Paul Nitze: Saying goodbye to the mixed grill
November 25, 2010
In a few hours I’ll be bracing for an “enhanced patdown procedure” at DIA as I make my way to my parents’ house in Washington, D.C., for Thanksgiving. I expect I’ll be able to grin and bear it along with everyone else. For all the talk of TSA-inspired civil disobedience, in my experience the Thanksgiving scramble brings out the best in travelers.
It’s the predictable comfort of family and Thanksgiving-dinner ritual that keeps people smiling. I know that, weather permitting, I’ll start the day with a long run up Rock Creek Park, past the National Zoo, and then over to Glover-Archibold Park for the return leg. Later I’ll sit down with the same cast of family and friends and enjoy a lazy, wonderful meal. I’ll pretend that I’ve earned the right to eat slices of pecan and pumpkin pie.
Over the years, Thanksgiving has taken some hard knocks as an emblem of American excess and cultural fakery. Thanksgiving is about distorting our history in the name of gorging ourselves. It’s about unsustainable food and Frankenstein poultry. It’s about making empty gestures toward the less fortunate so that we can forget their troubles for the rest of the year.
The irony of this metaphorical baggage is that Thanksgiving has always generated plenty of misery without it. Those doing the cooking are supposed to lacquer a smile onto their faces after two days in the kitchen. Those attending have to put up with relatives who think personal embarrassment is the ultimate icebreaker. After all that we’re supposed to confront Thanksgiving as a cultural construct?
I’m thinking of the novelist Jonathan Franzen’s indictment of American food culture in “The Corrections.” A recurring trope of that book was patriarch Gary Lampert’s favorite meal – the “mixed grill.” I’ll let Franzen describe it: “To Gary there was indeed something endlessly delicious, something irresistibly luxurious, about a bit of lamb, a bit of pork, a bit of veal, and a lean and tender modern-style sausage or two – a classic mixed grill, in short.”
So this was Franzen’s take on our alienation from what we eat, circa 1999. The triumph of gut-busting meat over other food. The consumption of cuts that let the world know you’ve arrived. And above it all, the absence of any real food culture. The mixed grill is what happens when there are no traditional American dishes.
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Call me crazy, but I’m detecting a new seriousness and sincerity about Thanksgiving, and I think it has something to do with our food culture. Franzen’s riff on mix ‘n match proteins seems a little dated. And no, I’m not just talking about the vogue for organic cranberries and heritage turkeys.
On the one hand, the sense that we’re living beyond our means has recharged the spirit of Thanksgiving in a way that was impossible during the go-go ’90s. We’ll never know exactly what the pilgrims ate at the first Thanksgiving, but it’s no longer quite as hard to imagine their desperation. The cocoon of abundance is gone.
But it’s not austerity that’s driving this change. Austerity has not exactly gone hand in hand with attention to the American diet. The Depression helped wipe out all sorts of local food networks, and is remembered for M.F.K. Fisher’s “How To Cook a Wolf” and Eleanor Roosevelt’s inedible White House dinners.
Rather, it seems that after a number of false starts Americans are paying attention to what they’re eating. I sense it in the kinds of produce that make it into restaurants that aren’t trying to establish any sort of “farm-to-table” brand. I sense it in the crowds I saw at farmer’s markets in and around Denver this summer. PR stunt or not, I sense it’s driving Wal-Mart’s decision to source a billion dollars worth of food from small farmers by 2016.
Others can expound on the health benefits, which are substantial. I take heart in the communitarian benefits. As David Hall pointed out recently in The New York Times, the pilgrims of Plymouth, Mass., lived in a world of deep mutual dependence. That was true of how the pilgrims put food on the table, and true of every other aspect of their lives, from marriage to criminal justice to education.
If you suspect that we’re retreating into smaller and more isolated spheres, there is no shortage of trends to latch onto. Food culture appears to be a countertrend.
What could have been dismissed as an expensive and unrealistic mania for organic food has morphed into a surprisingly broad-based move toward smaller-scale, localized food production. We’re starting to put a place and a name, if not a face, to what we eat. That forces a kind of civic engagement that doesn’t happen in the checkout line. And, by the way, it makes the food more delicious.
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