As I mentioned in my previous entry, I was watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Wikipedia says this first aired in 1973, though somehow, in my mind, I thought it was much older. More than likely, I thought it was from the 1960s. This meant the first time I remember seeing it was mere years after it first came out. I'd guess I'd pay attention to it for the first time by maybe age 10.
In the cartoon, Peppermint Patty, who is among several guests that have arrived at Charlie Brown's house for a Thanksgiving dinner. Charlie Brown has not so much invited the group of invitees as Peppermint Patty has invited herself (there's a sense that she only has a dad and not a mom) and in the process invited Marcie and Franklin. Linus and Lucy (and sister Sally) also show up.
Charlie Brown doesn't know how to cook so Snoopy does the "cooking", which involves toast, pretzel sticks, popcorn, and jelly beans. That is, snack foods and toast. Peppermint Patty is outraged. She wanted turkey. She wanted mashed potatoes. She wanted pumpkin pie. She wants cranberry sauce.
And her rant got me to thinking about Thanksgiving.
Recently, I was asked, by a non-American, what Thanksgiving is all about. My response was food and family. And while that's true, it doesn't quite reflect what the importance of food.
Most of us understand that Thanksgiving is a bit of a feast. Depending on the family, the dinner can be served at dinner time, that is around 6-7. The day is then spent cooking possibly elaborate dishes and can take the cooks hours to make.
The last 40 or 50 years have seen a decline and a minor resurgence of cooking. I remember hearing a story of a woman, whose name eludes me (and is unlikely to be recalled any time soon), who advocated to American housewives that far too much time was expended in the name of homecooked meals. So much time that it left very little free time to do anything else.
Indeed, you see cooking in many cultures as a woman's job and to spend 1-2 hours if not many hours is considered par for the course. I was invited to a post graduation party by a graduating student. He is Italian American as are his parents. Apparently, they are used to hosting large parties, and the mother is accustomed to making 8, 10, or more dishes for these parties. She pish-poshed suggestions at how much work went in to providing food for the guests. It was, she exclaimed, a pittance. She was used to cooking far more than that.
But once you go the route of eating out at restaurants or making microwave dinners, you've reduced the amount of time to cook from hours to mere minutes. And to go back is a pain. It's like asking someone who normally has a 5 minute commute to work to take a 40 minute commute to work. That 40 minutes is exasperating and interminable. You wonder what you did in your life to deserve this Sisyphean fate. Once you manage to reach work, then you must reverse the trip, and reverse, and on and on.
There are several ways to resolve this issue of cooking. First, you can let the restaurants do the work for you. Restaurants have already perceived a desire by those who don't want to slave over the food preparation, nor the cleanup. They create Thanksgiving dinner for them.
Some of these restaurants are reasonably ritzy and upscale, perhaps to appeal to the wealthy who can afford to have other people do the labor for them. It may not have the same intimacy of home, nor the Norman Rockwell idealism of family and laborers in the kitchen, but it's a ritual many feel compelled to go through.
There are certainly cheaper ways to achieve the same effect, usually involving getting turkey from the Boston Market and other side dishes. Boston Market wouldn't bother with this if every family felt the need to make everything from scratch. Other cultures that have revered the woman as cook would find the notion of letting restaurants do the work or getting canned foods as horrific.
And in a sense, Americans think that too. Of course, if pressed for an answer, an American would say the fast foods we get, the canned, the microwaved, the pre-cooked foods do not taste as good as expertly prepared homemade food. That's fair. But they are willing to make that tradeoff. Rather than spend years learning to cook a variety of different dishes and attain a level of mastery that allows the cooking to be shown off and repeatably so, the time saved from learning to cook, the money saved from not buying all manners of kitchen gadgetry, even the basic effort saved from not cutting up vegetables, slicing meats, preparing marinades and side dishes and desserts, is considered well worth it for quick meals that taste significantly worse, but still now awful. A price worth paying, most would say.
