Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving: Turkey Stuffed with America

A New York Times piece this week reconfirmed the enduring legacy of Thanksgiving, our national holiday.  It is a meal that represents America – warts, stuffing and all.  The particular gravy ladled on top of the turkey this time is the Left/Right politics over the proper narrative to impose on the original meal and just whose view of America it confirms.

This post will sidestep the particular politics of the moment (we know very little about that 16th century meal, folks; argue away if it makes you feel more American) except to point out that Thanksgiving is a meal that symbolizes America in more ways than most might appreciate.  To elaborate, When Dad Cooks presents a brief history of Thanksgiving.  I will skip the sourcing so that this does not sound like some boring scholar droning on, but if you’re really interested I’ll send you some citations.

If you’re otherwise willing to trust me, then strap in for another exciting episode of “Much of What You’ve Been Told is Not True.”  You might be surprised at how much of what you find in this category relates to food.

Thanksgiving as a national celebration has its roots in slavery, not a Puritan harvest festival.  We were a testy bunch in the years immediately before the Civil War.  A movement began in what was then the West to bring the country back together through a national day of feast.  By the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln thought it a good idea and proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday. 

Unity is a tough thing, however. Despising anything associated with Lincoln, the newly-conquered southern states did not celebrate Thanksgiving during the Reconstruction Era.  It was not until the nation as a whole tired of policing equality in the South – leading to the Jim Crow Era – that the South joined the party.

“Ahhh, but certainly the meal itself is unsullied by the ups and downs of American history,” Uncle Marvin shouts from in front of the TV in the living room. 

Well, not if you’re a Puritan at heart, Marv.  Puritans would see anything with flavor as having been sullied.  All those wonderful spices and herbs in the stuffing, or the cinnamon in your pumpkin pie?  Sorry.  The Puritans would denounce you as spawn of Satan or worse – Catholic.  The meal that we now look to celebrity chefs to spice up for us was a pretty bland affair until the big migration wave of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  

It was the Italians and many others who brought those ideas about herbs, spices, sausage in the stuffing and such to the American feast.  Many of those people were Catholic, whose ancestors would not have been welcome in the Plymouth Colony.  Owing to the Puritan and WASP inheritance of the meal, these new Catholic Americans did not actually celebrate Thanksgiving at first, viewing it as a Protestant holiday.  The embrace of herbs and such in the meal, in part, marked the arrival of these new cultures into the American mainstream (football had a lot to do with this, too, but this is a food blog; Hook ‘Em Horns).

Most tables this season will groan under the weight of the industrial turkey.  This is a post World War II invention.  The industrial turkey is enormous compared to its natural forebears, stuffed with so many hormones and injected water that its breasts could grace the cover of a men’s magazine (or women’s magazine at the checkout counter; but that, too, is a post for another blog).  The industrial turkey is a symbol of the rise of American industry in the 20th century.  In so doing, it harkens back to the Puritan ethic of practicality over adornment (meaning it sacrifices flavor for size and profit). 

“Well, maybe so, sugar,” Great Aunt Sadie says while pinching a bruise into your cheek.  “But, American industry also gave us the plastic pop-up thingy that lets us know when our turkey is done.”

Sorry Sadie.  That ridiculous plastic pop-up thingy inserted into that enormous breast has nothing to do with flavor and is only tangentially related to when the bird is done.  It has everything to do with avoiding lawsuits over bacteria from turkeys raised in cages jam-packed with other turkeys.  If you rely on it, you can be sure that the bacteria are long dead.  They were destroyed along with all the moisture in the breast.  No flavor.  No lawsuits.

America’s litigious nature is also represented in the turkey.

In the 21st century, America is attempting to recover some of its food heritage, picking and choosing among things that have been industrialized, things that are local, things they grow themselves and the restaurant open on Thanksgiving that promises all these things.  So, it is only fitting that many other tables will boast an heirloom bird, or a non-industrialized range-fed organic bird, or a bird that was nurtured in a subdivision in violation of the homeowner association rules. 

The American spirit of rebellion lives on in small ways today.

So, as the Times reported, it is only fitting that the current conflagration of socialism versus capitalism should have a seat at the Thanksgiving table.  American history has always been condensed and stuffed into a turkey.  Would you like some sweet potatoes with that? 

It simply reminds us that this day endures as a truly American feast, something you've been told that is truer than you might have known.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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