Rethinking Thanksgiving

The time is ripe for a change

Food fight! (Photo: Lolwot.com)

Thanksgiving has always been one of the best loved and most feared of holidays: it’s a time of bowl games and gathering around the nation’s most popular meal pitted against the stress of travel and heated arguments at the dinner table. 2020 will amplify the yin and yang of this holiday with Covid mask debates and political turmoil thrown into the mix of a real need to reconnect with family and to eat comfort food. But perhaps we should take advantage this exceptional time in history to rethink this holiday altogether. Here are a few of my thoughts about Turkey Day, what is has become and what I’d like it to be:

To give you a little background, I haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States in over 26 years. As a result, there are some traditions that have fallen by the wayside and others that have been invented. As it’s not a day off in my adopted home, France, it really depends on my teaching schedule if I’ll have the time to prepare a Thanksgiving meal. More often than not, we wait for the weekend to celebrate. If I’m lucky, we will get treated to at least two amazing Thanksgiving meals…sometimes with a French twist!

In France, there is no Macy’s parade, and there are no football games. In fact, there isn’t any TV at all when we celebrate Thanksgiving with our French and American expat friends. So, that would be the first thing I’d like to change about this holiday: institute a one-day ban on watching the boob tube. And yes, I’d extend that to our small screens, too (make note to self).

Even though it’s not on Thanksgiving, we should banish the monstrous concept of Black Friday. The rampant consumerism of Christmas is bad enough without people leaving the dinner table to camp out at Walmart. This, along with McDonald’s and obesity, are among a litany of horrible American exports to France. So why don’t we nip this metastatic shopping cancer in the bud, which has spread to (Cyber) Monday. Lord knows what will be the next day of the week that gets hit. So hey, why don’t we focus on the family rather than that 80% discount.

Aah, the family. Everyone thinks that everyone else’s family is like the Walton’s, but in reality, we are probably all more like the Simpsons. It’s hard not to think of Thanksgiving reunions without the word “dysfunctional” popping up. The build-up to this holiday only seems to feed into a mounting intensity that is then pumped like steroids into the family vibe. My Facebook comment feed looks like a running trailer for “Home for the Holidays”, with many of my friends dreading the political food fight that is bound to happen between those doing the Biden happy dance and those who are waiting for Sidney Powell’s Kraken to invalidate the election.

If the 2020 election doesn’t get the blood boiling, then there’s the great Covid-vaccine debate to heat things up, with pro-vaxxers and anti-vaxxers duking it out. Whether it’s politics or health, people will take an opposing opinion as a personal affront, and with a couple of IPAs and a glass of wine, there’ll be guaranteed fireworks. The good news is that if you can keep things light for 15 minutes, you should be OK, as the average amount of time spent at the dinner table is 12.05 minutes. This might mitigate the risk of fratricide.

In France, we have still managed to avoid these two nasty habits: speed eating and uncivil discourse. I admit, it took me some time to get used to lingering holiday meals that go on for two to four hours, but now it’s one of the things I look forward to the most at the holidays. So what do we talk about during those long meals? Politics, of course! Do we agree with each other? Not always, but because we respect each other’s opinions, we have super interesting conversations. Thanks to my in-laws, I have a much broader perspective on politics and the world in general. I will undoubtedly get a few elbow nudges about our mess of an election, to which I will cheerfully fill them in on the latest dirt.

The reason we have Thanksgiving to begin with is to express gratitude, which I feel has gone off course over time. As someone who finds herself more spiritual than dogmatically religious, I almost take offense at the idea of thanking God for our blessings. Of course, I’ll respect those who would like to give a tip of the hat to their Almighty, but I personally would like to kneel before the most down-trodden of us: those who sacrificed their land, their lives and their identities to a growing group of ruthless invaders, opportunists and sadists. It started with the pillaging by the early explorers, and continued with the settlements of the entitled Mayflower families, the slavery by the plantation owners, and onto the deceptive army recruitment schemes of the oligarchs. And so much more. Good people have been persecuted, disenfranchised, exploited, neglected, poisoned and murdered. These are same people who pick our food, fight our wars, vacuum our offices, and take care of our elderly. We shouldn’t be just thankful; we should be indebted to these people.

As Thanksgiving is a historical celebration, our Native American brothers and sisters should first in line to be acknowledged for their selflessness, but I would also like to extend my gratitude to all those who receive little or no thanks for what they do. So, let’s say, “Thank you!” to our teachers, mothers, care-givers, janitors, social workers, and volunteers. While we’re at it, let’s also give thanks to that wild-eyed homeless man who thought he was going to war to protect our way of life…only to have his destroyed. And how about giving an early “Thank you” to that undocumented teen who is going to be your constant care nurse one day? We need to extend our gratitude far and wide to all these people and for all they do.

