The holidays are upon us. Will you gather with family for a traditional meal? Do you have any idea where the food on your holiday table is right now on its long journey from farm to fork?
Most of the year we can ignore the “who” and the “where” of food. We eat alone, on the run, in shifts, at all hours. Most of what we eat – be it health food or junk food – comes from the store, not from a nearby farm. Even cooking is an option – we get take out or frozen or packaged or deli or restaurant food. For many of us, nuking is as far as we got in cooking school.
During the holidays, though, we suddenly long to be more connected – through food – with one another, and cringe at how far we’ve come from the good old days when family dinners and home-cooking wove the fabric of our lives. It’s a sort of nostalgia for a life most of us actually never had, like the one depicted in the iconic 1943 Normal Rockwell painting, “Freedom from Want,” which we now call the Thanksgiving painting.
Grandma, looking like a farm wife, lowers a large turkey onto a damask-covered, well set table. Beside her, a proud husband in Sunday best and all around are scrubbed children and adults happily talking. Most likely they grew the turkey and fixings themselves.
How did we fall out of this picture? How did a Thanksgiving meal become a butterball turkey, triple-washed bagged baby greens, frozen green beans, a Mrs. Cavender pie and Reddi-whip. And the rest of the year be catch–as–catch–can?
Part of it comes from the seismic shift in farming. Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under Nixon and Ford, famously said to farmers, “Get big or get out”. Many farmers got out. One hundred years ago over 50% of Americans farmed. Now less than 2% do. The average age of a farmer is nearly 60. It’s safe to say that no more than 5% of the food we eat was grown within 100 mile radius of our homes.
The industrial food system has taken over the job of feeding the people – so much so that many Americans barely remember life before fast food. Five companies, Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and DuPont own most of our seeds. Pepsico, Dole, General Mills, Nestle and Kraft distribute most of our food. In truth, we now need to thank these companies for Thanksgiving dinner – without them, how would we eat?
Another part of this disconnection from food and home is sheer demographics. Many of us live far from families. Singles living alone is the fastest growing demographic. Fifty years ago, 70% of adults were married. Now just 51% are. According to the most recent census, single person households are at 28%, the highest in US history.
Consider now Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting, “Automat”, which shows another American way of eating. We see a woman sitting alone, after dark, in a Horn and Hardart Automat with a cup of coffee and an empty plate in front of her. For those who don’t remember the Automat, it presaged fast food restaurants in America, with individual servings of mac and cheese, tapioca pudding and other comfort foods behind glass-doored floor to ceiling cubby holes. Put in a nickel or two, and the door springs opens. It was celebrated as “Untouched by Human Hands”, “Less work for Mother” and as a safe place for single women to eat after dark.
So this is a third part of the “who stole thanksgiving?” mystery: our relationship with home-making. “Less work for mother” meant mother could engage in a larger world than the household. Convenience foods meant busy families and professionals could eat without so much shopping, cooking and cleaning. In service to each following our own pole star, we lost what binds us. And for what? Have we just traded hours in the kitchen for hours in traffic? Do we eat so often we’ve lost our appetites, that precious emptiness we saved all afternoon so we’d be hungry for Mom’s dinner?
Eating is meant to be an act of community, not just consuming a commodity. Eating in inherently relational, each bite connecting us to sun and soil, farmers and farms.
If I were to paint a picture of a relational eating Thanksgiving, 2013 style, here’s what you’d see. First, it would probably not be a painting. I don’t have Rockwell’s or Hopper’s talent. It would be photos uploaded from my smart phone of a motley crew of friends in my house for an “orphans and stragglers” Thanksgiving potluck. I’m an orphan in that I have no family within thousands of miles. But I live on an island where you can’t go to the grocery store without seeing half a dozen friends. So friends are becoming the new family unit.
Among the potluck spread you might see some turkey from a bird raised on this very island. And roast vegetables straight from the ground. Perhaps bread baked with some local yeast. I’ll put out a hummus that is as mongrel as the people milling and eating. It’s made of garden garlic, our famous local Rockwell (no relation to the painter) beans, lemons from California, Olive Oil from Tunesia, Kosher Tahini manufactured in Brooklyn so the can says, but the sesame seeds could have come from another hemisphere and salt which could be local but isn’t. After eating we’re going to circle up to explore what gratitude means for each of us, spiraling our thoughts upwards into the dark chilly night. Picture this: a new food culture, a web of relations between people, land, critters, climate and delicious food – topped with connected conversations about what really matters most. Thanksgiving reclaimed.
Rockwell Bean Hummus
1 cup cooked Rockwell beans (or garbanzo beans as most people do)
Juice of one lemon
¼ cup Tahini
1 medium garlic clove, pressed
¼ cup or more if needed water
1T or more if needed olive oil
salt to taste
Combine the lemon juice, garlic and Tahini in a food processor and blend really well. Add the water, oil, salt and blend till soupy. Then add the beans and blend until you think it’s enough and blend some more. Adjust proportions until it’s Goldilocks perfect. If there is any left over after the party, you may find yourself eating it with a spoon.