Thursday, November 21, 2013

On Thanksgiving: Food as Identity-Forming Story

All morning long, the family cooks work in the kitchen -- trussing the turkey, tearing bread for stuffing, rolling out pie crusts -- and the familiar scents of Thanksgiving begin to drift out of the oven: sage and pumpkin, turkey and yeasty bread.  Thanksgiving is not like any other meal that we enjoy throughout the year, is it?  We have set aside this day to enjoy eating particular foods, foods that we sometimes reserve to eat only at this time of the year, or at least, that is the only day when we eat all of those dishes with our family.

Thanksgiving is probably the one holiday in America that focuses exclusively on food:  on creating a table of bountiful, delicious food, and then enjoying it wholeheartedly. You don't have to buy cards or wrap presents, you don't have to churn through a bunch of holiday-themed activities or try to create and then sustain family traditions.  The goal is simple:  gather around the table with loved ones, give thanks, and then feast. 

Is this our culture's last ceremonial meal?  Perhaps. There is something about it that reminds me of Pasach, of the Passover meal shared in Jewish homes, to mark the great exodus.  Like the Jews who celebrate with Passover, we eat particular foods, on a particular day, to remember a time of  great need and great redemption.  We eat the foods, and we remember, and we explain them to our children. 

On Thanksgiving, the foods that we eat tell a story - a story of where we came from, and who we are.  This is an identity-forming meal, and one that certainly shaped my own sense of cultural identity when I was growing up.


My Thanksgiving Story

My Thanksgiving story is a quiet one.  You see, I learned about Thanksgiving when I was far from the shores of America.  Since I always attended British international schools when we lived overseas, our teachers never decorated the classroom walls with cardboard cut-outs of pilgrim hats or turkeysI was not regaled with stories of the first Thanksgiving.  And on the day of Thanksgiving itself, there was no fanfare:  no Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, no football, no Black Friday hype.  

In fact, it was always a bit of a surprise when Thanksgiving rolled around.  Wait, so it's this Thursday? we would ask.  Sometimes, my parents wouldn't allow us to miss a day of school, and we would celebrate Thanksgiving on a weekend.  But other years, my parents would allow us to stay home from school, on a Thursday, so that we could celebrate Thanksgiving.  There was a sense of comradery between the American students in our international school that day:  even if we were not always friends, we did share this one day, a day set aside for an American celebration of our story.  This is one day, we would say to each other as we left the school, when it really is great to be American. 

So off we would go to our respective houses, to prepare the customary meal.  It was difficult to get a hold of the specialty foods - the cranberries and pumpkins were particularly hard to come by.  Turkeys are not a highly prized food among Palestinians, so they were always affordable.  Some years my father would find a dented, dusty can of cranberry sauce, other years we would go without.  Some years my mother would find a pumpkin-like gourd and go through the lengthy process of converting it into a pie, other years, we would just stick to apple and pecan pie.  Making the feast was a family affair, with my sister and I working alongside our mother, and my father continually washing and drying dishes. 

And who joined us in our feast?  We, laughingly, noticed that we never seemed to serve Thanksgiving dinner to Americans.  While there was an American expat community in our area, we more often opened up our table to Arab friends from our neighborhood or church, to my cousins, aunts and uncles, to family friends, or to young people who were far from family and friends, but traveling and working in our area. 

So, I learned about being an American while passing mashed potatoes and gravy to Swedes, Germans, Arabs, Chinese.  While my Arab cousins poked at their stuffing and asked me, what is this? I knew how to drizzle the gravy over my turkey, how to scoop up a little cranberry with my stuffing, And as I passed the sweet potatoes and turkey, and as I explained what they were and why we ate them, I told myself the story of my people, my other people, and found myself saying:  this is who we are.

Thanksgiving:  Tell the Story


It has been many years since I have had Thanksgiving dinner at my mother's table.  Since then, my story has been woven into another family (my husband's) and this year, for the first time, I will be serving Thanksgiving at my own table.   And as I face this great crush of recipe-chasing (what cool twist will I do?) and technique mastery (will my turkey be dry?), and I have been forced to dig a little deeper and ask:  what does all of this mean?  Why this and not that? 

The only answer that I can come up with is this - the purpose of this meal is to tell the story. 

The Story of Your Country

Thanksgiving is perhaps the last meal that we serve in American where particular foods have particular meanings.  There is reason that we eat turkey, not lamb, corn, not rice, pumpkin, not pomegranate.  By choosing these foods, we are (imperfectly), reenacting the first thanksgiving.  When we sit down at their table, we enter into their story, and with every word of thanks and with every bite of food, our bodies are telling --and participating--in the story of who we are as a nation. 

The Story of Your Family

Your table has another story to tell:  the story of your family.  Maybe your mother makes a killer pumpkin pie with a special family recipe, or maybe your family has hit upon a few well-loved recipes and you just can't imagine Thanksgiving without Grandma's sweet potato casserole or Grandpa's yeast rolls.  These dishes become a part of the narrative of your family; when you invite others to share your feast, you pass them the dish and tell them:  this is what our family eats on this day.  Let me tell you why.

Maybe your table also tells another story: the tale of your family's roots, your particular people, your particular history.  When we sit down for Thanksgiving dinner with my husband's family, I read the story of their Pennsylvania Dutch forefathers because alongside the turkey and stuffing, there is also a bowl of pickled eggs, stained deep fuchsia from beets and vinegar, and German-style creamed lettuce.  When I sit down with my sister's husband's family, I read another story, the story of the African-American experience on our soil, with the rich flavors of collard greens, creamy macaroni and cheese and the famed sweet potato pie.  For many families, it is important to them to make a place at the table for dishes from their home country, whether that is hummus or some other dish. 

The Story of Your Food

This may not be a story that you tell, but in a sense, there is another layer to the narrative.  Your food itself has a story.  When we come to respect our food as a part of this world, or creation, you come to realize that each element on your table has its own history, it's own story.  You turkey has a story.  Your green beans have a story.  They came from somewhere, they were raised by someone.  One of the reasons that the first participants in the Thanksgiving feast were so grateful was that they had an understanding of this story - the story of their food, and how it grew, and how it was cultivated.

There is something beautiful about a story, well-told.  I hope that you enjoy yours.

Happy Thanksgiving!

and sahtain,

may your foods increase your health




Bint Rhoda
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  1. Another excellent and thoughtful post. Thank you!

  2. I so enjoyed reading your post, I am going to feature it on this weeks Thankful HomeAcre Hop. Thanks for sharing and I hope you join us again on Thursday!
    Nancy The Thankful Home Acre Hop

    1. Thank you so very much! How kind of you. I look forward to joining your hop again!

  3. I love this post, Jessica! I'll share on the MidEats page tomorrow :) Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours! ~Heba

    1. Thanks, Heba! So glad that you liked it! Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!


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