At the Table
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RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: All these centuries later, for one day, we remember the meal shared by the Wampaganoag Indians and the English pilgrims. We tend to dwell less on the extraordinary social event of that day than on the generosity of the God-given land that their feast celebrated.
Other countries have harvest festivals, but what makes Thanksgiving so distinctly American is that it reminds us as no other national holiday does of this benevolent land that names us Americans; this earth, this soil — not blood — gives us the sense of ourselves as a people.
Most of the year, of course, in present day America, we assume that the supermarket shelves will be generously stocked; though we also often seem uneasy or even unbalanced by such plenty.
Here in California, early Europeans saw the California Indians as lotus-eaters, so benevolent was this land. But this autumn, the state’s librarians are encouraging Californians to read and discuss together John Steinbeck’s depression-era classic, The Grapes of Wrath. No small irony that in a state where the soil is so famously generous, California’s most famous novel describes Okie migrants starving on the land.
And then there is our famous American neurosis about eating; eating too much, or eating too little. We go on diets, we fail to stay on diets. Our bookstores are full of cookbooks, and just as numerous are diet books that debate whether or not a steak is healthy. One television advertisement promises the abs we’ve always wanted, a competing commercial is for junk food. We know… many of us know young women and men who so lack any sense of control in their lives that they turn their bodies into machines that binge and purge, or who will not swallow.
On the other hand, here at Berkeley High School, school officials recently came up with the idea of offering students nutritious, but stylish food. From nearby Chez Panisse restaurant, Chef Alice Waters concocted recipes for hormone-free chicken sandwiches and organic pork tacos. In the end, the kids decided to go off-campus to indulge their usual diet of unruly French fries and garish burritos.
In California this season, the hot restaurant is a cool vegan restaurant in larkspur called Roxanne’s, where ovens never ascend higher than 118 degrees Fahrenheit, lest enzymes be lost. In this gleaming kitchen crammed with vegetables and fruits, lasagna is prepared without eggs, or dairy products. Ice cream is prepared without cream. It as though Roxanne’s is attempting to reimagine our human relationship to food within the idea of the uncooked.
But for all of our innovations and preoccupation with food — raw or cooked, junk or organic — for all our concern for dieting or not dieting, what’s missing is that idea central to ancient considerations of food. I mean the communal experience of eating.
In his elegant scholarly history of food, Near a Thousand Tables, Philippe Fernandez Armisto argues that the campfire is one of the revolutionary innovations of history. The campfire becomes a way not just of preparing food, but more importantly it is a way of organizing society around the act of eating. Our Thanksgiving meal is a rare event in today’s America: A holiday, indeed, precisely because it is a meal shared by several generations recollecting the foods gathered by Puritans and Indians, using family recipes from dead great grandmothers. The meal borders on the sentimental, as in the Norman Rockwell rendering.
So rare is it, so unearned by our ordinary lives. Most days we Americans are in a rush, which is why we invented fast foods that taste like aluminum foil. In a nation of individuals, even within a single family, what is there to serve in common, when one kid is a vegetarian, another is on a diet, and someone else demands meat with every meal?
That early communal idea of eating was, after all, soon lost in America. Melancholy descends on the memory of the first Thanksgiving. Within several years of their feast, the pilgrims would be at war with the Indians, and the achievement of that day — separate people, strangers together eating food from a generous land, must seem improbable to high school students to whom we tell the story, even as they wait impatiently for lunchtime to go off campus for a burger and a shake.
I’m Richard Rodriguez.