Wednesday, November 28, 2012

John Gerlach ‘14, a pizza and events intern, reflects on Thanksgiving and the opportunities and challenges it presents to thinking about reforming the American food system

The Thanksgiving holiday always presents us with a healthy serving of dilemmas to go with our food: how to cook the turkey? How many turkeys? How on earth am I going to avoid my crazy uncle for an entire day? What in the world is that brown substance that my grandmother is pouring on my plate? How am I related to these people? Etc., etc.

Questions also exist for those passionate about food and sustainability. On one hand, the fact that there persists, even in our age of agribusiness and fast food, a national holiday that revolves largely around the simple pleasures of the table should be heartening. More than just encouraging us to cook and consume our own food, Thanksgiving allows us to celebrate these acts with family and friends, to think about our lives and give thanks for what we have. All good things! Right?

Not necessarily. It is possible, as it turns out, to have unproductive culinary traditions; in the case of Thanksgiving, that tradition is dramatic overconsumption. So instead of having a holiday that encourages us to think about our food, we focus on excess instead of enjoyment. I’m no exception- I eat more food more quickly on Thanksgiving than on any other occasion. While I’m normally concerned not only with eating healthily but also eating locally, for whatever reason I forget all about it when it comes time to stuff my face. 

For me, Thanksgiving illuminates the biggest challenge the slow food movement has yet to overcome: the somewhat real but mostly perceived tradeoff between satisfaction and sustainability. Yes, as things stand right now it’s harder (not to mention more expensive) to find good, local ingredients and turn them into something everyone can share and enjoy. And that needs to change. But rarely do we as a nation think more about (and spend more on) our food than on Thanksgiving. There is an opportunity for progress here, one that I think we’re missing. In our hurry to create an embarrassment of options, we miss an opportunity to look critically at our food and find a way to make the good ingredients taste even better. We also, for the record, become inevitably distracted from the “giving and receiving thanks” part of the holiday. Food should be a lubricant for this process, not an impediment to it.

I’m imagining a Thanksgiving where we eat just as much salad as we do stuffing and pie, and where we give thanks for the food on our tables in addition to the farmers nearby who produced it. The persistence of Thanksgiving in American culture is proof that we do understand and appreciate the value food can have as a way to bring people together; we obviously treasure the opportunity it affords to pause from our busy, frenetic lifestyles and take time to sit together with loved ones and contemplate what we have.. But we’re still struggling to think about what’s in our mouths while we do all that other good stuff. I firmly believe that once we’re doing that, the next steps (controlling our consumption, exercising, growing our own food) will come far easier. Imagine all we’ll have to give thanks for then!