by Jan Baughman
(Swans - December 2, 2013) It's mid-day in Northern California on Black Friday, and already the news is filled with reports about injured police breaking up fights, a man shot by thieves trying to snatch his new TV, a shoplifter shot as he dragged a pursuing police officer with his car, a woman spitting on another woman's child over some clothes, an injured cop responding to an assault at Walmart, another Walmart evacuated over a bomb threat, and yet another police officer being attacked in yet another Walmart. The BBC, trying to make sense of it all, features a story on the dark side of Black Friday, angry Americans, and the "Buy Nothing Day" anti-consumerist response to this now-traditional shopping orgy.
In case you're not aware of, or have long forgotten, the origins of Thanksgiving, it was established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 as a Federal holiday and a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." (What would his beneficent Father think of all the maleficent shoppers casting a black eye on said day?) The Thanksgiving lore would have the earliest Pilgrims sharing the bounty of their 1681 harvest with the Indians, with whom they hunted and foraged and ate and probably smoked and sang "Kumbaya." Today the harvest takes place at Costco and Walmart and as they stuff their faces, the Pilgrims enjoy watching their favorite football teams squash their rivals, while the Indians are no longer invited to the table, and their identity has been whitewashed as Native American (but for the Washington Redskins, who refuse to change their team name and logo; nor does the majority of Americans wish them to...).
The presidential turkey pardon is a tradition whose time and novelty has long passed. It's dull and contrived and about as meaningful as the pardoning of Richard M. Nixon, except that in the turkeys' case, they are sequestered to an idyllic life on a farm -- unless that too is a myth -- and no president is voted out of office over pardoning them. In fact, the whole idea of a pardon is misguided. The lucky turkey-of-the-year has done nothing requiring absolution as far as we know, and the farce should be called for what it is: A stay of execution. But that wouldn't be very palatable.
If I appear to be a bit cynical, well, I am. The Thanksgiving tradition of my youth was fairly typical from a food perspective. There was the turkey and the stuffing; the mashed potatoes and gravy; the sweet potatoes or yams, whose difference I never understood but, slathered with enough butter, who cared?; the pumpkin pie, which I never (and still don't) liked and the pecan pie, which I always baked but didn't know enough then to appreciate; the homemade bread and rolls; and sometimes also a ham, as if a turkey weren't enough. But the feast was just the dressing on the holiday, because underneath all the tradition and thanks and giving was the matriarchal stress -- you could call it depression, but no one did back then -- that overshadowed and weighed-down all holiday spirit with the burden of power-cleaning the house for the occasion, doing the shopping, and preparing the food. Once the feast was served, so began the crying at the table over who wasn't there, or who was there but wasn't staying long enough, instead of giving thanks for what she had. What's a kid to think, besides "aren't I enough?" and "what more do you need?". (By the way, we got to do it all over again at Christmas...) In fact, the best Thanksgiving I recall was in 1975 when, despite our mother's objections, my sister -- 16 years older -- took me that evening to see the movie Tommy, with the dreamy, blue-eyed Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Elton John, Ann-Margret, Tina Turner, Jack Nicholson, and more. It was so magical and such an adventurous escape that I don't remember the consequences of retuning home after having dared deviate from tradition. It was well worth whatever drama ensued.
Over the years, I've managed to deviate even further, letting go of the pressure that the holidays imparted and the stress that lingered in the air like the smell of roasting turkey and baking bread except not at all enticing. I feel no need to eat myself into a tryptophan-induced haze, and am more aligned with "Buy Nothing Day" than Black Friday and Cyber Monday. For Thursday's dinner I made a batch of sublime mushroom bisque for me and some crab cakes from fresh, local crab for Gilles ("the best I've had -- ever," he announced, for which I gave thanks). This weekend I'll try to sleep late, finish this article, do my Swans editing, watch a bit of the annual James Bond movie marathon, and yes, I'll do a bit of cooking, but only because I like to. Not bad for unconventional tradition.
Still, somewhere I miss the mythical, magical ritual that I didn't get to experience as a child. And although another Thanksgiving has passed and I'm not overstressed, oversated, or overshopped, I'm just thankful that it's over.
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