Americans love our origin myths – like the comforting one that, before the conflicts, wars and slavery started, there was an idyllic moment in which the “Pilgrims” and their indigenous welcoming committee sat down in a peaceful potluck of multicultural exchange, each contributing something old to the new.
But Thanksgiving is hardly the only celebration of the idea of culinary “contribution” – there’s a similar narrative about the plantation South, where African foods appear in the culinary narrative, as though they were proffered to white Americans through an altruistic cultural exchange program.
The superstar Southern chef, Sean Brock, even recently described the presence of the West African rice in lowcountry Carolina foods as “gifted to us”, without ever asking who “us” is.
And beyond the United States, many nations explain their cuisines by saying that certain groups “contributed” or “brought” certain ingredients, foods or recipes and deposited them, as it were, into some mythical bank of gastronomic knowledge as part of a bizarre barter in the social contract.
But let’s be clear: none of our culinary traditions were ever really just shared or contributed – and they certainly weren’t “gifted”. That latter term is especially galling, since my ancestors in the Carolina lowcountry were coerced through forced labor and with the threat of physical punishment to provide every iota of value from their expertise in rice culture and cuisine to their white owners; it was hardly a gift.
At a time when we are culturally bound to reflect on gratitude, awareness, goodwill and peace, we would do well to get real about how specific ethnic food traditions actually do become part of a larger whole. The stories and fakelore used to paint over realities of history mask painful truths.
With Thanksgiving, for example, we celebrate and think of it in elementary school terms because it has always been a holiday of socialization. It brought the nation back together after the Civil War; and, as part of American“civil religion”, it served to incorporate immigrants at the dawn of the 20th century – European ones, anyway – into a national culinary narrative, complete with a prescribed meal and myth of contribution, sharing and, yes, gifting. The Thanksgiving with which many of us grew up was an exercise in sculpting a myth almost as comforting and sleep-inducing as the food.
The truth is rather different.
The Pilgrims didn’t encounter a group of Native Americans blissfully unaware of white people. On the contrary, Tisquantum (whom we know as “Squanto”) had been captured, brought to Europe, enslaved and found his way back to his home – but not his people, who died en masse of smallpox during his forced absence – by the time the Pilgrims landed on this continent, and he was already familiar with English, Christianity and how Europeans operate when it comes to politics and money. The Native Americans of the first Thanksgiving were not “noble savages” in feather bonnets sitting down to a stone-age-meets-Renaissance potluck: it was, instead, another moment in the rapid-fire creation of Atlantic cultures and cuisines.
We have always created new selves – new societies – through food. People have been captured and enslaved and, by and by, their food shortcuts or bittersweet delicacies become hits among their oppressors or their fellow oppressed. Poor or underclass people of multiple groups operated (and still operate) in informal spaces of exchange where cultures mix-up – not in some grand peaceable kingdom, but rather in an unsanctioned, unauthorized chaos. People who deemed themselves conquerors found themselves conquered by the sheer mass of the oppressed, and met it with social resistance and rejection; while devouring their culinary identity.
Because of these cultural slights of hand we forget what an incredible debt the Thanksgiving Table owes to First Nations peoples – from sweet potatoes and potatoes to cranberries, turkey and corn. By the same token deep fried turkeys, cornbread stuffing, candied “yams” and other “Southern” foods are thought of as uniquely “American” when they are really more food-prints of the African and African-American culinary legacy. To the extent that Thanksgiving leaves room for more inclusion of international comfort food, this holiday has become a repository of where we’ve been and what we ate there.
With all the attempts to destroy cultural and culinary amalgamation through assimilation, we are lucky to be able to enjoy the boundless multicultural feast we take for granted every time we sit down to eat. Our culinary bounty was not born in a rare moment of quiet before the storm of history caught up; it emerged from small moments fraught with emotion and complexity in which disparate food traditions merged and became, in time, codified. It was an Irish woman with a Jewish friend next door in New York’s tenements; a black girl living on a Scots-Irish farm in Tennessee; a Native American elder cooking for a white family in what’s now Massachusetts; and generations of school children swapping lunches that made all this possible. The generosity, the attempt at humanity, the moments of discovery and wonder despite perceived boundaries – those are what we should all truly be thankful for.