A Guide to Good Thanksgiving Reads

BY Mike Melia  November 25, 2010 at 9:40 AM EST

As families and friends gather across the country to celebrate this Thanksgiving, we at the NewsHour have cooked up a small sampling of writings and stories for the holiday.

Slate has put together a guide to each side of the latest political debates that may be digested at the table. From TSA pat-downs (“This is a perfect example of government overreach” or “It’s a shame vaudeville isn’t still around”) to ratifying the START Treaty (“This treaty is not a security risk and would improve relations with Russia which is crucial” or “The Russians want this deal because they think it limits our ability to deploy missile defenses.”)

Susan Orlean writes in the New Yorker about the challenge and joy of owning turkeys: “Along the way, I’ve become a turkey apologist–I am always defending them when I’m asked about things like whether they’re so dumb they drown in the rain (apocryphal, as far as I know). No one believes me when I say they’re a delight.”

Courtesy Susan Orlean
(Courtesy Susan Orlean)

The Poetry Foundation offers a number of poems related to Thanksgiving. Among them, Elizabeth Alexander has an ode to her mother’s favorite food in “Butter”. Here’s an excerpt:

“My mother loves butter more than I do,
more than anyone. She pulls chunks off
the stick and eats it plain, explaining
cream spun around into butter! Growing up
we ate turkey cutlets sauteed in lemon
and butter, butter and cheese on green noodles,
butter melting in small pools in the hearts
of Yorkshire puddings, butter better
than gravy staining white rice yellow,
butter glazing corn in slipping squares,
butter the lava in white volcanoes
of hominy grits, butter softening
in a white bowl to be creamed with white
sugar, butter disappearing into
whipped sweet potatoes, with pineapple,
butter melted and curdy to pour
over pancakes, butter licked off the plate
with warm Alaga syrup.”

And poet Joy Harjo examines the power and longevity of gathering around the family table in “Perhaps the World Ends Here:”

“The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.”

If you’d rather give your eyes a holiday from reading, “This American Life” offers a piece from their archive by Sarah Vowell on gathering her family together to give thanks:

“What results is a series of milestones and family firsts. Everyone in the family is the kind of person who prefers to be alone, so the very thing that binds them together as a family actually makes it hard for them to spend time together.”

The Writer’s Almanac today gives a nice history of the holiday and includes this excerpt of a piece by Walt Whitman, written in the third person, that was published in The Philadelphia Press on Thanksgiving Day in 1884:

“Scene.- A large family supper party, a night or two ago, with voices and laughter of the young, mellow faces of the old, and a by-and-by pause in the general joviality. ‘Now, Mr. Whitman,’ spoke up one of the girls, ‘what have you to say about Thanksgiving? Won’t you give us a sermon in advance, to sober us down?’ The sage nodded smilingly, look’d a moment at the blaze of the great wood fire, ran his forefinger right and left through the heavy white mustache that might have otherwise impeded his voice, and began: ‘Thanksgiving goes probably far deeper than you folks suppose. I am not sure but it is the source of the highest poetry. [...] We Americans devote an official day to it every year; yet I sometimes fear the real article is almost dead or dying in our self-sufficient, independent Republic. Gratitude, anyhow, has never been made half enough of by the moralists; it is indispensable to a complete character, man’s or woman’s – the disposition to be appreciative, thankful. That is the main matter, the element, inclination – what geologists call the ‘trend.’ Of my own life and writings I estimate the giving thanks part, with what it infers, as essentially the best item. I should say the quality of gratitude rounds the whole emotional nature; I should say love and faith would quite lack vitality without it.’”

If you’re avoiding your family with your nose in the recently published Mark Twain autobiography, you can point to this section to argue you’re simply celebrating the spirit of the day:

Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for – annually, not oftener – if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white mans side, consequently on the Lords side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it.

Twain’s autobiography was profiled on the NewsHour in July.

And finally, Truman Capote turned his short story, “The Thanksgiving Visitor”, into a film that is available on YouTube: