Thanksgiving and the Environment
(Interior of a turkey barn, 1947. Photo courtesy of the MN Historical Society)
|The Turkey Industry|
|Culture of Thanksgiving food|
|Thanksgiving and the Environment|
Some people might wonder whether Thanksgiving has anything to do with the environment at all. They might wonder why the topic of Thanksgiving is included in an environmental studies project. I think that the topic of the food of Thanksgiving is an extremely pertinent one for an ecology of food project. One of the most important lessons I have learned at St. Olaf as an environmental studies major is that environmental issues go far beyond preserving national parks and recycling. We need to start seeing nearly everything we do as an environmental issue, and that includes the way we eat. Clearly, what we eat and how we grow food have environmental effects and develop from a specific mindset on how and what the environment is and should be used for. While my project discusses the history of Thanksgiving, the meaning of the holiday as a cultural tradition, and analysis of the turkey industry, my hope is that the project does all of these things within an environmental context.
Each of the items people eat on Thanksgiving had an impact on the earth, from the farm where it was raised or grown to the processing and distribution of the product. It is my contention that the ritualistic nature of the holiday and our return home, where we often eat the same meal year after year, reflects a desire to return to a time and land of food that had more meaning than the food we eat today. Thanksgiving foods are associated with something more natural than what we eat on a daily basis. In my own family there is the sense that the world may be constantly changing around us, but yet we can still eat the same foods that my own grandparents ate decades ago. This belief, of course, ignores the fact that Thanksgiving foods are just as processed as most of the things we eat today, and are part of the global agribusiness that defines our food systems presently. Craig Holden, a Northfield area turkey farmer, worries that the more separated human beings become from the resources they use, the more disjointed people become in general. He noted how some area teenagers drive by and throw their trash from McDonald's out the window. Incidents like these reflect how people are unaware of their surroundings and the impact their behavior has on the earth. When people are cognizant of where their food comes from, they are more likely to know what impact that food had on the land and people.
I also think that the values and ideals that surround the feast and Thanksgiving holiday—things like bounty, prosperity and abundance—have shaped the way we eat and the way we interact with the environment in very specific ways. Many Americans still have a subconscious feeling that food is boundless, that the earth will continue to provide for all of our human needs. Yet, it is important to recognize that while we do live in a nation that is prosperous for some, not all benefit and can enjoy the bounty of harvests that others are able to take advantage of.
This desire for "homemade foods" at Thanksgiving appear to reflect a need to know where our food comes from and an urge to consume more "natural" foods. Our eating patterns for the majority of times does not reflect this desire, however, as we know less and less about where, how, and who prepared the food we eat. As a holiday that reveres past tradtions, and focuses on the connections between food and family, Thanksgiving holds great importance. When we sit down to our tables at Thanksgiving, we both feel the power that food can forge between family and friends, and we see what food can mean when we take the time appreicate it.
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