American Feasts Are Weird

Since American Thanksgiving day just happened (a day on which we traditionally give thanks to God for all of the many blessings he has given us, and which is primarily celebrated by getting together and having a huge meal of turkey, side dishes, and far, far too many pies), I’ve been thinking a bit on how strange feasts are in modern America.

For the average American, the main problem we face is not too little food, but too much. Even stranger, if one walks down the aisles of a standard grocery store, about half of them contain sugary treats of one kind or another. Should one have somehow missed these, there will be end-cap displays containing sugary foods, and if one did not manage to stock up sufficiently on sugar, there will be several pounds of candy helpfully on offer within arms reach of where one pays for one’s groceries. Sugary foods, so far from being an expensive rare treat, are a thing one must constantly exercise prudence to avoid.

Thus we come to the days traditionally celebrated with feasts. So a people who are not hungry then ritually produces far too much food, which they then proceed to eat maybe a quarter of. I’ve been to family gatherings where the pies literally outnumbered the people, and pies are always served after everyone has overstuffed themselves on turkey and side dishes.

Then we come to the odd tradition of thanksgiving turkey. A turkey is not an easy animal to cook well. Their breast muscles are so much thicker than their leg muscles that it’s basically impossible to cook the breast thoroughly while not rendering the lower leg inedible and slightly overcooking the thigh. Worse still, most people prefer the breast muscle to the dark meat of the leg, so if one leaves the cooking to the average person, the legs are sure to be very overcooked, just to ensure that the breast is sufficiently overcooked that the general terror of food poisoning which has been instilled in Americans is assuaged. The turkey, never a great tasting animal, having thus been rendered barely edible, it is saved by a variety of side dishes, chief among them stuffing (a seasoned bread mixture, often with chicken livers, celery, and onions in it—it can range anywhere from delicious to moist hotel croutons), mashed potatoes (frequently boiled into submission and thus metallic in flavor, but at least usually less dry than the turkey unless the host is trying to lose weight and thus adds neither butter nor cream and at most a little skim milk), gravy (often either so watery one might as well use pure water or so thick it almost needs a knife to cut it, though very good gravies are possible), and occasionally thinks like sweet potatoes, jellied cranberries, canned peas, and assorted bitter goopy vegetable concoctions, meant, so far as I can tell, as a sort of penance for eating so many calories. The pies, at least, usually taste good, as do cookies if anyone has made them.

Everyone means well, but a halfway decent cook eats better tasting food that is also healthier (no matter whether one’s conception of healthy is low carb, low fat, or anything else) on a normal day. So, why on earth do we do this? The only people who really enjoy the feasting are children, and they only start enjoying it when the main course is cleared away and desert is brought out. (note: there will be exceptions when a family contains one or more particularly good cooks, as all of the above-described dishes can in theory, and occasionally in practice, be done well.) What, then, is going on, that so many human beings freely choose to do something which makes so little sense.

The theory behind feasts is that one is indulging in an unsustainable amount of delight in order to concentrate it into such a deep pleasure as to give a hint of the infinite goodness of God that one can appreciate both in the moment and keep with one to remember during normal times. Traditionally, those who had enough to eat normally would prepare for a feast with a fast, for a variety of reasons but also to make the pleasure of the feast keener. We do not keep fasts before feasts in America, so we have no such preparation.

In fact, the only preparation we really have to make the feast more enjoyable is the stress involved in trying to make everything “right” beforehand. It’s not quite penitential; it’s more reminiscent of the story of Mary and Martha, where Martha worried about so many things when only one was necessary, and tried to drag her sister Mary into worrying with her. Anything can be born as a penance, so these preparations may be born as penance too, but it is a bit weird to get ready for a celebration by unnecessary and pointless effort about the preparations for a party. If we all skipped the worrying, had fewer dishes that were easier to make and probably tasted better, and just went for a really long walk instead, we’d probably all be happier and almost certainly healthier.

So, why do we do it?

My guess is that, at this point, we’re basically cosplaying as an older American civilization who had some reason for the things that it did. You can see this in other secular things that Americans do. We get together on a day originally commemorating the end of fighting in World War I, but which has since had enough other wars tacked onto it that it is now called “Veteran’s day” and it’s just a day to get together with family plus a few people posting on social media to not forget the veterans who fought for our freedom. We get together and have a Barbecue on the fourth of July in order to, in theory, celebrate the founding of our country, even though it’s basically unrecognizable to modern Americans and half of us probably question whether it was even a good idea. And then we come to “marriage” (i.e. legal/secular marriage) which is, in theory, two people becoming eligible to file their taxes jointly (plus some stuff about presumptive visitation rights in a hospital should one of them fall into a coma), but which is in fact two people planning to file their taxes jointly and having a big party to announce that they have no plans to separate for the foreseeable future and fervently hope that they won’t want to split up after that, either, even though statistically there’s a fairly good chance that they will.

When you bluntly state what our secular celebrations actually are, you can see that they are hollow and empty; they have nothing but the externalities of the things that they resemble. This is why I call them cosplaying (costume playing). Weddings are, perhaps, the best example of this. People find pictures of those they presume actually married each other, and dress up like them and say vows that they don’t mean, but the people in the photographs (they presume) did.

In like manner, we have feats with tons of food on the table because we look at pictures of smiling people with lots of food on the table and assume that they were happy, so we also put lots of food on our tables and smile for the photographs—though, that said, I can’t actually remember the last time anyone took a picture of everyone gathered around the table at thanksgiving.

All this said, giving thanks to God for his many blessings is indeed a good thing, and if you, dear reader, are an American, I hope that you had a happy Thanksgiving this Thursday last.

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