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Giving thanks

Food For Thought

You sneeze; “Gesundheit,” says your friend. You say, “Thanks.” The waitress deposits your hamburger and fries on the table. “Thanks,” you murmur, reaching for the ketchup. The check-out girl tells you to have a nice day. You mutter something that sounds like, “thanks,” even though you know she doesn’t care because she’s busy asking the next person in line if they found everything okay. Most of us say “thanks” several times every day. Dozens of times in a month. Hundreds of times during the year. That doesn’t mean we’re grateful; it simply means that we’re polite. That our mothers taught us that “please” and “thank you” and “I’m sorry” were magic words. And, at a certain time in our childhoods, we probably believed that their frequent use would get us anything we wanted, gain the approval of adults, and insure forgiveness for even the gravest of sins.
I don’t know if this casual overuse of the word is what has rendered it more or less meaningless, or if we’ve come to expect it as a matter of course, whether or not it is backed up by any genuine sincerity or real gratitude. Whatever the cause, the watered-down meaning seems to have slopped over into the holiday we know as Thanksgiving Day and turned it into an equally pale version of the original. For a good many years, I’ve noticed the celebration of gratitude for our good fortune has become less important than the fact that the pies came from Baker’s Square, and that the ritual of saying grace before the meal receives less attention than the name on the wine label.
Let’s go back to second grade for a moment. In spite of all the paper pilgrim hats and construction paper turkeys dangling on strings from the ceiling, we were told that the pilgrims were happy to have survived the first year in this new land. That they had learned, from the natives and by their own ingenuity, how to survive. In a land lush with vegetation and teeming with wildlife, finding food would have been relatively easy compared to the problems of providing adequate shelter and clothing, surviving harsh weather and disease, and with no resources other than their own ingenuity.
Squanto had taught the pilgrims to raise maize and squash. Every second-grader knows that maize is corn, but it was stored as a dried grain, not the succulent sweet corn we buy in cans and freezer packets at the supermarket; and pumpkins are a member of the squash family, but the pilgrims ate it cooked as a vegetable, and it didn’t come in a handy can, to be mixed with cream, spices, eggs, and sugar, baked in a buttery pie crust, and topped with whipped cream from a pressurized can.
If there was turkey at that first Thanksgiving feast, there would have been several of them, and they hadn’t arrived in the pilgrim’s kitchens dressed, pre-basted, and frozen with pop-up thermometers. It is doubtful that they would have been stuffed with sage dressing and roasted whole. Because wild turkeys get a lot of exercise, their meat is much tougher than those now raised commercially. They would have been much more likely to have been disjointed and stewed in pots until the meat was tender.
We are fooling ourselves if we imagine our Thanksgiving dinner as being anything like that first Thanksgiving celebrated by those 50 pilgrims and Chief Massasoit with his 90 braves (no mention of the Wampanoag women having been invited to the party). According to accounts, the pilgrim women cooked the food and the children gathered wood and tended the fires. Apparently, that first Thanksgiving dinner was for men only.
Those pilgrims had much to be thankful for, as half of the original settlers had died during their first winter. Gratitude for mere survival, and a renewed hope for its continuance were enough reason to celebrate. Massasoit, himself, was grateful to the pilgrims for having cured him of a serious disease, and he and his men brought venison to the feast to share with the pilgrims. The feast was held outdoors, as there would have been no structure large enough to accommodate so many people, and it all lasted several days, with speeches, contests and prayers taking up the time not spent actually eating, though one would surmise that, under the circumstances, eating went on pretty much continuously.
Compared to that first Thanksgiving, ours look pretty tame. In light of some of the things we hear about these days on the national news, I guess we could all be grateful to have survived another year– it sounds more important than claiming to be thankful for the meal itself. It’s difficult to muster up a lot of gratitude for canned whipped cream and frozen turkeys. (Unless you’re the cook.)