Due to the fast-food mentality of America and a greater gender equality starting from the 1970s feminist movement, there is a countervailing bucking of the trend, most often seen by males who find that guys like Jeff "The Frugal Gourmet" Smith (whose shows have literally been eradicated by other cooking shows and by insinuations that were never quite proven of his predilection for youthful lads) and Bobby Flay and Christopher Kimball and the Iron Chefs that, indeed, guys can cook, that it's not shameful. Quite the contrary, it's cool if a guy can cook. Women seem to appreciate that fact too.
Which brings us back to Thanksgiving.
Despite America's love-hate affair with cooking, Thanksgiving reminds us of a time, perhaps a time that never existed, when American families got together for a huge family dinner:
What occurred to me, after all is said and done, is that Thanksgiving is not merely about eating food, though it certainly is that, but it's about a way to tie some idea nationally. That it's about a mythical view of the United States. Amber waves of grain. Purple mountains majesty. Fruited plains. (Fruited plains?).
I got this idea, of all places, by the juxtaposition of a Facebook status, and the watching of the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. The status, by one Jeremy Pelzer, reads "Jeremy Pelzer likes turkey almost as much as pumpkin pie".
And that got me to thinking that these were two of the items Peppermint Patty wants in her Thanksgiving dinner. Funny enough, Peppermint Patty seems like she's grown up in a kind of broken household. She's a tomboy. She's from a single parent family. (Does she have an intriguing relation with Marcie?).
But she feels something is missing from her life. She is missing some of the "traditional" aspects of life. She looks at Charlie Brown and feels he is living that traditional life. That his family surely observes a traditional Thanksgiving, that surely he must eat breakfast that consists of waffles and pancakes and bacon and orange juice. She is surprised that Charlie Brown's existence is mundane. That he doesn't know how to cook (funny how the parents are completely isolated from his life) and that breakfast consists of cold cereal. Is this Schultz's criticism of how our culture has abandoned its ways? Does he merely weep for the convenience of life? The various Charlie Brown specials often focus on how we've lost our way.
I hadn't intended this to be about the despairing vision of Charles Schultz which is bizarrely offset by the magically unreal world of Snoopy. When Americans have lost their ways, only their dogs will remember to dream.
Nope, I wanted to talk about the unifying idea of food on the American psyche. It's not that we simply eat food. There is Thanksgiving food. There is turkey. There is cranberry sauce. There is mashed potatoes.
We don't necessarily follow it to the letter. It doesn't have to be the Norman Rockwell dinner. Indian families that have lived in the US may choose to remember their Indian heritage while still making a traditional turkey and stuffing. Vegetarians still like the idea of family, and certainly, side dishes play a major supporting role to Thanksgiving.
The choice of pies is wide. While pumpkin pie is considered seasonal, very Halloween, very Thanksgiving (it's really a pumpkin spice pie, but I digress), others might prefer a traditional apple pie or a cherry pie.
Sometimes the interpretation is a bit more post-modern: turkey cutlets sauteed in garlic-thyme butter, resembling Thanksgiving, but more petite, more French, more snooty, but honoring both a past tradition, and a desire to elevate humdrum American cuisine with more cultural refinement.
As I eat turkey and mashed potatoes (and this year, I used roasted garlic with Yukon gold potatoes and mashed it with a special masher), I realize that it's an experience shared many fold across the country. The variations on a theme still reveals an underlying structure and commonality of food and family. Whether that means anything, whether there's some insidious idea that we are "one nation" united through food, I don't know.
Thanksgiving is perhaps that one holiday that attempts to unite a country through food, and thus, relieved of religious significance like Christmas, there's something more wholesome about it. Christmas is about family too, but it's also about gifts. Thanksgiving is about sharing a meal, and that meal is shared not only by family, but in a sense shared by a large number of American families.
Much like the campus buildings, the lay of the campus grounds, the chill of the air during winter time evokes a common historical memory of alumni of a college, Thanksgiving also evokes a common historical memory, and the nostalgia for an idealistic America not withstanding, is a pretty amazing thought.
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