Feeding a need for meal bonding

Miki Johnson

After talking to my friends, I’ve discovered that hardly anyone holds Thanksgiving in the high regard that my family does. Most people think of it as a throwaway holiday — Christmas’ twerpy little brother — which most would rather skip. Thanksgiving only gets you a few days off school or work and it’s hardly different from an average family dinner. But then, I guess meals don’t have as much import for most families as they do for mine.

You see, I was raised an atheist in a family basically devoid of religion, which put only a small crimp in most holiday celebrations. We never had trouble picking out our favorite cultural traditions and shucking away the religious overtones. But Thanksgiving doesn’t even require that. Above all, Thanksgiving is about more than outdated Puritan ideals and manifest destiny — it’s about eating.

Thanksgiving asks us to remember a time in our history when the greatest bounty this country’s inhabitants could exchange was its natural ingredients prepared by loving hands.

It’s about the connection you form with someone when you sit across a table from them and literally break bread, then pass the butter. And it is this entirely secular appreciation of the power of food that has always made this holiday my family’s favorite.

Eating is one of several things that has long filled the spot in my family that organized religion left vacant. I would hesitate to call eating a religious experience for us, but I would easily say my family history is recorded in the language of food.

My life’s progression is marked by the year Grandpa burnt the rolls, the great “plain vs. garlic” mashed potatoes debate and every elaborate birthday cake my father made me. And all family members permanently are associated trademark dishes. My grandfather makes the rolls, Grandma McVey the pies, and we had a 10-minute “discussion” this year to declare it acceptable that Uncle Kevin had made the corn casserole instead of Aunt Karen.

This illustrates what is probably food’s most important function for my family: It’s one subject everyone can communicate on. I have no way of knowing if this happens at other people’s houses, but a holiday in my house never passes without healthy conversation on how my grandmother gets her pie crusts so flaky, whether Triscuits or Saltines go better with liverwurst and how we hate to admit it but canned green beans really do make better casserole.

Both of my parents’ families are so small that when they joined forces at our house this year, we only had 12 plates to set at our rustic table. But don’t let the numbers deceive you; this small group is impressively diverse. We range from extremely liberal to gun-toting conservative and from 17 to 80 years old. We include gay and straight members as well as farmers, doctors, school teachers and even a few churchgoers. Where do all these disparate personalities converge? Yep, over food. I would estimate that at least 50 percent of our conversation this Thanksgiving was about the food there, food of years past, how we prepare food or our general attitude toward food (i.e. diets and my uncle’s rule that you either gorge yourself on food or alcohol, never both).

And that’s just fine with me. In a world where fast food and microwave dinners rule, we could stand to pay a little more attention to the extravagant meals. I don’t know if food has the same exalted place in your family, but if it doesn’t, consider bringing it up next Thanksgiving. After all, it’s bound to start fewer arguments than politics or religion.

Former play editor Miki Johnson is a Medill senior. Reach her at [email protected]