At My Thanksgiving Table, Food Won’t Be a Diversion Tactic

November 22, 2016

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.

Photo by James Ransom

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.

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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.

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?

Photo by James Ransom

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.

52 Days of Thanksgiving
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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    Shani Gilchrist

Written by: chardrucks


sheri November 25, 2016
Sounds like you do not have right wing radio talk listening older relatives. All of our family gatherings have already had too much political talk resulting in a wedding that no relatives were invited to, family vacations cut short, people not making an effort to visit for Christmas. Some people will not come to the middle no matter how long you talk and this counts for both left wing liberals and right wing conservatives. There is no point in carrying on the months and years long discussion into yet another family holiday. I did take my right wing dad to a Korean restaurant and he talked with the owner and had a good time. But that doesn't change his mind about Hillary who is as white/European descent as they come. Maybe what people need to realise is that politics is about much more than race. It's obvious the writer is liberal/democrat and assumes that all others that did not vote the way she voted are racist. That is exactly what is wrong with the politics now. Democrats have a holier than thou attitude that not only are they the only non-racist people in political discussion but that other people need their help in learning to cook! wow! Can you imagine if throughout all the generations families only talked about politics at every family gathering and didn't delve into how their family members felt about their own lives and bothered to get involved in their family's lives in a truly positive way--not in a way that pushed some point of view? That's why everyone was talking about Thanksgiving without politics. I think it was a good idea.
Gwen November 25, 2016
While chardruck's article eloquently expressed my visceral reaction to the results of this past election, it clearly provoked more than a bit of your anger. You bring up some good points, and few that just leave me scratching my head. I find myself nodding in recognition about older relatives who listen to right wing talk radio, the very real danger of family arguments that result in long-term grudges, the faulty logic bandied about by some that all Trump voters are racists, the aggravation evoked when a passionately expressed opinion assumes all listeners share a point of view. I'm perplexed at the umbrage taken at the cooking instruction tangent (isn't this a food site?), though perhaps that's a reaction to what feels like being called a racist, or ignorant. And yes, a single conversation with a Korean restaurant owner isn't going to make the scars of the Korean War go away--that's naively simplistic--but it at least it's a step toward connection with someone once seen solely as the enemy.

BTW, while my family story below had to do with rendezvous during the Civil War, in no way did I mean the parallel with today was that one side of the family was racist and the other not--I'm pretty sure they all were, and for a good many generations to follow, and their Civil War was as much about economics and nationalism as it was about slavery, which makes it feel very contemporary to me. I agree with chardrucks that we'd best get better at listening to each other. I agree with you that the holiday table might not be the best place to begin: too many voices, and usually only the most strident and persistent are heard. Kind of like the election.

Frankly, I rather liked NY Times columnist David Brooks' tongue-in-cheek advice: "I recommend not talking about politics right away, but having several earlier rounds of conversations. So, the first subject could be things I have always resented about you. And the next subject could be ways you have wounded me from which I will never recover. And then, by the time you get to politics, it will seem pretty good, actually." Yup. That about sums up my family. Then he says, "Politics is something we care about, but friendship matters more. Family relationship matters a zillion times more." And that's my family too.
Gwen November 23, 2016
Wise words, worth considering carefully. While I would NEVER enter into a political discussion with my 80-something father (far more benign topics have sent him into an apoplectic tizzy, and he seems entirely incapable of respecting a differing opinion, which I don't see changing in his remaining lifetime), I think incorporating others' food traditions as a springboard for discussion is a good one. And I wanted to share a family legend that seems apt. During the Civil War, my father's kin were split between Union and Confederate soldiers. The matriarchs, though, had no intention of giving up the yearly family reunions, and so secret routes through mountain passes and across rivers were discovered so that the two sides could gather in a neutral, hidden place and share a meal together. How I wonder what those family discussions sounded like, whether they were able to talk about what was important, or if it was enough just to break bread with the "enemy" to remember their true connection.
chardrucks November 23, 2016
Oh, WOW, Gwen, that is an incredible story! I wish we knew what kinds of conversations they had, and what they ate. Leave it to the women to hold the family together., with food. Thank you for sharing this.
mcs3000 November 23, 2016
Beautiful, CD! Give a hug to all the Druckmans for me.
chardrucks November 23, 2016
: )

group hug from all of us to you, MCS.
Peony November 23, 2016
This was great, thank you. A co-worker told me about this great organization today (its mission is to encourage white people to stand up against racism) and they have a guide for talking about race around the Thanksgiving table. You can even text them an SOS at 82623 if you are stuck and aren't sure how to move forward in the conversation. They will even talk with you on the phone on Thanksgiving Day to do 1:1 coaching.
chardrucks November 23, 2016
This is a wonderful thing to know about! Thank you, Peony.
Shani G. November 22, 2016
This is so needed. Thank you.
Windischgirl November 22, 2016
Thank you for these suggestions. I'd welcome a reasoned discussion over the dinner table, complete with data and specifics about what they think the new administration will bring (I was trained as a scientist, after all). Unfortunately, any attempts to do this with my kin will devolve into an emotional presentation (I.e., one person speaking, no dialog happening)...and this from the side that picked the winner. It's sad, but it's also not worth tearing my family asunder.
My fallbacks will be, "howdja like those mashed potatoes?" and "howbout them Steelers?"
E November 22, 2016
"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?" THANK YOU! This resonates with me so much. I'm very lucky that with my good friends and in my immediate family, we are able to talk freely even if we don't agree. However, come events with other people, like not as close friends and family, the M.O. was to avoid "risky" conversation topics. But that tactic HAS done everyone a disservice. I have spent the last two weeks now making time to talk with friends, family, and strangers and asked if they were willing to have a discussion about the topics of the moment/next four years. And they've all mostly been very willing, engaging, and taught me so many new things. We need to be having these conversations. And yknow what? A good meal or a great cup of tea made everyone I spoke with more likely to converse with respect, and a real interest in understanding the other opinions.

Thanks for this piece!