Before Election Day, 2016, I was naively optimistic. The campaign period and now, its aftermath, have revealed a country divided by clashing values and ideologies, leaving many of us feeling frustration, panic, outrage, confusion, sadness, numbness. Some are immobile, frozen in dazed disbelief or overwhelmed by hopeless depression; others want to mobilize and protest, and then there are those who would rather not deal at all, who tell themselves everything will sort itself out.
I’m one of the mobilizers. I want to be of use.
As I looked at my food-writer to-do list post-election, it quickly began to feel, professionally speaking, like I was useless. There was the cookbook I have to write, a feature on Christmas cookies due imminently and another story on a Turkish specialty coming down the pike. I would have to get the words out to meet the deadlines, but they would contribute nothing to provoke people to act, ask questions, refuse to accept what was on its way to becoming an unsettled status quo or resist the normalization of everything that goes against what we’ve been taught constitutes a democracy—and what makes this one great.
I began to observe a disturbing, widespread let us eat cake response on the part of food media. Umbrella-ed under the “self care” rubric, complete with its very own hashtag, were prompts to indulge in any number of activities ranging from soaking in a tubful of bubbles to grabbing a pint of ice cream out of your freezer and going to town on it. The message was this: In these unbearable times of uncertainty and despair, you should put yourself first and do what you please—stay in bed if you need to, binge watch the dystopian sci-fi drama of the moment, have some pie. Somehow, in all of this, eating and cooking appear to have emerged as the definitive escape.
The thing is, it’s okay to have pie. But to turn it into a meme? To make it a directive or something to brag about? When we normalize this brand of self care and make it the default response to whatever it is about this election we’re currently unable to cope with, we distance ourselves even farther from the issues and people who most require our attention.
This week, with Thanksgiving on the horizon, we find ourselves at peak pie-time. In addition to promoting self-medicating with carbs, lifestyle content providers are encouraging another avoidance tactic. Now the concern is how to navigate the gathering without ruffling anyone’s feathers—to avoid all possibly difficult topics; to sweep our disagreements, resentments, doubts and worries under the carpet as though they were crumbs. It’s not a new maneuver. Elections have come and gone and advice on traversing the minefield of a dysfunctional family dinner has perpetually been dispensed. This year, I find myself asking: Haven’t we been doing that for long enough? Has encouraging loved ones to tiptoe around each other and restrict our conversation topics to sports and the weather possibly done everyone a disservice?
Maybe this Thanksgiving, then, we could try something new—we could open the lines of communication. I realize talking about politics is never easy, but pretending other perspectives don’t exist and sidestepping any interaction that might expose you to them is a way of keeping blinders on and widens the divisions that generate hatred and conflict. Obviously, these kinds of discussions have to be entered into carefully and thoughtfully. They can get heated. Rules need to be established beforehand and every family is unique, which means different regulations apply to each one. You don’t want to make anything personal, although we all know politics are always personal. You’d like to be able to talk about your fears and help one another face theirs, even if you don’t see eye to eye on the causes or effects of the unease. Addressing where those fears come from can help, so long as you’re not blaming someone at the table for them. If you have kids, you’re going to devise separate strategies for engaging them; they probably have lots of questions and concerns, too. This is an opportunity to rally around them and provide them with constructive, reassuring but honest answers.
Something else you might try, if that doesn’t feel right for your family: Allowing the food to speak on your behalf—or to start the conversation. Last week, The New York Times’s Food Section proposed an alternative to the usual Turkey Day menu by introducing readers to 15 families, each with its own Thanksgiving rituals and culinary lessons to teach. In Carmel, Indiana, Carolyn Ling, a second-generation Chinese-American, infuses her roasted turkey with Cantonese-inspired flavors. The origins of Atlanta-based Erika Council’s braised pork neck bones can be traced back to African slaves through generations of African-Americans who passed it down. In Minneapolis, Raghavan Iyer shared the recipe for a vegetarian Indian dudhi kofta curry or squash fritters simmered in a tomato-based, ginger-spiced sauce. If you were to set one or two of these dishes down on your holiday table, you could talk about what they’re doing there and how they, too, belong. They’d provide an edible excuse to begin discussing, accepting and, ideally, celebrating our differences.
While you’re at it, bake a few extra Kuey Tarts, some cookies, and a couple of batches of brownies. Definitely bake more pies. Bake ‘til you can bake no more. Then organize a bake sale with all that delicious excess to raise money for the cultural institutions, non-profit organizations, and disenfranchised or underserved communities that matter to you. You could also donate what you cook to feed the hungry. You might volunteer to teach others—kids and their parents—to cook, or offer them whatever services you’re capable of providing. And next time you’re about to reach for your favorite pint of ice cream in your freezer so you can hole up with it, consider going out for a proper meal to a first-generation immigrant-owned restaurant in your neighborhood. (You could also sign up for one of these Family Meals when they come to your city, or else, start a series just like it in your town.) If you’re intent on staying in, pick up the phone and let your local representatives know which piece of legislation (or appointee) you want them to speak out against—or in favor of.
Let the food—via self care and at the many obligatory festive get-togethers to come—fuel your activism and connection with others. Do whatever it takes to stay engaged—and be of use.