It's hard to know what to do with the received Thanksgiving mythology about pilgrims and natives throwing a big potluck dinner and singing "Kum Ba Yah” -- before returning in subsequent days to their respective strategies for exterminating each other. World-weary, hardened and more than a bit cynical about such ideals, it's a story harder to swallow than dry turkey. Such things happen, of course, as when German and British troops set aside their weapons, climbed out of their trenches and exchanged food and carols one Christmas Eve during World War 1; but we are more accustomed to bombings and beheadings than demonstrations of humanity and extensions of grace.
And though the food and survival’s requirement of it was likely at the core of whatever else may have happened on that first Thanksgiving gathering, it has taken a more and more perfunctory part of the celebration ever since. I don't mean that the feast is irrelevant -- indeed, “Thanksgiving” and “overeating” have become virtually synonymous in our tradition. No, I mean that the food has become the backdrop for the occasioning of other things -- family gatherings, football, the creation of shopping lists for Black Friday, blockbuster movie releases, dragging up decorations from the basement, and melancholy for “what was but now isn't” or “wished for but hasn't yet happened.” As for the menu itself, restaurants and grocery store catering kitchens increasingly do the heavy lifting, and guests are greeted by the scent of Lysol, Pledge, and the newest Glade scent instead of roasting turkey, simmering giblets and baking pies.
Count me among those who considers that a loss. Yes, I know that the relationships and the conversations matter more than the food, and I recognize that through the years far too few have borne the weight of preparations for far too many -- weary grandmothers and long-suffering housewives and surely a few culinarily adventurous men from time to time. And I know that there are plenty of individuals and couples dining alone who see little point in dirtying every dish and pan in the kitchen for themselves and the insurmountable mountain of leftovers that would surely result.
But of course these exceptions call attention to the very relational deficits this holiday was set aside to contradict. We have this tendency to dump on each other, and to neglect each other. The point of the holiday was never about incubating gout, or sleeping off the weight of too many carbs; “excess” was never the point. Whatever else may have been the centerpiece of that fanciful intersection of “Indians” and pilgrims, I'm guessing the main course was their discernment of the real abundance present in the very little they had -- evidenced by relational risk and generosity and the shared fruit of lessons learned and hard labor invested. It wasn't merely a table that was set. It was a table set with food that meant something, set by leathered hands that had sacrificed something real to get it there.
There is an old and well-worn story about an African boy who brought his teacher a beautiful seashell from a remote bay as a gift. Recognizing that her student had to have travelled a great distance to find the shell and taken various risks along the way, the teacher exclaimed, “Why, it's gorgeous and wonderful, but you shouldn't have gone all that way to get the gift for me.”
His eyes brightening, the boy answered, "Long walk part of gift.”
...as I would argue about the dishes on a Thanksgiving table. “The hard work is part of the gift.”
I recently heard a chef describe every act of cooking as an act of faith -- faith that the recipe had been well and accurately written, faith that the raw ingredients are good, and faith that our particular marriage of ingredients and recipe and labor and time will result in something good. Sharing that act of faith with others in this peculiar vulnerability is, I believe, part of the gift.
And so I am grateful to my mother who labored all those years making Thanksgiving Dinner for a household of males who hadn't yet figured out that we had gifts we could have brought to the table as well, beyond our eager appetites. I am grateful for the friends who recently joined us around a table with gifts to merge with our own. And I am grateful for the circle of siblings and spouses and parents and children willingly and lovingly committed that gastronomic act of faith in their kitchens and shared the gifts around a common table.
It was good -- the food, to be sure, but infinitely more than that. And I appreciate the effort.
Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.