Gustafson: Giving thanks for Thanksgiving | AspenTimes.com

Gustafson: Giving thanks for Thanksgiving

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

There is something sensual about the savory aroma of baking herbs hovering in the air, while smoothing down billowed linens and the placing of cutlery feels almost ceremonial. Add in the sound of wine splashing into stemware and the clinking of glasses and it feels downright festive. Fill up a room with laughter, chatter and a bit of banter and you have a celebration.

But the most intimate experience of all of our cultural gatherings still centers around the act of sharing food with another human being.

Communal meals are a primal experience with origins tracing back to the dawn of humanity. And when we carve from the communal bird or "break bread" together we share, as equals, in a timeless tradition that unites our common needs.

Our humanity hinges on sharing food. One of the first experiences we have in life is to be fed; a mother shares her milk, a parent feeds their child. We are biologically conditioned toward shared consumption, and we can still live or die by food dependency. Share a rancid meal and we all perish, suffer a food shortage and we all starve.

Evolving within a system where food literally equates with survival, human existence has always depended upon the communal table.

Sure, today we often go through the motions at the group gatherings, sometimes with pleasure and at other times out of obligatory necessity. We embody formalities, practice some manners, set iPhones to vibrate, place napkins on laps and raise a glass, but what really begins to connect us with one another at these shared events may be the simple gestures of offering and accepting that which sustains us. And in that moment, when everyone is eating the same food from that same dish, we are a tribe, a community, a family — and we are equals.

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Even as we strive to express our individuality, we are drawn to social signals that bring us back together. Our tribal origins are triggered by learned social behaviors coupled with primal instincts.

Of course, we can fall prey to the "have-it-your-way" culture. Ease of access often, it seems, adds up to isolation, and that goes far beyond food. Going out for a bite and ordering individual entrees doesn't seem to have the same bonding effect as when food is served "family style" and we engage with our more prosocial selves. For me it begs the question, if we stop sharing food, will we lose our sense of community? I'm willing to suppress my dietary independence in an effort to connect.

Perhaps, as I've read, when sharing the same nutrients, the identical organic matter entering your cells is also entering the cells of those around you, and that may even trigger an intangible and potentially enduring cellular connection between people that is speculated to last well after the food has been digested.

The late John Bemis, namesake and founder of our latest generation of Snowmass Village Community Potlucks at Thanksgiving, left a legacy that stretches far beyond an annual tradition. He re-cultivated a piece of the thriving sense of community we can experience in Snowmass Village, as we join together and share each other's company, ideas and food. (See you at this Sunday's event!)

Since the very early days of human existence, food has been linked with cooperation. In more primitive times, food was often delivered in bulk — elk for two, anyone? Of course it had to be either shared or wasted, and that likely challenged even the earliest sense of needless greed.

Family meals offer opportunities to think about fairness, authority and greed. Parenting books encourage food sharing, often citing studies of children who experience family meals as having more inclination to offer directions or help to strangers, and striving for equality, not hierarchy, in fantasy play. And in turn they tend to grow up to be more altruistic.

As a child of the '80s, I narrowly escaped the TV-dinners of the previous era, and luckily with a mother who had studied nutrition and valued the traditions of nightly home-cooked, family-style meals, I experienced food sharing, despite the cultural waves of Mc-birthday parties and a nation rapidly embracing the fast-food movement. No, I was not immune to the temptation, and yep, I wondered what part of the chicken the nuggets came from and why hamburgers didn't taste like ham, but the drive-up, takeout times remained slightly out of reach for us in this valley.

Along with becoming a mother came a natural desire to nurture my own children, feeding them full of healthy ideas, kind-hearted empathy and philanthropic passions, and on that instinctual, maternal level, I wanted to feed them healthy food.

We attended our first Aspen TREE Farm-to-Table Free Community Meal a few years ago, before we were fully aware of the new generation of Earth Keepers and the "farm park" out at Cozy Point, and I was inspired. The experience had all of that community spirit which, for me, embodies the season of giving.

And along with a delicious meal, I ended up finding a place in Aspen TREE, where my children have flourished in an environment that incubates curiosity. Earth Keepers promotes an understanding of how we can create a whole community around food cultivation, natural stewardship and preserving our childlike instincts to learn, explore and share.

Volunteering last year to help coordinate volunteers with Aspen TREE's 9th annual Community Meal helped reassure my 2016 post-election aftershock and wavering faith in humanity. The feelings of generosity and gratitude, community spirit and equality were palpable at last year's event. And again this year, while reaching out to find volunteers for the 10th annual meal, I'm continually struck by the enthusiasm with which people offer their time and energy to serve others — where the reward is in the service itself.

And the meal takes it one step deeper as the food is also locally sourced, produced and cultivated here in our valley as well as prepared and served by volunteers, including some of our locally elected officials, Skico execs and business owners. Those who sponsor the event are often the ones filling the water glasses and clearing the tables. It's heartwarming and proves that there is integrity in the "Aspen Way." Experience it for yourself — as I now shamelessly promote the need for volunteers at this year's Community Meal (wink) — contact me if you are interested. Last year almost 200 stepped up!

I look forward to the many opportunities for communal food sharing throughout the valley over the next few weeks as we sit down together at schools, office parties, community potlucks and in our homes. And while we feed our loved ones, we can also spread that spirit by donating to Lift Up! Acknowledging that though we can't always directly feed those in need, we realize that even in our neighborhood people struggle. Support for them is met with gratitude beyond comprehension for many of us.

Those traditions, and the fact that we are still willing to volunteer our time and energy to cook for one another, serve our neighbors and express gratitude, fills me with hope. It allows me to believe in our future.

As our society drifts toward more and more individualized cultural realities it seems like this is the right time to give thanks for Thanksgiving.

Let's exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind, after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at brittag@ymail.com.