The Meaning and Taste of Thanksgiving
For one day in the year on Thanksgiving, Americans hope to renew a sense of “belonging” to a fading culture.
Once a year, on the fourth Thursday of November, Americans honor their imagined Puritan heritage, even if today only a tiny minority can trace their ancestry back to the communities of 17th century New England. This year’s celebration will see half the population tuck in to Thanksgiving dinner while attempting to overcome their lingering indigestion following Donald Trump’s election. The other half—those who voted for him—will be giving thanks not just to his campaign for its successful strategy and the media for giving their candidate so much play, but some of them will feel revitalized by the idea that the white, Christian heritage of the Puritans has been validated by a majority in the electoral college.
The historical mythology surrounding the first Thanksgiving has always been confused, and never more so than today, marked not only by Trump’s election but also the standoff between Native Americans in North Dakota, on one side, and corporate America, the oil industry and a complicit government on the other. More than ever, we are impelled to ask certain questions without having a clear answer.
Were the original English settlers charitable neighbors, grateful to the natives and intent on living in peace, as Thanksgiving is ideally presented? Or was it the start of a vast landgrab—a racist settlement campaign that set the tone for two centuries of genocide, formalized in the 19th century as the doctrine of manifest destiny?
The fog of history
Thanksgiving may be the most universally observed holiday by Americans, possibly more so than the Fourth of July, a summer holiday dedicated more to neighborhood barbecues than family reunions. The very name Thanksgiving has a strong religious connotation, deriving from the Puritan roots of American culture. The thanking is a gratitude explicitly expressed to the 17th century God, presumably the same God who is called upon to bless today’s America at the end of every political speech. Members of all religions, including agnostics and atheists, appear to share the feeling that some form of providence has led them on a preordained path into the paradise of the consumer society, whose true feast day is of course Black Friday, the day of orgiastic and combative pre-Christmas purchasing that follows Thanksgiving.
This pair of days, Thanksgiving and Black Friday, can therefore be seen to represent the celebration of the divinely sanctioned capitalist cornucopia, clearly the most visible feature of American culture. After the excess of food, drink and football on TV for which one cannot help but be thankful, it’s all about goods to advertise, buy, wrap up and give so that one’s loved ones may, come December, consume them and once again feel thankful.
Thanksgiving and Black Friday have been designed as the lead-in to Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza, when merchandise—a gift from heaven, a place sometimes confused with the North Pole for the children’s sake—will be opened to be consumed, played with, used, worn or promptly taken back to the store for an exchange. Thanksgiving is, therefore, the beginning of a roughly 40-day cycle celebrating abundance and consumption that logically enough finishes with the traditional resolutions of moderation following New Year’s Day.
The United States has, in many ways, the most individualistic culture on earth. Communities only exist in a very loose sense based either on geographical proximity; on sociological inertia, when certain ethnic or linguistic groups continue to occupy their traditional neighborhoods; on class, as in gated communities for the wealthy; or on the economic discrimination that produces racially-defined ghettos. American culture has also created the notion of communities of affinity, such as the vegan community or the LGBT community, composed of people who are never likely to be in direct contact but who share certain personal characteristics or life styles.
The idea of family is also defined in a very loose sense. Americans are first and foremost individuals, each with a mission to charter an individual path in life by acquiring the assertiveness that allows to impose their personality on others and create their own space. The most proficient in the art of self-creation can even become celebrities adulated by other celebrities, the principle that lies behind reality TV shows such as America’s Got Talent.
The notion of the self-reliant and self-defining individual breaking free from the family was true even before divorce became the rule rather than the exception, in both cultural and statistical terms. For many Americans, it can be a real challenge to define the family that is expected to come together at Thanksgiving. Loyalty to community or family is, therefore, anything but a given for the average American.
If Independence Day reminds Americans that they are all part of a shared political entity, the national holiday of Thanksgiving was designed and promoted to make Americans believe in what has become more and more a fiction—that they still belong to a clan, if not a community, with roots in the historical past.
For one day in the year, they drift back toward a collective identity out of a sense of ritualized duty to their kin, hoping to renew a sense of “belonging.” Paradoxically, the feeling of solidarity is more often than not contradicted by the reality of ideological polarization, producing the modern Thanksgiving ritual of raging disagreements on everything from morals, behavioral norms and cultural tastes to politics and religion. Thanksgiving is the day when everyone receives confirmation of the fact that their families are not united.
