Like a magnet waved over the landmass from sea to shining sea, a bird herded us, despite our flaunted diversity, into one robotic feast food nation. It makes you wonder if in his heyday Stalin had such totalitarian conformity. Hitler did because he made the Gestapo dumpster dive to be certain housewives were serving only German fare like ham hocks with sauerkraut and not foreign food like roast beef or coq au vin. But that can’t happen here because we are a freedom crazed people, a nation of rugged diehard individualists who insist with guns in our pocket that life be served our way. Nobody orders us around-- except the fourth Thursday of November when an invisible hand pushes us to pass on the cheeseburger and order turkey. DeToqueville admired us as a nation of plucky volunteers and look how we all volunteer to be cowed into sheepishly flocking to the supermarket to herd into the same brightly lit aisles desperately seeking the very same menu ingredients.
It’s a bit odd of course that a nation so gaga over the new, so proud of disposables and so keen on makeovers, a country whose men are going to the moon while its kids are going to hell, has yet to throw over this quaint tradition for something younger, mean and lean. We may go through airport security lines instead of over the river and through the woods, we may be wireless with earphones on our heads instead of Pilgrim hats, but we are still wired up to get to the table on the same old day to eat the same old dinner. And nobody wants to be the turkey who messes with it. We are in fact so slavish to the set menu, there are turkey camps and turkey hotlines. Friends of mine went to dine with a strict vegetarian who assured them she knew how to make a fabulous brined turkey.
At another great tribal feast, Passover, four pointed questions get asked about why at this moment certain items must be on the menu. The one question not asked at Thanksgiving is why 250 million of us have turkey on ours. It is not exactly a top of the food chain A List heart’s desire like lobster and while we were out grabbing our 20 lbs this year, historians were arguing whether or not turkey and Thanksgiving even existed. Maybe the fowle mentioned in the scribble was duck or flyover
You could say this meal has four questions too: turkey in or out of the bag? Truss? Stuff or don’t stuff? How much should you stuff yourself? After all, this is great gorge, the annual manifestation of all American know how, harvest of can do. The celebration of abundance isn’t celebrated properly until you’re sickeningly full from doing all the eating you can do. And then you run it off by running around doing all the shopping you can do, stuffing stockings and mailboxes and shopping carts in 30 days or less. This, our one universally scripted and shared American holiday, begs the question: is our nation’s motto really: in God we trust, or Fill’er up!
We even supersize by stuffing the refrigerator. Evidently we’ve got not just an imprinted impulse to fill the oven with a big Bird on Thursday morning and our stomachs on Thursday afternoon but an imprinted fear of not having weekend leftovers to groan and brag about. I must’ve cooked a dozen Thanksgiving turkeys before I discovered my guests weren’t taking any home because they’d secretly roasted their own birds before showing up, to avoid feeling cheated by emptiness when they got home. Turkey a la king, turkey tetrazzini, turkey sandwiches and all those conjugations nobody would be caught dead cooking in April became a cherished part of the gobbling rites/rights because, it seems, we are so addicted to replays we can’t just be done with turkey at once and move on to lox and bagels.
We chafe of course at conformity and feel superior to societies that are highly structured like
You could also do an anthropology thesis on the difference between the servers of the butterball turkey with the pop-up thermometer built in as a body part, the heritage turkey, the organic turkey, the all natural turkey, the freshly shot wild turkey, the turkey from the wild farm up the road, the take out turkey either from Trader Joe or the Ritz, the turducken. And include those Slow Food folks who actually asked me to drive two hours up to Sonoma County to help kill elite turkeys—no experience necessary—to appreciate the whole process.
It’s in fact a Dharma point that there is no such thing as conformity, all of us seeing things the same way. Perspective depends on where you are. Often the teaching analogy is a glass of water: thirsty humans see it as life support, airport security sees it as a lethal weapon, fraternity boys see it as useless because they want booze, a fish sees it as a place to live in, an insect sees it as a death trap, a Westerner who has just eaten chili laden Asian food sees it as a fire extinguisher. And yet it is merely a glass of water. So we imbue the fourth Thursday of every November with our own meaning. For everybody it’s a food tradition to which we are stubbornly attached: mashed turnip or sweet potatoes with those melted marshmallows on top, Susan Stamberg’s mother’s cranberry horseradish sauce or cornbread stuffing not Pepperidge Farm. You can't mess with this culinary clinging. I am still getting flack for serving mashed celeriac instead of mashed potatoes six years ago.
For middle aged men Thanksgiving Day means football day, for middle aged women it’s labor day, for kids it’s a school day off with no homework, for those who left home it’s time to go back home ready or not, for the Rotorooter guy it’s a banner day, busiest of the year (I heard this on public radio), for turkey farmers it’s count the cash day at the close of the season and for retailers it’s opening day of open season: wrap music. We claim it as a harvest holiday but the
We like to brag that this is thus the sort of secular, religion free holiday that defines our culture. But Americans build banks in the style of grandiose Greek temples and financial office buildings with the awesome ceiling height of cathedrals because money worship defines our culture. Ingot we trust. That's why Thanksgiving has all the hallmarks of its sacred rite: after the ritual killing of our native fauna, seers look into cash registers on Friday and pronounce the future just like Cassandra, the oracle of Delphi and any gypsy reader of tea leaves. The omens on this Black Friday evidently portend a good following wind for the fleet. The season won't be a turkey. Prophets predict profits as the headline blares: SHOPPERS FLOCK TO ANSWER THE SIREN SONG OF SAVINGS.
On Thanksgiving Day our paper ran an article on research into how to find happiness. An East Coast life coach was pictured, and quoted saying she went to Harvard, therefore she knew how to handle complicated issues. Perhaps she should get out of
The rest is as easy as…apple pie. As that other life coach the Buddha said: it’s just takes clear seeing, taking the blinders off. We’ve put the pursuit of happiness right up there with life, liberty and a juicy turkey but we're so blinded by the bright lights of salesmanship we've gone off in hot pursuit, seeing happiness as something that can be purchased. Egos get as inflated as Macy's gigantic balloons by the idea of having the thingamajig juste, the IT as EBay says. As we see it in our marketing induced visualization, the iPod, the Nike Airs, the Mercedes SUV c’est moi! So the crush of the supermarket moves to the mall where at dawn on Black Friday as shopping cart stuffing revved into high gear fisticuffs erupted in the aisles of discount electronic stores. This is the crescendo the economy has been waiting for all year. The cheerleaders are good to go. Black Friday turns green before dawn, the New York Times announced.
We stuff our turkeys, our faces, our mailboxes, our closets, our academia, our lives, filling up with "happiness" to prevent a way for the Buddha’s truth of suffering to get in. But you can’t keep it out. The morning after Thanksgiving when the Playstations were flying and the new Snoopy balloon deflated, my South African host and his very pregnant wife were cleaning up the gold plated dishes in their Bay view triplex when he got a call that his best friend, age 42, inexplicably dropped dead in London where he’d gone to help his aging mother.
Suffering is what's complicated. So is all that manufactured cheer that makea us think we can escape it and makes those who know we can't feel depressed this time of year. All that stuffing. We’re up from the table and zig zagging like chickens with their heads cut off on a stress baste marathon of voluntary must-dos: gotta get the presents, the wrapping, the cards, the tree, the treats, the airplane tickets, gotta yatta. And smile! for the digital camera. Just like getting the turkey and cranberry and pumpkin pie on the table Thursday, everyone’s clinging to the same unexamined self-imposed volunteer must-dos for the same moment, certain the world will come to a crashing end if we don’t stuff the stockings, get to the
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