Christ and Pop Culture writers on the Thanksgiving food that has shaped us all.
More so than any other U.S. holiday, Thanksgiving is all about the food. That was by design, of course:
In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.1
Collective remembrance on the fourth Thursday of November has become embedded in our culture and society. Family and friends gather around a table heavy-laden with foods and give a nod to Provider God (whether directly or indirectly) as we load up on dishes that have become synonymous with the holiday. Although modern farming means we don’t necessarily have to wait until harvest to enjoy particular crops, many of our traditional Thanksgiving dishes are reserved, almost as sacred, for this day. For many of us, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without certain dishes, like turkey or mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie. Nor would the meal be as special if we regularly ate cranberry sauce or green bean casserole with those fried onions.
Today, it’s tradition that binds our food to Thanksgiving Day, although we have plenty of wiggle room as we find new ways to prepare our favorite dishes: Is the turkey roasted, deep-fried, or smoked? Does it come with dressing or stuffing? Is the cranberry sauce fresh or canned? Will there be mashed potatoes or sweet potato casserole or both? And let’s not forget the pie: pumpkin, pecan, apple, or all the above? Such decisions are weighty, indeed, depending on family tradition and an insistence of honoring cultural norms. These feasts have shaped us—body, mind, spirit. We truly are what we eat.
Christ and Pop Culture writers were invited to pick a traditional Thanksgiving dish and speak to how it’s shaped their Thanksgiving experience over the years. Enjoy!
Jeremy Writebol: Smoked Turkey
Ritual is an important timepiece for an unhurried soul. The quiet yet powerful current of the unhurried soul is channeled by the framework of patterned life rituals. Thanksgiving is one such ritual. Unhurried souls relish the metered rhythm of the day itself: the parade, the Lions game, the meal, the Cowboys game, the nap, the family puzzle, the pie, Home Alone, bedtime. Even within the meal itself, the main course becomes a ritual of contentment, a place for the hurried soul to find rest.
While some will abuse their main dish by subjecting it to vats of fried oils for the quickest cook time and others prefer to decorate and roast it in their conventional oven, the preferred way to cook the Thanksgiving turkey is the way our pilgrim ancestors supposedly cooked theirs. They took their time, using natural fuel that chemically flavors the succulent meat. Like our ancestors, today’s unhurried soul takes the time to barbecue (or smoke) their turkey dinner.
This low, slow process begins at least the day before with a salt-water and bourbon bath as the bird brines itself into a juicy readiness. The unhurried soul then mixes a menagerie of seasonings for the rub and prepares the bird for at least a quarter of a day immersed in the smoke and heat of burning hickory wood. Low, slow cooking affords the unhurried soul the opportunity to be just that, unhurried.
While the world churns in anxiety, rage, and the upheaval of a looming Black Friday, the method of smoking a turkey is a subtle antidote to the harassed and hurried. It provides a ritual of patience that trains the heart to look to the peaceful delights of fellowship, recreation, and anticipation of a great banquet—all a shadow of what’s to come when one day we will feast, unhurriedly, with the Sovereign King. Smoking a turkey is a ritual of training, really, allowing the hurried heart to become an unhurried soul.
Valerie Dunham: Cranberry Sauce
Despite the fact that I can’t stand to eat it, cranberry sauce brings me great joy during Thanksgiving Day feasts. There is little appetizing about the can-shaped gelatinous blob that is served up among family and friends, but I’m always glad to see it nonetheless. Cranberry sauce echoes the warmth of home on Cape Cod. It kicks up memories of pedaling my purple bike down winding trails to see the glistening red cranberry bogs. I loved watching the hardworking growers expertly sift through their harvest, never too busy to smile and wave.
I have never had any interest in farming or growing crops, but something about the cranberries would send me pedaling furiously back home from the bogs, a compulsion to create stirring in my chest. The various phases of the cranberry growing process astounded me. In retrospect, I know the process is likely a methodical one spurred by season, but at the time it seemed a sporadic, marvelous surprise each time I arrived. Some days the bogs were flooded and ripe with crop. Other times they were frozen and dead. Most often they were stuck in an awkward phase between void and fruitfulness.
As strange as it sounds, the tart red blob that only one weird uncle eats is my favorite thing on the Thanksgiving table. It is the phase of cranberry growing I never glimpsed from atop my old ten-speed—the product that framed the laborious process of creation. Cranberry sauce reminds me of the goodness of toil and the promised resolution it eventually renders, a worthwhile thing to ponder on Thanksgiving Day.
