Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving and Its Ordinary Weirdness

    Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and much as I love it, I would like to spend a moment dwelling on some of its peculiarities.  It is, perhaps, the most completely American holiday, in the true sense of the word.  In its oddly ecumenical way, it is truly a “holy day” with prescribed rituals, a sacral meal with defined parts, and myth of foundation.*  Yet all of these are grounded in an American mythos, in American history (not quite the same thing) and respond to both American beliefs and American anxieties.  The only other holiday which even comes close is July 4.
Where to begin?  Let’s start (and maybe end) with the Turkey.  Turkey almost certainly wasn’t the main attraction on the menu in 1621 (or in 1607, if you belong to the Jamestown school of Thanksgiving mythology).  Any poultry on those early menus was simply part of a hecatomb of game, in which red meat was probably the star attraction.
   And lets face it, Turkey is a weird bird.  We are not known, globally, as a nation of great cooks, and yet our national feast requires a main dish that is incredibly difficult to cook well. We insist on making that difficult job even harder through a set of traditions that mandate cooking the largest possible bird (which leads to  toughness and dryness) and stuffing it (which makes for tasty stuffing, but an even drier bird).  Turkey's flavor takes a little getting used to: I still vividly remember the shock, as a child, of how it looked like a gigantic chicken, but mysteriously failed to taste like one.  My favorite part of a chicken, the drumstick, was an almost inedible bundle of desiccated dark meat and mysterious splinters of bone.
     The whole Turkey train wreck serves to remind me of how out of touch, as Americans, we really are with good food.  Much has been made of how the French, in particular, don’t “get” Thanksgiving.  I can see how this would be true at every level (I can’t think of a nation less likely to fetishize thankfulness than the French), but I suspect it’s the gastronomic side of the equation that really kicks it for them.  “You have a holiday whose entire celebration is built around the food,” says my inner Frenchman (I don’t know if everyone has one of these, but I certainly do), “and the food is so… ordinary. Yams?  Stale bread? What is wrong with you people?”  There is so much fuss made over the preparation of Thanksgiving food, that we tend to forget how economical the whole thing is.  Pound for pound, turkey is a very good buy, as are yams, potatoes, squash stuffing, and all the other traditional components of a Thanksgiving meal.  Indeed, perhaps that is where and why the holiday begins to make some sense for us.  We are not thankful for what we have on Thanksgiving itself, but for what we have everyday.  The ordinariness of the meal may be a problem, gastronomically speaking, but ritually it makes perfect sense.  What a blessing it is to be allowed to consider our own plentiful lives "ordinary."

*Speaking of ecumenism, nothing irritates me more than being told to have a nice "holiday" when the holiday is Thanksgiving.  Who the f*** has a problem with Thanksgiving?

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