This year, as many prepare to sit down with friends and family for Thanksgiving dinner, not only are we perhaps tiptoeing into stressful territory navigating conversation about our personal lives or our current political climate, but at almost any table, there is likely to be another point of contention, too: the food. More specifically, what people at our tables will and will not eat.
The number and kinds of food preferences and dietary restrictions that people bring to the table has been steadily on the rise. For example, the percentage of Americans who choose to eat a gluten free diet, even though they don’t suffer from celiac disease, tripled between 2009 and 2014.
Which can be a problem on a holiday that’s all about coming together to share a meal.
As an anthropologist at Northwestern University, I propose a shift in our thinking that could help us navigate this challenging territory: Thanksgiving, after all, is a classic American ritual — a ceremonial action that, at its best, can work to reinforce our social bonds. Considering Thanksgiving in terms of its meaning and function as a ritual can help us to see how the politics of food preference and dietary restriction may be more consistent with the spirit of the holiday than it might at first seem.
At one level, Thanksgiving is a celebration of abundance. The familiar origin story of Thanksgiving is of a celebration of the harvest. The contemporary holiday has grown to center around a ritual of consumption — and not just consumption, but excessive consumption. The quantity of food is often as important as its quality, and we intentionally stuff not only the Turkey, but ourselves.
Post-dinner conversations center around declaring how full and how satisfied we are. This ritual, then, allows us to physically embody the very abundance we are celebrating. We stuff ourselves, and in that act, we demonstrate that we are not facing material scarcity.
This ritual of consumption fits seamlessly within our broader American consumer culture, in which we display prosperity through continuous purchasing, owning, and discarding of things. It’s no coincidence that for many, the food consumption of Thanksgiving Day is followed by the retail consumption of Black Friday.
Because it seems to limit consumption, for others to declare restrictions around food may appear antithetical to this ritual of plenty, perhaps even making some feel defensive of their own unfettered acts of plenty. But in fact, the ability to make choices about what we eat — whether out of concern for our health, our moral values, or our tastes — is, in some ways, itself a celebration of abundance and a mark of privilege and affluence.
Of course, Thanksgiving isn’t just about celebrating abundance; it’s also about celebrating family and togetherness. We enact this togetherness by gathering to cook and eat and reminisce, look at pictures, watch the game, and tell stories. And we value the idea that we do this the same way every time — the repetition of particular elements is a big part of what makes it a ritual, after all.
An important part of Thanksgiving’s significance also comes from the idea that across the country, people are doing the same thing on the same day. This sense of shared tradition and collective action is another part of what defines and elevates Thanksgiving as a ritual.
The need to accommodate individual dietary preferences in the midst of this celebration of togetherness might seem to undermine this spirit of collectivity. Yet in reality, Thanksgiving, like many rituals, isn’t just about togetherness, but about the negotiation of social roles and relationships. We negotiate and renegotiate who is going to host, who is going to cook which dish, which dishes get cooked, and who will carve the turkey.
Aunt Lucy might need her ritual to include pecan pie when everybody else wants pumpkin. We’ve all been there. Often, too, we divide up along gender and generational lines in how these roles are distributed.
Sometimes, we have to take a role that we don’t really want. Sometimes we eat a slice of pie that we don’t really like. But we do it to sustain the group, to keep the peace, to preserve a tradition.
What we might not see clearly is how, when we come together this way, we are always forced to strike a balance between our individual and social, communal needs and desires. This tension between the individual and the collective runs deep in American culture. Individualism has long been a core American value, yet as Alexis de Tocqueville observed way back in 1835 in his seminal volume on American society,
Americans also believe that individuals must compromise between selfishness and self-fulfillment. Many of our classic stories in literature and film (see On the Waterfront and Casablanca for example) dramatize this tension, which also plays out at work and even sport, in our desire for a particular balance between individual star power and teamwork.
While it might initially prompt tension in the group, asking to be accommodated for our dietary restrictions, and accommodating those who have restricted diets, is just another way of enacting this balance between the individual and the collective, the particular and the universal. And, for better or worse, there’s something very American about it.
Rebecca Seligman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Anthropology and Global Health at Northwestern University, a faculty fellow at Institute for Policy Research, and a Public Voices Fellow.