Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving (Make Love, Not Turkeys)

I once read that a disproportionate number of people become vegetarians around the winter holidays. I found this fact intriguing, since that was my own experience; I first stopped eating animals about a week before Thanksgiving. I was 16 years old, my oldest brother had recently died in an accident, and I was thinking seriously - perhaps for the first time - about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

I have a vivid memory of taking a very long walk on a very cold day, girding myself for what I knew would be the (mostly well meant) barrage of "You won't eat even a little?" and "But you love the wing/skin/drumstick!" from my large, extended family. I think I had bread, salad, spanakopita, mashed potatoes, and wine - my parents were cool like that - but I was happy with my decision, and in the years that followed my family made sure I always had plenty to eat. (Of course, I also ate dairy back then, so it really wasn't that big a deal; as long as butter and/or cheese were on the table, hunger was never an option.)

Anyway, this seasonal crop of new vegetarians is probably more than mere coincidence. Isn't it just possible that there's a connection between people deciding to eschew meat and the disturbing cognitive dissonance of this particular holiday? Consider all those construction paper handprint cut-outs, pictures of jolly birds in sober 17th century outfits (some with apparently cannibalistic intentions, which seems rather un-Puritan), and songs about Tom Turkey, etc. to which we were all exposed as small children. Doesn't that strike you as weird?

Think about it: no other holiday goes so far out of its way to anthropomorphize the "main course." Many people eat turkey for Christmas dinner, but there isn't anything close to the same level of rhetoric surrounding it. Similarly, roast beef is often featured at Christmas, but there aren't cartoons and arch, winking rhymes about cattle hiding from the farmer in a desperate bid to avoid the company of horseradish and Yorkshire pudding. And does The New York Times food column feature recipes for "Leg of Lamb of God" as Easter approaches? Certainly not: such a thing would be considered (dare I say it?) tasteless. And yet there's poor Tom, a-cold in the grocer's freezer until he's served forth on Thanksgiving, with the construction paper facsimile of his living self right there on the refrigerator where he was so recently defrosted.

Taking all this into account, Thanksgiving is the perfect "gateway holiday" to vegetarianism, because it's the one most overtly associated with food (at the expense of its deeply problematic colonial origins, but that's another post). Many holidays include special/traditional delicacies, but Thanksgiving positions the big meal as the centerpiece in a very specific way. In the absence of a virgin birth, a resurrection, a trashily overdressed conifer, one day's supply of oil lasting for eight (necessitating the commemorative consumption of potato pancakes), rabbits laying colored eggs (?!), and/or (in Lucy Van Pelt's eloquent description) "deck them halls...and Jingle Bells, and Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho, and mistletoe, and presents for pretty girls," Thanksgiving is ideally positioned to reimagine what (or indeed who) that big meal consists of.

Somehow, a day that was ostensibly set aside for thankfulness and thoughtful reflection - NB that prayer and fasting were part of this picture - became inextricably bound up with gluttony and the slaughter of millions of turkeys, to the degree that it's often called "turkey day." The US president's annual "pardon" of a turkey - which my Canadian partner thought was a joke until he saw this strange farce enacted on the news - only exacerbates the surreal sense of atavism that makes eating turkeys on this November Thursday a cultural imperative. Aside from one's suspicion that this single, fortunate turkey must be, well, "connected" in order for its various parts to stay connected, it's impossible to ignore that something is very wrong here.

And it's a something I've often remarked on in the past few years, to wit: that the "traditional" presence of a dead animal sometimes trumps the feelings of living humans who object to its miserable, factory-farmed excuse for a life, its unnecessary death, and the mindless, mass consumption (optimally at rock-bottom prices, adding economic insult to physical injury) for which it was bred. If I had that proverbial dollar for every vegetarian who has reported feeling less welcome than a headless, defrosted, roasted corpse at their "family" dinner, I would be a wealthier woman than I am today.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that there are better ways of expressing gratitude than the needless exploitation and slaughter of sentient creatures artificially produced for that grim purpose. (And for those inclined to argue that turkeys are "stupid," I would respectfully submit that if intelligence were the criterion for which side of the dinner plate one occupies, cannibalism would be much more common.) If the American mythos is associated with anything, it's discarding old, trite, oppressive ideas and social structures, and being brave enough to start afresh with the ingredients on hand.

The central, motivating belief of the original settlers - whom this holiday purportedly honors - was that outmoded pieties had ceased to serve the best interests of the faithful, and needed to be discarded and replaced. This idea can be as easily applied to patriotism/nationalism/cultural identity as to religion, which is why I can think of no more appropriate occasion to tell "turkey day" to get stuffed. I'd like to reclaim and reinvent this holiday in the name of thankfulness for what's good, precious, and meaningful, and none of that has anything to do with dead poultry.

Let freedom ring!


  1. This post is so awesome and represents the way so many of us feel but can't express. I wish I could share it with the non-evolved in my life, but they are still too defensive when it comes to their right to eat whatever they want. On the positive side, I think there's more awareness and open mindedness every day. Please post this again next year and I'll hope the winds of change have blown in enough so I can share it then.

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment, Nancy! I share your belief that awareness is increasing (if more slowly than we would like), and your hope that more people will realize that we don't have to live at the expense of others' existence and well-being.