Thanksgiving Dinner: More American Than You Think

Four turkeys (photo: cobalt123 via Flickr)
Four turkeys (photo: cobalt123 via Flickr)

[Ed. Note: We are republishing last Sunday’s post by Jill Richardson on this most American of holiday feasts.]

These days, local food is so popular that even Lays potato chips are trying to pretend they are local. But how often do we actually sit down as a nation and enjoy a meal of local food? A meal that we cooked, that we eat with people we love, that we linger over instead of shoving down our throats while driving to work?

That day is supposed to be Thanksgiving. We don’t often think about our Thanksgiving dinner as “local, seasonal food” but it is. Or at least, it ought to be. Turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and pumpkins are all native to North America. In fact, Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey as America’s national bird. Until recently, Massachusetts, home to the Pilgrims, was the nation’s number one cranberry producer (now it’s Wisconsin). And all of these foods are actually in season in late November.

However, a look at the mass production of our treasured Thanksgiving foods shows the dark side of the American food system. Perhaps the food provides an apt metaphor for the holiday itself, which is intended as a harvest festival but also marks the brutal and bloody conquest of this continent at the expense of the Native American people.

Let’s start with the turkey.

Last year, Bush pardoned two turkeys, Pumpkin and Pecan. The birds were among a select group of turkeys who were raised to tolerate human handling to prepare them to behave well in their photo op with the President. From there, Pumpkin and Pecan went to Disney World, where they lived out the remainder of their natural lives. Most likely, they are not alive to celebrate a 2nd Thanksgiving. (The “alternate” turkeys went to Subway, which proudly advertised that customers could eat the alternate turkeys in their sub sandwiches.)

There’s a reason why Pumpkin and Pecan (most likely) lived such short, sickly lives despite their first class care.¬†They are Broad Breasted Whites, a type of turkey bred solely to cater to the American people’s appetite for cheap breast meat. Because the Broad Breasted White is bred only for the trait of large breasts and fast, efficient growth, several other traits have been sacrificed along the way. The birds have such large breasts that they are physically unable to mate, and in fact, they are barely able to live. Turkeys are notoriously sickly and few, if given the chance, would live long enough to see two Thanksgivings. In the eyes of industry, the Broad Breasted White is a machine that efficiently converts cheap corn into breast meat as quickly as possible. Period.

Traditionally, poultry – and turkeys – served a very different role on an American farm. They eat kitchen scraps and other food waste, grass, and even insects. Meanwhile, their droppings serve as valuable fertilizer. Turkeys could survive outdoors on pasture for many years and they could also naturally reproduce. A number of heritage turkey breeds still exist today, even though they make up only a very small percent of the market. In fact, the turkey industry is so consolidated among factory farm operations that in 2007, four companies (Butterball, Hormel Foods, Cargill, and Sara Lee) controlled 55% of the entire turkey market. Whereas turkeys raised on pasture in the traditional manner serve a valuable environmental role, turkeys raised in factory farms do not. Instead of including food waste, grass, and bugs among their diets, they eat grain, which requires oil to grow, harvest, process, and transport. The turkeys’ waste accumulates in quantities in which it can be more of a pollutant than a valuable fertilizer. And lord only knows what human rights violations occur in the slaughterhouses where the turkeys are processed. Yet, this is all a pretty accurate picture of America and its food system today.

How about the potatoes? Today, you can still find hundreds – even thousands – of varieties of potatoes growing in the Andes, where potatoes originated. Even in the US, you can find potatoes of all colors – blue, purple, red, and yellow, in addition to the usual brown. Yet the most popular variety – the Burbank Russet – accounted for 41% of potatoes grown by the top 8 potato producing states in 2008. The reason for such homogeneity among potatoes? Fast food restaurants and their demand for potatoes for their French fries. One reason why the percent of potatoes accounted for by Burbank Russets isn’t higher? Potato chips use a different variety of potato, the Maris Piper. Leave it to Americans to standardize a diverse, healthy food like a potato, farm it on an industrial scale as a monoculture, and then turn it into an iconic junk food like the French fry. For what it’s worth, my favorite type of potato is the German butterball.

As for the cranberries and the sweet potatoes, I have similar critiques of them. Cranberries are such a wonderfully American food and they are always a favorite of mine at Thanksgiving. They were initially called craneberries because their flowers resemble a sandhill crane. Yet what was once a local food to the Pilgrims is hardly so for most Americans – some 80% of cranberries come from Wisconsin and Massachusetts. And how many Americans only experience cranberries as a sugary juice or out of a can? As for the sweet potatoes, there’s nothing wrong with them, save for the marshmallows many put on them. While the original marshmallows were made with marsh mallow root and honey thousands of years ago, today’s marshmallows contain a mess of sugar, artificial ingredients, and gelatin. I doubt either variety was present at the first Thanksgiving.

In some cases, there’s no need for me to be so Scroogelike about our country’s traditions. Yes, it’s true that you can’t get local cranberries in San Diego (cranberries require freezing weather) but as a once a year commemoration of the Pilgrims first Thanksgiving, there’s nothing wrong with a little cranberry relish as a treat. And Thanksgiving dinner is really one of the healthiest meals you’ll see Americans ever sit down and eat, with a table full of lean meat, fruits, and vegetables. But a look at the system that produces the foods traditional on our Thanksgiving tables shows a rather accurate snapshot of our modern day, industrialized food system. It’s most defining feature is corporate control, which results in homogenization, exploitation, and environmental degradation.

Fortunately, today there are more and more opportunities to opt out of that corporate system. You can serve up a heritage breed turkey instead of a Broad Breasted White, skip the marshmallows on your sweet potatoes, and look for exciting alternatives to the boring old russet for your mashed potatoes. Better yet, get involved beyond the one day of Thanksgiving. Grow some herbs in a pot or start a worm bin. Lobby your city to legalize backyard chickens. Or get involved in food politics on a national level by writing your representatives to reform school lunch or by working to defeat Senate Ag Committee chair Blanche Lincoln in 2010!