Keeping a Good Thanksgiving: Part 2

Part 2: A “Perfect Meal”

Thanksgiving requires people and it requires good food. That’s first. The second important idea in our text is “Hooray for the Pumpkin Pie!”

The problem with that is that you and I live our lives miles away from our food. Earlier harvest festivals were celebrated by people who did the plowing, planting, hoeing, cultivating; who fretted about the weather, an early freeze, too little rain, too much rain, who harvested the crop, milked the cows, arranged the breeding and were there in the middle of the night when the calves came; who collected and separated the eggs, fed and cleaned up, and butchered the turkey. We’re very remote from any of that, at least most of us. Our food comes from Jewel, Dominick’s, Treasure Island, and Whole Foods – which at least tries to remind us where our food comes from. But mostly it was grown miles away, processed, shrink-wrapped, sealed and trucked to the store in the middle of the night. I picked up a cantaloupe last week at Treasure Island and the little sticker said it was from Chile.

If there is truth to the suggestion that we have lost our capacity for gratitude, part of the reason may have to do with our literal and figurative distance from the natural world, our alienation from nature and the environment.

I’m sure many of you have read Michael Pollan on the topic of food and how it is produced. Omnivore’s Dilemma will forever change the way you think about dinner. In fact, the book was the reason close friends of ours, owners of a construction company, sold the business and condo, left downtown Chicago, bought a farm and are raising organic, grass-fed, low line Black Angus cattle in Michigan. Pollan describes the huge distances food travels to our table. He advocates food grown locally and just as important, in season. You can live without strawberries in February. And those round, red things masquerading as tomatoes in January don’t even come close to those amazing, tasty beauties we buy at the Farmers’ Market in August. By the way, I put the Chilean cantaloupe back and decided to wait.

The culmination of Pollan’s book is a “Perfect Meal” that meets all his criteria and that he prepares himself: picks beans and greens from his garden, bakes bread from special organically grown wheat, cultivates the yeast, hunts for mushrooms, buys a gun and learns to shoot and actually kills a wild pig.

The meal is all that he hopes for and more, shared by his wife and son and some close friends. But something is missing. Describing the meal, Pollan writes: “I had wanted to say more, to express a wider appreciation for the meal we were about to eat, but I was afraid to offer words of thanks for the pig and the mushrooms and the forests and the garden because it would come off sounding corny…The words I was reaching for, of course, were words of grace…I realized that in this particular case, words of grace were unnecessary, because that’s what the meal had become for me certainly, a wordless way of saying grace.” [Omnivore’s Dilemma p.407]

A Good Thanksgiving requires other people and it requires good food. My favorite food writer is not a familiar author or food show host. It is Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal Priest, a pretty good theologian and a true gourmet chef. He died last month. He wrote a dozen or so books, about food and cooking and religion. My favorite is The Supper of the Lamb: a Culinary Reflection. Craig Claiborne, long time food writer for the New York Times said The Supper of the Lamb was “one of the funniest, wisest and most unorthodox cookbooks ever written.” In the preface, Capon writes (and pardon me if a little religion slips in this here and there), “There is a habit that plagues so many so-called spiritual minds: they imagine that matter and spirit are somehow at odds with each other and that the right course for human life is to escape from the world of matter into some finer and purer (and undoubtedly duller) realm. To me that is a crashing mistake – and it is above all a theological mistake. Because, in fact, it was God who invented dirt, onions and turnip greens; God, who invented human beings with their strange compulsion to cook their food…Food and cooking are among the richest subjects in the world. Every day of our lives, they occupy, refresh and delight us. Food is not just some fuel we need to get us going toward higher things. Cooking is not a drudgery we put up with in order to get the fuel delivered. Rather, each is a heart’s astonishment. Both stop us dead in our tracks with wonder. Even more they set us down evening after evening and over the company that forms around dinner tables, they actually create our humanity.”

Capon says that there is almost no food that is not tasty if prepared thoughtfully and lovingly. He did have prejudices, however. He wrote: “I avoid, when possible, mild hams, New York State wines, thin bacon, vodka and all diets. I think turkey is, if not overrated, at least over-served. I enjoy cocktails (other than cute ones)….Some of them, like the martini, are marvelous inventions, but man has yet to find a civilized use for them. I am also against margarine, “prepared food”, broiled grapefruit, marshmallow sweet potatoes and whipped cream in pressurized cans.”

My favorite Capon vignette is this: “Food these days is often identified as the enemy. Butter, salt, sugar, eggs are all out to get you. And yet, at our best we know better. Butter is… well, butter. It glorifies almost everything it touches. Salt is the sovereign perfecter of all flavors. Eggs are, pure and simple, one of the wonders of the world. And if you put them all together you get, not sudden death, but Hollandaise – which in its own way is not one bit less a marvel than the Gothic arch, the computer chip or a Bach fugue.”

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