Thanksgiving is a time of coming together as a community. It is a celebration filled with joy and gratitude, family and kinship. A moment to be grateful for hospitality and generosity, Thanksgiving brings families together. The origin of Thanksgiving is the well-known story of the native Americans giving food to the Pilgrims who had just arrived in the United States and were struggling to adapt to the harsh weather conditions and find food. This story represents a moment of harmony in the difficult relationships that took place between them and had tragic consequences for the native Americans. Given the overall historical context, a moment of peace is always an important symbol. The moment of Thanksgiving is powerful: we feel grateful for hospitality and generosity as we prepare to ‘break bread’ together. It can also be a moment that allows us to both delve more deeply into our origins and those of the land we live in and to imagine a vision of our future, both as individuals and as people. More than any other celebration in the United States, Thanksgiving evokes food, lots of food, bellies so full we can barely walk. It usually evokes a very specific menu as well: turkey, candied yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie take center stage as the morning is spent cooking, setting the table, decorating with all the accouterments of Fall and the Harvest. The meal will be the centerpiece of the day and the act of sharing the meal is one of bonding, communion between kindred spirits. We all eat, so it’s a natural thing that food is one of the important ways that community and kinship are created. However, people today increasingly have different dietary needs and wishes. This means that coming together around the traditional stuffed turkey and pumpkin pie can be difficult, even artificial. If you do not eat gluten or if you are vegan or vegetarian, for example, it can be difficult to participate in a meal where you can barely eat anything. It can often make others feel uncomfortable. While these kinds of situations may be difficult all year round, the unease is greater during a celebration about being grateful for hospitality, for being taken care of, for being fed. Sharing food makes us feel connected to one another because we’ve imbued the food with meaning. During a celebration such as Thanksgiving, food is given a symbolic meaning, and if some of the people you are celebrating cannot eat the food, it breaks the connection. The concepts of gratitude, hospitality and kinship are attributed to the food we eat during a Thanksgiving meal. What can be done about this? Isn’t eating traditional foods what make us connect to the tradition and the history of the holiday? Well, you’d be surprised at how much tradition evolves, and therefore, how much more it can evolve. For example, it is likely that turkey was not the centerpiece of Thanksgiving originally – rather geese or ducks, more widely available at the time, were probably at the center of the table. As for the stuffing we know today, it is very unlikely to have existed in that shape and form. The birds might have been stuffed, but it would have been with chunks of onions and herbs rather than bread. Pumpkin pie could not have been a part of the meal originally since wheat and butter were not available at the time. What we consider as the traditional foods today is the result of an evolution throughout time, adapting to our needs and tastes and what is available to make food. This means that there is no reason Thanksgiving food cannot and should not continue to evolve to fit the dietary needs of everyone around the table (such as vegan or gluten-free people) and the realities of our world today. In order for food to be a vector of kinship, gratitude and joy, it needs to be inclusive of everyone. Having a large variety of foods at your Thanksgiving meal, including vegan and gluten-free foods, will mean that everyone can have something tasty to eat on this day. Adapting the food to fit everyone’s dietary needs is one of the ways that can allow us to preserve the true spirit of the tradition of Thanksgiving honoring both kinship and cooperation.
Lisa Darmet is a freelance writer, whose passions include, not only eating but also food and cooking and their connections to health, culture and society. She is a graduate of Hampshire College, Amherst, MA, USA with a specialty in “Cultivating Resiliency and Food Justice Through Community”. She is truly a citizen of the world and continues to explore cultures through world travel.