This is a twice-baked post (not a half-baked one, I hope), reworked from a couple of earlier Thanksgiving reflections. Nutritional value may vary.
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I blame the Food Channel.
Those perfectly roasted turkeys, exotic side dishes (pomegranate in your cornbread stuffing, anyone?), gorgeously-set tables. I’m a sucker for it myself. I want my bird to look just like Bobby Flay’s.
The TV versions of the flawless Thanksgiving (beautiful food, beautiful people around the table) conspire with their print media counterparts (page after glossy page of home-and-hearth goodness) to seduce us with an impeccable, impossible ideal.
As we prepare this week to achieve culinary perfection and familial bliss (and to be disappointed yet again; why do we do this to ourselves?), it’s worth thinking about what is often hidden from view on TV, in the magazines, and in the American industrial food system itself:
1. Those cheap turkeys we’re able to buy at the grocery chain stores actually come at a considerable cost that someone else pays, namely, the low-wage workers who process thousands of birds a day in dirty, dangerous conditions. If those low-wage workers are undocumented, they may be rounded up in an anti-immigration raid, but that will probably be quietly orchestrated between executives at the processing plant and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. This will ensure that a “message” is sent to “illegals” everywhere, but the valuable production of cheap, industrial meat will not be meaningfully disrupted. (See Food, Inc. for the chilling, heartbreaking reality of this phenomenon).
2. The big-breasted chickens and turkeys we’ve come to expect are engineered to be that way: they are overfed corn (not their natural sustenance) to dramatically accelerate the growing process. They are kept in cramped, dark “houses” where, under the stress of their own grotesque body weight, their small legs collapse and they spend their remaining days lying and squirming in their own excrement. We may joke that we can’t get up from the table after gorging on turkey and all the trimmings; the animals we’re eating likely couldn’t move much either.
3. We’ll be consuming lots of petroleum with our Thanksgiving meal – as we do every day – since the average distance our food travels from farm to plate is 1500 miles. Oil company executives will have a lot to be thankful for.
There’s plenty more bad news, but the point is not to pile on the gloom nor to be demoralized by guilt or despair. The point, rather, is to learn how to reclaim Thanksgiving (and all our eating) as an agricultural act.
The point also is to eat with a sense of the sacramental. In the holy yet thoroughly mundane meal that Christians share — the Eucharist (in Greek, “thanksgiving”) – we feast at Creation’s table, finding ourselves linked to all the world and especially to those creatures — human and non-human — who suffer and are exploited for our gain. The Eucharist is always justice in the midst of injustice, sharing in the midst of accumulation and hoarding, communal conviviality in the midst of private pain and loneliness.
To be grateful for the gifts that sustain and enrich our lives is to take responsibility for our own habits that unwittingly deny the intrinsic goodness of the Earth and those who dwell in it. This repentance — literally the changing of our minds and hearts — might mean paying more for a humanely-grown turkey or advocating for an equitable farm/food bill or mentoring a child caught in the cycle of bad nutrition, obesity, or other serious health concerns.
It also ought to mean that we protest loudly the mistreatment of immigrants, especially in Alabama, who have been intimidated by cruel legislation and who feel forced to leave their homes for an uncertain future. (That these hard workers pick the produce we need for our Thanksgiving feasts — sweet potatoes for your pies and casseroles? — is an absurd irony of our fear-driven electoral politics).
Whatever it looks like for each of us, this repentant gratitude is the joyful work of true thanksgiving. The Eucharist — a counterpolitics to all that is distorted in our views on food and feasting, on strangers in our midst — teaches us how to eat and how to live eucharistically, this day and every day.