Thanksgiving is an important time for American farmers. I’ve been reflecting for weeks about what to write about Thanksgiving this year, feeling myself getting hotter under the collar as I contemplate all the negative that the made-in-store Thanksgiving represents to me. I’ve been reflecting on which of the many, many hypocrisies I wanted to target this year.
But I won’t.
This year, instead of using space telling you everything that’s wrong about our modern Thanksgiving, I want to tell you how easy it is for us to make it something different, something better.
This year, my family is taking back Thanksgiving. Like the first thanksgivings we commemorate with our official holiday, it requires learning about seasonality and preparation. After all, that’s what Thanksgiving is about, right? Connecting ourselves with our past to be more mindful in our present and future. That means that in summer and early fall, when all my neighbors and friends and farmer’s markets and roadside stands were overflowing with produce, I began storing food for Thanksgiving and beyond. A lot of this food stores in coolers on my porch without any more work: squashes, apples, cabbages, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions. What wouldn’t last I canned or froze: sweet corn, peas, berries, and others. Many of the apples I turned into cider, some to be enjoyed now and some canned for later.
Mindful of how blessed I am to live in an area with such bounty, and have the means to purchase it (even my little local market on the village green now takes food stamps to make local produce as accessible as possible), I also began making connections with these farmers. Like big farms and grocery stores, our local producers are up against the clock and the seasons when their produce is picked. They too know that what doesn’t sell will go to waste. But the beauty of local production where you and your farmer have a relationship, is that there are alternatives to excess and waste. Over the summer and well into the fall I received thousands of pounds of farm-fresh food to donate to local food pantries. Volunteers rallied to deliver the food and find charities and families in need. We flooded the soup kitchens. We inundated the churches. We swamped the schools. We didn’t feed the world, but we did feed our corner of it. Before I even sat down to my own Thanksgiving meal, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for farmers, friends, and community. I also knew that families around my community could now have a local, healthy meal too.
We raised our own turkeys this year. It was a phenomenal amount of work. Harder than pigs, or cows, or chickens. Especially since we decided to raise heritage turkeys: more flavor, more genetic diversity, able to walk, fly and reproduce. Also less tamable. And longer time to raise: like, double the time. Then we sold them as afford-ably as we could possibly manage: if I charged hourly for the time I spent raising these guys, I think I got paid about one penny. Not per hour, all together. But it was enough to cover the cost of our own Thanksgiving bird, and that was our goal. Now when I carve that turkey, I know it got there because our farm customers literally put food on our family’s table.
A heartening sign of the way things are changing; there was a huge demand for our turkeys. We had a waiting list. And not from rich foodies, but from average people who believe in building communities by supporting small farmers. We even sold one of the two we were going to keep for our own meal, there was so much demand. I am so passionate about changing American food culture, that I was happy with one non-obese turkey that we could each savor a taste of. But like most families we are on a spectrum of opinion about these things, which meant there was a demand in my home for more white meat. And more leftovers. We had saved a ham from last winter’s pigs, but it looked like we also needed another turkey. So I went down to my local butcher, who sold turkeys from our neighbor. We chatted about how I was going to prepare the two turkeys differently, and what brine to use, while she checked me out.
Now I had all the main meal covered. On to the desserts. I had already canned apple pie filling I had made myself from the apples falling off the trees in my back yard. Add locally grown and ground flour from another carefully cultivated friendship (a miller who also provided the organic grains for our turkey feed), lard from our pigs, and honey from a neighbor, and I had the makings for our pies and breads. Our family doesn’t drink wine, but I did have some apple cider I carbonated myself to add a little sparkle to our meal.
Food is central to the Thanksgiving experience, so it was important to me that it was locally sourced or from our own backyard as much as possible. Commercialized Thanksgiving may just be a symbol of American gluttony and hypocrisy, but Thanksgiving at its best is a celebration of the bounty in our own lives and communities, and I wanted to reclaim that. Around the meal we also planned other activities to help us find more meaning in our Thanksgiving. Reading stories, listening to and playing and singing music, creating a huge paper chain of ‘thankfuls’ to decorate our Christmas tree, and spending time together the whole long weekend instead of at the shops, amongst other things.
Money is especially tight for our family this year as Mr Wensleydale Cottage has gone back to school, so we are living off of my part time hourly wage income, and whatever food our farm produces. But I didn’t have to be rich to reclaim Thanksgiving by buying local. In fact in many cases local food was not only nicer but also cheaper: bushels of apples and potatoes for $12, bushels of squash for $7, bags of flour in bulk. Where it wasn’t cheaper I took the opportunity to focus on quality instead of quantity: how much extra turkey do I really want if it is dry and tasteless or artificially juicy? It allowed me to demonstrate my gratitude for the life I am able to live by helping local farmers and farm workers put food on their table, connecting farms with those in need, contributing to my local economy, and understanding more about the food that grows around me and how to store and prepare it. And my shopping experience was filled with building relationships and learning more about my community and food, not rushing around grabbing boxes and cans off sterile shelves while the kids whined about being bored.
My family is taking back Thanksgiving by filling it with thanks and giving. And so can yours. Yes there are many families deep in cities with no access to farms. There are families who have no money or access to food stamps. There is so much sadness and need in the world: families without access to food or clean water or clothing or medicine. But I don’t deny my own family these things because other people don’t have them. I don’t tell my children they can’t get a good education because other children aren’t able to. I teach them to make the most of the opportunities they have, to cherish them and make the world a better place by working to bring those opportunities to others. If you, like me, live somewhere with plentiful access to local food, please take it. Strengthen your community. Help these opportunities to grow. I hope we will help other families to take back Thanksgiving by connecting them with the food they need. Not by using them as an excuse to buy who-knows-what from who-knows-where for our own supermarket Thanksgiving this year.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it is so easy to own it and make it something truly meaningful for yourself and your family. No pressure for presents or decorations. No chocolates or other foods from lands far away required. Just being thankful, and giving. Connecting to our past, building our community, and being grateful, together. I can do that! And so can you.