The Theological Case for Cooking an Over-the-Top Thanksgiving Feast
- Rachel Marie Stone
- 2015 19 Nov
I go all-out cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Every traditional dish, plus a few extras that have become traditional in our family, must be made, all from scratch. Most years I start cooking on the Sunday before the holiday, beginning with the cranberry-orange compote, which keeps well, and preparing a little more each day. If there are vegans or celiacs joining us, there are vegan and gluten-free modifications made wherever possible. There are pies. There are homemade rolls. There is always much more than enough. We eat leftovers for days.
Every year, as he watches me roast sweet potatoes and puree them, as he watches me cut cold butter into chilled flour to make perfect pastry, as I burn myself making pan gravy and draw up complicated charts indicating precisely when each dish must go into and come out of my small oven so that all will be ready at just the right time, my husband wonders aloud why I don’t cut a few dishes off the too-long menu. Couldn’t we do without the potato dumplings, or the rolls? I assure him that we could not, and that we will not.
This may seem a strange practice for someone who has repeatedly advocated voluntary simplicity and a Christian awareness of food justice. Next year, a 40th anniversary edition of the cookbook that helped shape my thinking about food, More-With-Less, will arrive on bookstore shelves -- with my name on the cover alongside the original author’s. At this moment I’m elbow-deep in revisions of this book, which has been a guidebook for intentional simplicity in the area of food consumption. So how does my passion for a truly abundant, carefully orchestrated Thanksgiving feast square with my first-hand understanding of global hunger, North American excess, and concern for simplicity? Am I not a shameless hypocrite for my devotion to a Thanksgiving potlatch (a North American Indian term for an opulent ceremonial feast)?
I would be, were it not for the cycle of fasting and feasting, of ordinary days and celebratory days, that we see in many traditional cultures and indeed, in the biblical fasts and feasts upon which many church traditions base their days of feasting and fasting. Yes, North Americans have a tendency to go way over the top with respect to eating and drinking on too many days. As such I think the answer is not to simplify our feast days -- like Thanksgiving -- but to rein in our consumption on ordinary days.
As a girl, one of my favorite Little Golden Books was titled “Raggedy Ann and the Five Birthday Parties in a Row.” It’s Boy Doll’s birthday, and when he blows out his candles to make a wish, he wishes that he could have five birthday parties all in a row. Predictably, by the end of the last party, everyone has had enough of the cakes and the games and the gifts, and Boy Doll realizes something crucial, something many of us could stand to recognize: the pleasure of any special thing fails to be gratifying and ceases to be pleasurable once it stops being special. Even the thought of eating dressing and turkey and gravy and sweet potato pie every day is a little sickening. It’s once-a-year food, to be sure.
And so whenever I get the chance, I champion simplicity, not only for its own sake, not only for the opportunity it offers to reflect on justice and solidarity with those whose ‘simplicity’ is not a choice, but for the sake of keeping the feast, for I think it is only when we have kept the ordinary days ordinary that we can enjoy the feast days for what they truly are. The real purpose of fasting (or, at the very least, eating simply) is to prepare our appetites for the feast; to provide a backdrop against which the feast can be a feast.
But what’s theological about feasting? As it happens, plenty. The theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote:
“a meal is still a rite -- the last ‘natural sacrament’ of family and friendship, of life that is more than ‘eating and drinking.’ To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that ‘something more’ is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.”
According to Schmemann’s sacramental vision, the world itself is a revelation of God. The world itself is a sacrament.
This is a truth that’s found throughout Scripture. The heavens declare the glory of God, day after day pouring forth speech and knowledge, and, throughout Scripture, the minute details of creation are taken as tangible and visible embodiments of the loving attention of God: God, who looks after the wild mountain goats when they give birth, God, who clothes the wildflowers of the field, God, who does not fail to notice when even one sparrow falls to the ground.
To paraphrase Schmemann, “in the Bible, the food that people eat, the world of which they must partake in order to live, is given by God, and given as communion with God. Food is not “material” as opposed to “spiritual,” rather, all that exists is God’s gift to us, and exists to make God known to us. God blesses everything God creates, and this means that God makes all creation the sign and means of God’s presence, wisdom, love, and revelation: ‘oh, taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Throughout the novels of American writer Marilynne Robinson, food is sacramental -- it always means more than just food. In one of the letters to his young son, the old pastor John Ames, who has been ill, writes,
“Since supper was three kinds of casserole with two kinds of fruit salad with cake and pie for dessert, I gathered that my flock, who lambaste life’s problems with food items of just this kind, had heard an alarm.”
“You asked for bites off my plate so you could decide which casserole and salad you wanted -- you have the child’s abhorrence of mingling foods on your plate. So I gave you a bite of one after another (guessing) Mrs. Brown, Mrs. McNeill, Mrs. Pry, then Mrs. Dorris, Mrs. Turney, feeding you with my fork. You would say, “I still can’t decide!” and we’d do it all again. That was your joke: eating it all up. I thought of the day I gave you communion. I wonder if you thought of it too.”
The point is clear: the sacrament is not only the communion we eat and drink when we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. It is the food we bring to others in their times of need. It is the food we share, with love, with our families and with others. It binds us together: father and son, Mrs. Turney, Mrs. McNeill, Mrs. Brown. That’s what holiday feasts are about, too.
We are not the only creatures who eat, of course: “all that exists lives by eating,” Schmemann writes. “The whole creation depends on food. But the unique position of human beings in the universe is that we alone BLESS God for the food and the life we receive from God.
And that’s the theological reason I cook an over-the-top Thanksgiving feast: because it is an opportunity to lift up the good gifts of God with loving attention, to remind myself that God is more abundantly generous than I can hope to be, to bless God for the sweet and rich, the spicy and creamy, the cool and the warm, the feast days and the ordinary days, the hungry bellies and the full ones. The Thanksgiving feast stands as a reminder that scarcity and hunger will not last forever -- but that abundance and good taste will.
Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food. Her writing has appeared in Christianity Today,Sojourners, Books & Culture, RELEVANT, and others. She also regularly contributes to Her.meneutics. Rachel lives in New Jersey with her husband Tim and two little boys. You can read more from her at her blog, or follow her @rachel_m_stone.
Publication date: November 19, 2015