Amanda Wortham: Dressing (or Stuffing)
I was oblivious to the stuffing/dressing controversy until I was an adult, falsely assuming that ALL Americans got up before dawn on Thanksgiving morning and made pans upon pans of cornbread dressing, hoping to sustain their people through the Epiphany. This belief was reinforced by numerous Thanksgivings spent with my extended family, and the deep sense of relief I felt upon beholding the one, or six, rectangular Pyrex pans filled with the seasonal, and highly seasoned, side. Then I got married and ventured to the polar regions of western Kentucky for a Thanksgiving celebration with my husband’s family. I was so steeped in Alabama culture that I didn’t even recognize the “stuffing” when it was presented at the table, and quietly asked my husband if a breaded dish to accompany the turkey would be served. He stared at me in that confused way newlyweds do and asked if I had temporarily fallen blind. What ensued was a long struggle, with years of shuffling food around my plate in a disappointed manner. I missed the dressing—my dressing, our dressing.
Then one year, in a pregnant frenzy to eat ALL THE FOODS, I tried the stuffing without realizing it had gotten on my fork. And people, I am here to testify: It was not terrible. It was actually fine. It was not my grandma’s dressing, to be sure, but it was more than acceptable holiday fare. I ate it all and felt morally sophisticated in my diverse tolerance of all side dish manifestations.
We all have our preferences, and those opinions become even more bold and distinctive around the holidays, when we are forced to literally consume what loved ones have selected for us. It is a true discipline to look past the offense of a bird stuffed (stuffed!) with a non-poultry substance, but it is a practice we must cultivate in the name of politeness and unity. May we remember to be thankful for those who surround us this Thanksgiving, and may we use our mouths not to caustically criticize, but to gratefully chew.
Jason Morehead: Mashed Potatoes
Thanksgiving is a holiday characterized by excess. There’s the excessive amounts of travel involved, the excessive amount of socializing with friends and family that you rarely see, and of course, the excessive amounts of food consumed throughout the day. How ironic, then, that one of the most important dishes on the Thanksgiving table is one of the simplest. On paper, there’s really nothing to mashed potatoes. Peel and slice up a few spuds, boil them to soften them up, and then start mashing away, adding in milk (or cream), butter, salt, and pepper as necessary.
Nothing could be simpler, and yet anyone who’s made mashed potatoes knows how tricky that simplicity can be to achieve. One can easily end up with a dish that’s too lumpy, too runny, too thick, too thin. In a holiday characterized by more, more, more, mashed potatoes force us to slow down and pay attention as we’re mashing and mixing. But if and when you get it right, you end up with a dish so simple as to be sublime: the warm, buttery foundation of every good Thanksgiving dinner.
Nana Dolce: Pecan Pie
My family belongs to a traditional black Baptist church, filled with southern “church mamas.” I love to eat—a good meal is ministry to my soul—and these women are faithful ministers. Store-bought shortcuts are anathema to them. Everything is made from scratch and from the heart.
We’re spending Thanksgiving with one of our church mothers this year, and our hope is for southern pecan pie: candied pecans piled atop a gooey molasses filling, baked in a buttery crust. Each component offers its own flavor and texture that together equals pie perfection. I enjoy pecan pie for its nutty, crunchy, sweet, syrupy, flaky delicious complexity. To describe the dessert is to speak of variations in a whole; each layer demands recognition. The pecan pie is anti-single story.
Novelist Chimamanda Adichie has a compelling TED Talk on the danger of a single story. She cautions against the practice of defining people and cultures by a select account as opposed to seeing the interweaving yarns of individuals and groups. The interesting thing about a single story is that we can spin a tale for good or for bad. Whether perceptions are confined to positive labels or held to negative stereotypes, we misrepresent the complexity of human nature when we reduce a person’s narrative to one thread.
Christians ought to be anti-single story. We are sinners declared saints and can testify to overlapping realities. Yet our best heroes are often described without their “mess.” We forfeit something when we protect Martin Luther’s image from his anti-semitism, distance John Wesley from his estranged marriage, and excuse Jonathan Edward’s ownership of slaves. After all, the God of lying Abraham, adulterer David, and partial Peter chooses the weak to shame the strong. Jesus is beautiful because He alone can boast of a single story of sinlessness. We do well to say the same.
I’m looking forward to pecan pie this Thanksgiving. And I’ll probably think of sola gratia with every nutty, gooey, flaky bite.