I also think we should try to stretch that one nice photo-op meal we serve at a soup kitchen to something more permanent. The richest nation on the planet should be capable of making sure EVERYONE can have at least one filling, nutritious meal every day of the year. Our whole food system has to be restructured: from eliminating industrial farming and creating smaller, more vibrant microfarms using permaculture techniques to transforming food deserts into food oases and scaling down retail that’s more favorable to local vendors.

Photo: Livingpeace.com

Food production is empowering, but the power is in the wrong hands, those of the multi-nationals. Nutrient-dense food, our real medicine, is unaffordable and inaccessible. The American lifestyle no longer allows for families to sit around the table at the end of the day, the result being more processed food eaten on the go. We have just one day to celebrate food, and we go into overkill. Rather than indulging in this bulimic practice, we should be given the opportunity to savor our bounty throughout the year. Every single one of us, every single day.

This brings me to the next point, namely the pièce de la résistance: the turkey. I always give a Thanksgiving-themed class to my university English students as part of the American culture segment of my curriculum. Most of my students know about our tradition of eating turkey, but as they are very curious, they wondered how everybody in America could get their hands on so many large birds all at once. This got me sleuthing. Assuming industrial production is at play, I checked out the growing times, which seem to be slightly faster for industrial-raised birds to reach an average “table-ready” weight of 15 lbs (15 weeks vs 16–18 weeks normally). Under FDA regulations, poultry can not contain growth hormones; however, this is only part of the equation. It must be known that certified organic birds are raised according to a strict code concerning their feed and surroundings, which tries to replicate at least in part the natural growing conditions for a turkey. Turkeys in the wild eat what most birds eat: worms and seeds. Their industrial brethren are fed corn and grain, which are most likely genetically modified and contain glyphosate. Being in closed quarters exposes the birds to a greater risk of infection, so antibiotics are added to the mix, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the antibiotics we need to take when we are sick…which results in the need for stronger doses, thus wreaking even more havok on our precious microbiome. This might make you rethink what you plan to put on the table- not just at Thanksgiving, but all year long.

In France, our holiday meal at Christmas can be anything from a pintade, or Guinea hen, to a pork roast, a seafood platter, or roast beef, but ordering anything from your local purveyor requires a bit of forethought, lest you’ll be stuck with less festive fare. This is especially true for purchasing bigger birds that mature on their own, naturally. It was a stroke of luck that we were able to get a free-range 3.5 kg (7.7 lb) pintade from the local farm at the last minute for our Thanksgiving dinner this week. It’ll come fresh, not frozen, and probably with a few feathers that I’ll have to pluck out. As cringe-worthy as it is to finish cleaning off the bird, I’ll do it knowing that I have something closer to nature than the frozen, pre-basted Butterball with the plastic packet of giblets found inside (and often forgotten at cooking time!).

Personally, I pretty much love all Thanksgiving fare- with the exception of giblet gravy and marshmallow yams. As we don’t have access to canned pumpkin or cranberry sauce, I have to make everything from scratch, which at first freaked me out in my pre-internet years when all I had were US cookbooks that instructed me to pull out a can to make my pie. I was surprised at how easy and so much tastier it is to do it all myself. The less processed food you depend on, the better off you are. If the adage is, “You are what you eat”, then at least I can say I know who I am now!

Before I sign off to fill out my personal release form, put on my mask, and do my Thanksgiving grocery shopping, I’ll leave you with a list of the things that I learned to be thankful for since ‘Rona:

My job… even with all the frustrations of distance teaching

Birdsong…even that of the crows

Life in its smallest forms…including the fruitflies that love my compost pail

All smiles…even those of the loitering drunks in front of the supermarket (I secretly envy their flaunting the mask laws)

Connecting with nature…even if it means with just a small cluster of trees in the city center

My sovereign mind…even when it doesn’t want to take a break at 3 am

My gut instinct…that grumbles out loud sometimes

Slowing down…even if it was imposed by President Macron

My family’s health…especially when life’s occasional curve balls give us the opportunity to understand our bodies better…and how to make them stronger

My wonderful husband and children, who made lockdown a bonding experience that I will cherish forever…even with the occasional meltdown

And yes, my family back in the States, with whom I haven’t been able to have a Thanksgiving meal in 26 years… we’re far from perfect and perhaps have more black sheep than white (I’m one of them!), but my closest of kin have helped me make me who I am, and for that, I am truly thankful.

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Jill Gaumet

Concerned world citizen for peace, justice and the environment