Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house was always a feast of epic proportions. There wasn’t room on the dining room table for all the food. The classics—stuffing, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, et cetera—were always there. Each food is associated in my mind with the woman who would make it: the stuffing was my grandmother’s specialty. My mother was the sweet potato casserole pro. My aunt religiously made the green bean casserole.
But Thanksgiving these days seems to be more complicated than the holiday of my childhood. It’s not just because of political differences or familial awkwardness: increasingly, it seems to be the food that fosters disharmony.
Americans have gotten increasingly intense about what they eat. Perhaps they believe in eating vegan, vegetarian, raw, gluten-free, dairy-free, or paleo; perhaps they only purchase and consume organic food. But regardless of the fad one follows, food has become the anxious obsession of our society.
The Rise in ‘I Can’t Eat That’
Though religious beliefs or allergies restrict some people’s diets, many of the average American’s food choices come back to the self, and the idealized “healthy body.” There’s a growing sense of dogma surrounding our food industry.
Sometimes, this doesn’t manifest itself in any dangerous ways. But occasionally, it can have dangerous manifestations: such as “orthorexia,” a sort of eating disorder characterized by an obsession with healthy food, and a refusal to eat anything outside those specific boundaries.
Beyond the diets, disorders, and intolerances, there’s also an upsurge in appreciation for the artisan in our society—one that, while good in and of itself, can easily become disordered. It can lure us into a sort of gastronomic snobbishness. This is fine when you’re buying groceries or deciding which restaurant to visit on a Friday night. But what happens when we gather during the holiday season?
Thanksgiving is a meal over which we have little to no control. There are usually calorie-laden casseroles and sugary desserts, butter-soaked Brussels sprouts and gluten-stuffed dinner rolls. Dishes like stuffing and sweet potato casserole break all the dietary rules in one bite. In modern America, Thanksgiving can become a time of incredible anxiety and fear over what we eat: a time when our dieting preferences—or disorders—can really threaten our ability to relax and enjoy both the food and the people who made it.
The New Thanksgiving Table Controversy
Those who cook for a Thanksgiving meal can feel tremendous pressure to prepare something people will actually eat. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than having poured your heart and soul into cooking for family or friends, to then drive home with full hands.
Meanwhile, those who come to the table, with their list of eating do’s and don’ts, find themselves paralyzed by the limited set of options available. They can grab hummus and veggies from the appetizer tray, perhaps snack on a bit of dry turkey. But our inability to partake of the food offered leaves us with hungry stomachs and hurt feelings, and can often lead (even inadvertently) to disappointment and bitterness on both sides.
It is, in many ways, the dietary version of the political confrontations and awkwardness that many fear at Thanksgiving. We know those relatives who disagree with us, and we dread in advance their judgmental looks or hurt faces.
Thanksgiving is supposed to be an occasion at which we can unite around broken bread and shared traditions: a time when we can set aside our differences and partake in thanks. But it seems our dietary legalism is increasingly getting in the way.
Be Magnanimous at the Table
The holiday season requires gracious bakers and cooks—but it also requires gracious eaters. It requires those with picky taste buds and dietary preferences to be as magnanimous as possible. It requires those who may look down on meat-eaters to exercise some charity when they see a huge platter of ham and turkey (and vice versa: this isn’t time to tease your friend who brought tofurkey). Meanwhile, it requires us to be aware of those with actual medical restrictions, to strive to learn how to cook for them—while also asking them to be aware of and gracious toward our ignorance.
But even if you do love the turkey and stuffing, or the pumpkin pie, Thanksgiving isn’t really about the food at all. We gather out of love: to be together, and to bless each other. Thanksgiving is about “giving thanks”—about considering all the blessings we’ve received, and all the people who make life sweet. And I think there’s no better time to set aside our selves and wants, and truly take the time to appreciate the work, generosity, and character of others. To appreciate every dish that’s put on the table, and every pair of hands that prepared it.
Even when love is tired, bruised, apprehensive, or pensive, true love returns to the table. Because when we break bread together, we grow to know and love each other more deeply.