A social meal
Thanksgiving celebrates a much-mythologized historical feast in which rival ethnic groups, Europeans and Native Americans, came together in peace. For the settlers, the first Thanksgiving was a celebration of survival. Today’s Thanksgiving celebrates opulence and comfort. Those who survive against all odds in a perilous environment naturally feel joy and gratitude when they realize that thy have created a stable basis for a new life. They inevitably feel bound together socially by a common destiny.
Opulence produces a somewhat different effect.
Thanksgiving in the 21st century reflects a less spectacular but more permanent component of the Puritan ethos—the sense of duty. Families come together to fulfill their duty of reaffirming their collective identity. Duty thus replaces the spontaneous joy of feasting together and sharing one’s destiny with kinfolk and neighbors.
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Since the celebration is now focused on comfort and the achievement of abundance rather than survival, quantity prevails over quality. The value of the food prepared, cooked, served and ingested has become purely symbolic. Most families serve a standardized menu based on a list of quasi obligatory ingredients: stuffed turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, chosen not because they are seasonal or because the family member who cooked the meal has been inspired to create those dishes, but because these are the ingredients that define the ritual of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is anything but an authentic gastronomic experience reflecting the family’s culinary creativity.
History and modern sociology tell us that, in contrast to many other cultures, American culture has never excelled at building family solidarity or cultivating taste. Both of these lacunae have their roots in Puritan culture. On the theological level—and this remains true even for agnostics or atheists—every individual is in a personal relationship with a providential God (or the universe, in the case of non-believers) and must struggle with the feeling of being predestined, if not to heaven or hell, at least to a particular role in society and the economy.
The Calvinist notion of predestination is thus paradoxically coupled with the duty of self-definition. Focused on the destiny of the individual both in this life and for eternity, the family or community identity plays a less important role than in other traditions. Each child is cast into the teeming world to forge his or her way, personality and vocation. They are ultimately expected to take personal responsibility for it, thus fulfilling God’s intent and confirming their predestined fate. Americans find it hard to understand that in many other cultures focused on the family or the community, this may not be the case. Members of these other cultures find it equally hard to understand the pressure this puts on individual Americans.
Taste and consumption
Any Frenchman or Italian will tell you that taste, like style, is a social phenomenon. There are standards of taste and rules of style. In American culture, taste and style have always been a problem. This is because one of the key factors that defines individuals, each distinct from the others, is the personal tastes and style they develop and project.
But what is taste? The Puritans regarded sensual pleasure as a stratagem of the devil. Virtue consists in avoiding it. As a result, the proverb “Eat to live, don’t live to eat,” lifted without acknowledgement by Benjamin Franklin from Molière’s play The Miser, has taken on a specific meaning in American culture. Molière used it with cutting irony as a transparent rationalization that the miser, Harpagon, seizes upon to avoid splurging on a feast after inviting a group of people to dinner. The audience of the play immediately recognizes the serious contradiction with a key value in French culture, good cheer and the unbridled celebration of both the social and sensual pleasures of the feast.
But Franklin, who was himself a bon vivant chronically suffering from gout as a result of his own excesses, cited the proverb in his Poor Richard’s Almanac as a moral imperative consistent with America’s Puritan culture, which discouraged the notion of pleasure and encouraged frugality. This didn’t prevent Franklin from also citing, “Eat to please thyself, but dress to please others,” which underlines the individualistic orientation of food consumption in the United States.
Contrary to received opinion, American Puritans did not insist upon bland food. Taste is the one sense they little or no shame about. The early settlers typically glorified God for the delicious ingredients He provided them with in their adopted habitat: game, fowl, fish and a new range of vegetables and exotic fruit.
