Thanksgiving is an occasion for gratitude. That being the case, Thanksgiving essays commonly exhort readers to look past the food and lift their minds to higher things. Properly understood, the turkey is not the main course, so much as a delightful side dish that can fuel warm reflections on family, home, nature, and creation as a whole.
This will not be that sort of essay. I want to exhort you, dear readers, to focus on the food. We really don’t think about food quite often enough.
Does that sound strange? Perhaps I should rephrase. We think about food constantly, but not in a way that helps us to appreciate its real moral significance in our lives. We happily lose ourselves in meditations on pastries and luscious fruits and butterball turkey smothered in gravy and cranberry relish (sorry, getting sidetracked), and some of us devote quite a lot of our lives to food-related work and planning. We draw up menus, shop, cook and wash dishes. Some of us obsessively count calories, carbohydrates, grams of sodium, or whatever it is that makes our personal physicians frown. But we don’t reflect in a broader way on the unique role that food plays within our lives.
Consider for a moment: if you and your loved ones were angels, you could not sit down to a delicious Thanksgiving dinner. No doubt you would enjoy many other elevated pleasures, but not the goodness of filling your mouth with creamy, delicious pumpkin pie. That pleasure is reserved for the corporeal.
Likewise, if you and your family were apes, dolphins, elephants or raccoons, Thanksgiving would just be another day. You would appreciate the pleasures of food. But Thanksgiving dinner, with its traditional recipes and beautiful table settings and family togetherness, is a festivity for the rational. Through custom and ceremony, humans can elevate the basic act of nourishing themselves to something far more meaningful. Thanksgiving goes beyond the calories, and yet, the nourishment is in no way incidental. A shared meal provides the perfect medium for rejoicing in our shared corporeal existence.
On Thanksgiving, we can meditate on the way our corporeality reflects our rational nature, and vice versa. If it isn’t clear what I mean by that, consider the activity that for most of us is the primary theme of Thanksgiving Day: cooking. Cooking is a demanding activity that clearly requires rationality. It involves tools and the manipulation of the elements, plus a keen understanding of the physical and nutritional properties of flora and fauna. No animal can cook.
Nevertheless, as Michael Pollan observes in his recent book, Cooked, cooking is necessary to human health. The human body requires more calorie-dense and digestible foods than a raw diet would enable us to absorb. (This is why “raw foodists” have to rely heavily on juicers and dietary supplements to survive.) Without the magic we work through heat and tools and developed agriculture, we would never be able to get by on one tiny, simple stomach. Have you ever wondered why raccoons and bears are so eager to pillage trash cans? Calorie-rich foods like that are hard to come by in the wild. Eating is an activity we share with the beasts, but even our digestive systems are built to rely on the kind of nutrition that only a rational being can attain. We have “rational” bodies, designed for rational eaters.
In many ways, eating Thanksgiving dinner is as uniquely human an activity as we could devise. Neither angel nor beast could share it. We alone, in the order of creation, can raise a glass to toast a good harvest.
Of course, Thanksgiving is an American holiday, established in memory of the efforts of Protestants. Catholics have other feasts for celebrating the body. No doubt Christmas dinner is an excellent occasion for reflecting on the good of corporeality, as we remember also the unimaginable honor that Our Lord bestowed upon us by deigning to share it.
Nevertheless, I for one am very glad that Thanksgiving has not yet fallen prey to the controversies that now surround both Halloween and Christmas. You might hear the occasional vegetarian rant about mistreated turkeys, along with a few gripes about our failure to appreciate fully the virtues of indigenous Americans. For the most part, though, Thanksgiving remains one of our least-controversial holidays. This gives every American a reason to eat one at least formal dinner every year, together with family, real silverware, and a very attractive gravy boat. That cannot, it seems to me, be a bad thing.
Thanksgiving is not just a day for eating. It is a day for eating like what we are: the lords and stewards and kings of the corporeal world. Let’s all raise a glass to food! It’s one of the wonderful features of our humanity.
Image: The First Thanksgiving 1621 by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris
Note: This article first appeared in Crisis on November 28, 2013