more, hardly counts as food. Michael Pollen (who I hate to quote too liberally since he is the Dan Brown of nutritional journalism) makes this point in his book In Defense of Food. He says that the advice he would give would be to “Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not Too Much”. But he goes on to say that most of what we eat today would be hard pressed to be recognized as a food product. The wheat and wheat by-product, corn and corn by-product, these are hardly the fruits and vegetables we have been surviving on up until the invention of diesel engines.
This holiday cherishes real food, cooked in a kitchen. It’s standard fare is food that even Michael Pollen can get behind, whole birds and earthy vegetables. Sure, corn suryp sometimes sneaks into the sweet potatoes and pecan pie, but it is clearly the exception, not the rule. This is a season and and an event that is still dedicated to food.
More than that, this is a holiday devoted to the communal enjoyment of food. The act of sitting together to eat.
More and more, the family meal is on the decline. Families are reporting that they don’t often share a meal and when they do share a meal they do it in front of a TV. (Polls are showing that 33% of families report that all meals are taken in front of a television.)
We know that eating regularly as a family has a positive impact, improving the family dynamic and having positive impacts on children. Families that share meals have improved communication. This includes an increased level of communication through adolescence. There is also evidence that regular family meals are associated with a healthier diet with fewer fried foods and soft drinks.
But I suspect that the benefits of eating together goes beyond, reaching a core foundation of the human experience. Humans are innately social creatures, we traditionally have evolved to live in small groups.
Eating together is an act of importance in many species, and there is no reason to suspect that it wouldn’t be important in humans. In many social species, food conveys dominance as well as bonding. If you watch dogs learn to tolerate one another, you know food dominance often outlasts the other expressions of dominance. Their willingness to share food is a final measure of how bonded dogs are. We humans are not much different, I suspect. It tells us, on some primal level, that the people we are eating with our OURS. Our in-group.
By breaking bread next to a person, we are telling our brain that they are trusted. Safe.
Part of this may be the classical conditioning that can take place over a good meal.
We know that classical conditioning, on a basic level, is probably the mechanism behind many of our social dynamics. Physical contact with another mammal (child, kitten, friend, puppy, or lover) your body releases Oxytocin. Oxytocin is a bonding hormone that works (in part) by forming an assocation with pleasure and contentment. When being near someone brings you pleasure and contentment, you are more likely to attempt to be near them in the future. I hope that you all understand that I don’t mean to dismiss the awesomeness of the result, by explaining away the process here. I have been told that explaining love in terms of the hormones and learning mechanisms means I am dismissing it. That isn’t the case at all. To me it only intensifes my respect for the human species, that our bodies use such simplistic mechanisms to create such intense and personally experienced results.
I suspect those closest to me get really tired of hearing the phrase “But really good research shows!…” Which is worth noting, since I am about to go out on a total empirically void limb here. It makes a lot of sense to me that when we eat amazing food, near another person, we would be classically conditioning ourselves. We are learning to associate them with the physical contentment of food. That the contentment we find from good food, the satiated happiness, becomes tagged onto those we share that meal with.
On a small family level, this means that we are constantly reinforcing the act of sharing a meal with a family. On a larger level, it means our shared meals have the power to bind us together. I suspect someone in marketing already knows this. Lobbyists vie for who can pay for important people’s meals. Corporations send their representatives to buy lavish dinners for representatives of other corporations. This isn’t just an attempt to buy affection, it is also an attempt to bind entities together and form a subconscious affiliation.
A family that is eating together regularly is sharing a intrinsically reinforcing experience. When the family is eating a shared meal (also an act that seems to be on the decline as more parents opt to throw a handful of nuggets into the oven for the toddler and a individual pizza in the microwave for the teenager) they are sharing an entire experience. This is becoming more and more rare, in a world where our personal electronic devices and independent schedules take up a great deal of our waking hours.
Food is a way of communicating with another individual, a family, or a community. Here at the church we eat together regularly. There is a monthly potluck, a monthly Soup and Social Justice meeting, and several other dinners that are held throughout the year. These, personally, have been more of a bonding experience with this congregation than the sermons in many cases. It is a chance to get to know one another, and a chance to bond over shared sustenance. Down in RE the kids often share snacks together, eating fruit in a happy circle.
Eating, breaking of bread, with others is a cross-cultural phenomenon. Families eat together, and larger groups eat together. Feasts are associated with many celebrations around the world.
Thanksgiving still has that feast, the circle of people around a table, associated with it. There are forks, knives, plates. There is a main course that cannot be cooked in a microwave, and an expectation that you sit looking at one another while you eat.
What is amazing is that we seem to be losing this core human experience, letting it slip out of our hands in exchange for convenience and individuality. I found myself taking this same path myself, a few years ago. I was hip deep in graduate school, working a million hours a week. I was living alone, in an apartment near campus. And I was eating at my desk. Or standing over the kitchen sink, shoveling microwave hot food into my mouth. It started to impact the way I felt about food, and about my home. I intentionally stepped out of that, a few years ago. I stepped back onto a path that embraced the kitchen table and the act of sharing a meal. I started inviting the other graduate students over to eat, cooking them cheap spaghetti. When I moved back here I started sharing meals with my friends and family here, as well as participating in the large family dinners that occasionally hit the family calendar.
And it helped. It helped me put my roots down, form a bond with the people around me. Eating at the table by myself lets me feel a stronger relationship with the food I am relying on to supply my body with sustenance.
It use to be the way that everyone ate. The exceptions were exceptions, and drive thrus weren’t an option yet. But most people are no longer eating in tandem with another person, their family, their community. Food has become an individual experience. This week, we celebrate the exception. We experience plates that can chip and a table that needs set and conversation over a good meal.
I hope all of you enjoy your meal, this Thursday. And I hope that you don’t forget that your kitchen table is a versatile beast, that it can tie the bonds of humanity together throughout the year. Don’t wait to use it. Invite me over for dinner, I will likely accept. Or invite the person in front of you in line for coffee over. Or come over to my house, and enjoy the poor kid front porch scene there. There is a table that seats six, and plenty of spaghetti for everyone.
Oh. And don’t go shopping on Thanksgiving Evening, please? Sit at home and enjoy your family, and let those who are paid eight bucks an hour enjoy theirs.
Written and delivered on November 24, 2013 by Amber Culbertson-Faegre