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Why Is There So Much Food on Thanksgiving?

We simply cannot lose the purpose of this celebration of gratitude.

Key points

  • Thanksgiving dinner involves many different dishes. It can be viewed as a feast, or a meal eaten in celebration.
  • Harvest feasts are common in many communities around the world.
  • What distinguishes a feast from uninhibited consumption is the presence of friends, the joy of the celebration, and mutual gratitude.

An oft-repeated question in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving is: What are you serving? The answer is often rattled off: turkey and gravy, stuffing, a recital of starchy vegetable dishes, a green vegetable and/or salad, rolls or cornbread, and then a list of pies. Those with more time, skill, or larger appetites may plan on serving appetizers and/or candy and nuts as after-dinner nibbles (in case anyone is still hungry). Often the number of dishes remains unchanged, regardless of whether five, 15, or 25 guests are guests for the meal.

A few days ago, the food section of the New York Times devoted several pages to Thanksgiving dishes. The type of dish ranged from basic and simple, to exotic and often very time consuming in their preparation. A quick scan of the multi-ingredients listed for some of the dishes may have diminished their appeal for anyone but the cook with a lot of time to prepare (and presumably clean up.)

We take for granted that this once-a-year festival of eating will provide us with a large variety of foods to eat. Restaurants advertising their Thanksgiving meal often list so many courses or side dishes that one wonders how all the food can fit on a plate.

Offering so much food and eating it is understandable if the holiday meal is viewed as a feast, and not simply dinner served in the middle of the afternoon. A feast is a meal eaten in celebration. The Pilgrims celebrated their 1631 harvest whose bounty increased the possibility that more would survive the coming winter in Plymouth. And harvest feasts are common in many communities. For example, in China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, the Moon Festival celebrates the harvest, and special foods like moon cakes are eaten at this time. Several countries (Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Quebec in Canada) celebrate the arrival of the longest day of the year by having feasts on the Friday that falls between June 19-25. A typical menu might include pickled herring, potatoes, cured salmon, sauces, crispbread, cakes, and berries.

Feasts are meant to be more than the consumption of a greater variety and larger amount of food than is commonly eaten. The food is part of an event, often annual, and frequently with religious, agricultural, cultural, and seasonal significance. The eating is usually done communally or within the family, and often those who might otherwise be eating alone are included as guests.

Years ago, a student from France came to me seeking help for her inability to stop her binge eating. Thanksgiving occurred during the weeks we met and, after the holiday, she shared her surprise and indeed shock at how much food was eaten on that day. “Thanksgiving is national binge day,“ she told me.

But she was wrong. Feasting is not the same as bingeing or, to use an older term, gluttony. The eating and drinking in a feast, be it at a wedding or birthday or religious holiday or when the harvest is completed, is not done in insolation. What distinguishes a feast from uninhibited consumption of food and drink is the presence of friends, the sharing in the joy of the celebration, and mutual expressions of gratitude for present or past events. It is not meant to be an excuse to exercise gluttony or engage in a binge.

Often the foods served in a feast, such as those that form a typical Thanksgiving menu, differ from foods prepared at other times of the year. Some are so closely tied with the holiday that their appearance on the table at other times of the year seems out of place. How many of us make cranberry sauce for non-Thanksgiving meals, much less pumpkin pie, sweet potato casserole, or stuffing? Most of the ingredients are available all year round, but because these foods are so linked, almost in a ritualistic way, with the Thanksgiving holiday, it doesn’t seem right to eat them at other times. (Although I have heard people discuss whether one way of ridding the streets in my community of wild turkeys might be to include the bird at more dinners).

When food is scarce, often a feast becomes differentiated from an everyday meal not by the quantity or variety of dishes on the table, but by the use of one or two ingredients or special foods saved for the holiday meal. In an account of the Christmas dinner eaten by the Scott expedition to the Antarctic in 1911, raisins, chocolate, and a plum pudding were served in addition to their typical fare of horsemeat and pemmican. This made the meal memorable.

But are we likely to overlook why we are feasting rather than simply eating on Thanksgiving? If one reads or listens to the many media accounts running up to the holiday, the emphasis is on recipes, how to cook a turkey, what to do with leftovers, possible travel woes, the potential conflicts with family at the dinner table and, yes, the amount of weight one could gain by eating three helpings of everything. Should we not give a little more attention to the why of this feast, to what we personally are thankful for, to remember those who are not at our table any longer...and not whether the marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole might be more edible this year? The casserole will be forgotten, but one hopes good memories generated by the day will not.

More from Judith J. Wurtman Ph.D.
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