But Puritans had an incorrigible habit of theologizing everything, including the production and intake of food. The 17th century Puritan theologian, Thomas Watson spoke in his catechism of food as the oil that nourishes the lamp of life. The taste of food was a sign of the goodness of God’s providence in feeding the body. But in itself it had no intrinsic value. And only man’s sinful pride could seek to improve what God provided. This contrasted severely with the French who exulted in the finesse of their cuisine as their cooks hubristically assumed the role the Puritans reserved for God, that of fashioning the taste of food through the elaboration of their sophisticated culinary art, complemented by the science of organizing a socially-optimized meal, with its succession of courses that stimulated the taste buds as well as scintillating conversation.
And the French were not alone, as similar traditions and practices were and still are common in most European countries, South Asia, China and elsewhere around the globe.
In the newly settled and rapidly expanding New England colonies, the notion of nutrition and nourishment thus began to prevail where taste had formerly reigned. Various trends began turning the meaning of the proverb “eat to live” into a command to stuff one’s mouth in order to fuel the machine. The nexus of ideas that linked partaking in God’s gifts, sharing with family and neighbors and coming together to savor a loved one’s or the community’s gastronomy slipped into the background. Americans began to interpret “eat to live” as a command to nourish the individual’s body, to consume what the organism required and to think as little about it as possible.
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In the 19th century, as the rapid development of an urban industrial economy began draining the population from the countryside, the alienation from both natural and gastronomically sophisticated taste became complete.
Industrial farming and sophisticated distribution meant that food took on an increasingly utilitarian role in society, responding to the fundamental idea of providing affordable fuel to provide the energy required for the individual’s activities. Neither God’s providence, nor the cultivation of taste through the culinary arts, nor the social ritual of shared meals remained as organizing principles of food consumption.
The economic logic of the burgeoning consumer society accelerated the trend toward industrial production and packaging. The model for marketing evolved toward the just-in-time, anytime, anywhere feeding of the individual body as a response to spontaneous pangs of hunger or cravings. By the middle of the 20th century—the age of the TV dinner and fast food—all the conditions had come together for the modern epidemic of obesity to which no one seems to have an answer, in spite of all of Michelle Obama’s brave efforts.
The massive and rapid growth of agribusiness, modern logistics, industrial scale distribution, advertising and individualized media-based entertainment (television) have accelerated the elimination of all the traditional bases of food consumption, from gardening to the ritual of planned, balanced meals, conceived of as well-structured social events.
If eating is essentially about stoking the engine of our bodies with easily-consumable food products that are readily available everywhere, the very idea of the meal as the key factor binding families and social groups together begins to disappear. Meals are occasions for sharing, not just food but also experience, thought, values and ideas. The shared meal has ceased to be a major organizational factor in social construction, especially now that verbal and cultural sharing is more likely to take place on Facebook or Twitter than around the family table.
A cultural museum piece
Given this evolution, it is hardly surprising that Thanksgiving has not only survived in spite of the obvious demise of traditional Puritan culture with its explicit Calvinist theology, but has even gained strength in 21st century US culture. Americans need to be reminded that the social, even collectivist, side of their cultural life still exists, though it be for one day in the year only.
And even if, during that day of bonding, they find it hard to maintain the fiction of social harmony and family solidarity. In that sense, Thanksgiving has begun to resemble an elaborate display in a museum that codifies the gestures and superficial themes of an event that has definitively lost its organic link to its once living sources and has indeed veered off in a different direction.
Like everything else in American society, the marketers and commercial media have answered the call and found a way to give it new life. What the expression of bitterly disputed political opinions tears apart in a cacophony of tears and threats, professional sport binds together. One tradition the Puritans necessarily ignored—Thanksgiving-day football—provides an opportunity for families to express their solidarity by rooting for the same team or coolly analyzing the subtlety of the teams’ strategies.
In recent years, Columbus Day has been seriously compromised by a deepening awareness of the atrocities committed by that singular Italian sailor and his Spanish cohorts. Concerning the New England settlements, much has been written about how the Puritans spearheaded what would become a genocidal campaign to conquer a continent. Thanksgiving is seen by some as the symbol of that dark episode of human history, leading to the suspicion that it could be at least de-emphasized or demoted in a not-so-distant future.
But Thanksgiving doesn’t appear to be threatened. It’s part of both a cultural and a commercial paradigm that works. It’s here to stay, along with Black Friday and the parade of end-of-year holiday festivities that in 2016 will have the particular mission of easing the way into the first year of the age of Trump.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: AlexRaths