The Thanksgiving issue: Gratitude and craft

Time to get serious, now. Thanksgiving is only a day away, and if you haven’t started your preparations yet, you’d best get cracking. I don’t mean brining the turkey or kneading bread dough: I mean being thankful. The point of setting this day aside isn’t just to eat. And yet, of course, to show our gratitude, we hold a feast. How, exactly, is a feast supposed to make us thankful?

I was thinking about this question after reading my local newspaper last week, which wants me to breathe easier about Thanksgiving.

Do you make a pie from scratch or hurl a frozen Frisbee in the oven? Do you slowly whisk gravy from drippings or quickly whisk gravy powder into water? Do you give your turkey more treatments than a spa weekend, or go straight from plastic wrapper to pan?

There is room at the table for all kinds of Thanksgiving styles, from laid-back convenience to full-scale kitchen assault…. There’s no shame in shortcuts. Raleigh News & Observer, November 16, 2011, p. D1.

The sidebar lists “5 Handy Gadgets” you can buy to make your feast even more simple and convenient, including an electric carving knife and a fat-separating cup.

I am, actually, a believer in simplifying things, but simplifying is not the same as taking shortcuts. Simplifying is running a 5K instead of a 10K; taking a shortcut is driving your car to the finish line. Simplifying means serving fewer dishes with fewer ingredients; taking shortcuts means serving as much as you can cram onto the table with as little effort as humanly possible. Thanksgiving being such a deeply American holiday, it’s not surprising the latter gets the ink. But it’s not the way to be thankful.

The purpose of a feast of thanksgiving was, originally — not to be didactic, but it bears repeating — to give thanks. Specifically, to give thanks for the harvest. Practically every culture that has ever had agriculture has had some sort of harvest festival, and practically all of those harvest festivals involved rituals of gratitude — to one or another god or goddess, to the earth, to the grain itself — for food to last another winter.

If you are living in an agrarian society in which you will be fed solely from the fruit of this year’s harvest, you had best be thankful, because there are fat years and lean years, and you have known the lean ones, or at least heard your elders tell incessant stories about them. You also know that whether the year is fat or lean is largely not under your control. You may work hard, you may do everything right, and you may still not reap what you sow. Rain or sun or wind may sweep it all away and your children starve. If the sun lies late abed and never dispels the morning cool, if the afternoon breeze makes you wish for a warmer coat, and yet you know that you have food enough that your children won’t starve before spring, then you know that things could be worse. And so you are thankful. And you have a feast — simply because you can.

That was the reality even in New England until about 1820, two centuries after the Pilgrims’ original “starving time,” when commerce and agriculture improved to the point that people no longer worried about going hungry in the early spring when their winter stores ran out. It has been the reality for most of human history, but it isn’t ours. A terrible number of children will go hungry in America this winter, but serious malnutrition is extremely rare, famine is something we see on television, and indeed obesity is a far greater threat to the health of the poor than hunger. The suffering that exists has little to do with failures of agriculture, nor only rarely the vagaries of the weather. We are, for the most part, an extraordinarily pampered people, who take bounty as a postulate; we believe ourselves to be in control of everything, and when something goes wrong, we quickly assign blame to maintain the illusion. In a modern urban context, surrounded by human construction, human artifacts, human invention, it’s hard not to assume that humans are, or ought to be, in control of our destinies. The modern urban context is all about control. But to what or to whom, then, can we be thankful? I’ve heard it said that gratitude is a state of mind, but it’s a state of mind inspired by the knowledge that we are not, after all, in control, and that if we are well off, the credit is not entirely our own.

It’s no coincidence that a generation after New Englanders largely quit worrying about feeding themselves, their traditional harvest festival was thought so debased and endangered that it had to be preserved as a formal, institutional, national holiday. Since the reformers themselves were far from being farmers, of course, the notion of a harvest festival became mere decoration, and the new holiday celebrated not the blessings of the harvest but the blessings of being an American. The latter were, if still allegedly God-given, rather more smugly received and less sincerely thanked-for than the former. And if we still celebrate with a feast, it is an industrial feast, the product of factories and machines rather than of the earth and of our own hands—stuffing from a box, cranberries from a can, a turkey engineered to convert feed to meat with maximum efficiency. To whom should we be thankful for that? ConAgra?

On Thanksgiving Day, if we are to celebrate and be grateful for our blessings with a meal, then that meal needs somehow to embody gratitude. Paradoxically, I find it easiest to be grateful for a meal when I did the most to create it. With produce from our garden gratitude comes easily, however carefully we planned it and however hard we worked, because I know how often it’s failed in the past. The first meal entirely of home-raised food (eggs, potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes) seemed nearly a miracle. Barring that it helps me to know the people who did grow the food, who worked hard and risked failure and gave me the meal. I have a half-dozen farm families to thank for the food waiting in my kitchen for Thursday afternoon. A few of them I’ve known fifteen years.

But if you don’t know where your food came from, you can at least know how it was prepared. That you can do yourself. Whatever you can do, do it. I am not suggesting that your board needs to groan the praise of Martha Stewart, or that you ought to spend days and nights in the kitchen, unless that genuinely makes you happy. But you can cook something, thoughtfully, attentively, with your own hands, to the best of your ability, from ingredients you can recognize as something that once came from the earth. If your ability is limited, prepare something simple and be proud of it — but test your skill. If it isn’t perfect, well, what is? Repeated success just makes us smug; it’s the possibility of failure that encourages gratitude. Bake bread in the knowledge that grumpy yeast or a cold kitchen could make a heavy loaf. Embrace the uncertainty. The humility will make you grateful.

And the work? Consider it a devotion — to whatever you believe in. Consider it a reminder that there is, somewhere, somehow, by someone, a price to be paid for your cornfed stupor on the couch later on, a price you ought to take Thanksgiving Day to pay in something more meaningful than cash.

If doing from scratch, for yourself, with your own hands means simplifying a dish or culling a tradition, then so be it. A feast can be simple. But a feast of thanksgiving has to be honest. It must be made and shared joyfully, or it isn’t a feast of thanksgiving: it’s only a pro forma prelude to the orgy of Black Friday. Industrial abundance isn’t going to make us grateful. Neither will shortcuts and gadgets. But a little honest craft just might.