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Thanks for Giving

The received wisdom about Thanksgiving is that notwithstanding its folklorically-correct gluttony, it’s the least commercial, ergo purest, and for many the favorite and most delicious American holiday.

“Least commercial” means, essentially, not like Christmas, with all those gift boxes stuffed with expensive (and mostly unnecessary) consumer goods. Though the economics are analogous, “stuffed with consumer goods” does have a slightly different connotation at Thanksgiving when America’s foodies shop and eat ’til they drop. By-passing the boxes, the gifting goes directly into our stomachs. We are the boxes.

And it is no coincidence that Santa Claus arrives approximately one month later with a huge belly. He’s still digesting!

But despite the sweet seasonal rituals and non-commercial sentiments of  Thanksgiving, it’s not the happiest of holidays for everyone, particularly for those who cannot afford the organic, pasture-raised, “wild-crafted” heritage turkeys. And certainly not for all those birds, however humanely slaughtered. No matter how you cut it, “humanely slaughtered” still means slaughtered by humans.

Nor is Thanksgiving necessarily festive for families who can’t agree on what version of the mandatory turkey dinner to serve. Shall there be a traditionally stuffed and oven-roasted bird? Smoked in a Weber? Spit-grilled over charcoal? Disassembled, brined and baked in the wood-fired pizza oven? Deep-fried? Such seasonal conundrums can wreak havoc in the most loving of families.

Tinkering with tradition

In my own cobbled-together, post-divorce family unit that ritually gathers at this time of year, we are required to materialize a triad of turkeys: a store-bought vegan tofu-crafted and stuffed turkey for my youngest son and his half sister; a merely vegetarian turkey — the same tofu turkey but add egg, butter and perhaps cheese to the stuffing — for my oldest son and his girlfriend; and an actual turkey with a sausage stuffing for the rest of us. Thank god there are no gluten, dairy or other dietary restrictions in our gang — at least not yet. Still, you can cut the gastronomic tension in my dining room with a carving knife!

I know there are good reasons for our seasonal traditions and their specific celebratory modes. These impulses are embedded deep in the human psyche and aligned with planetary truth. Perhaps Thanksgiving’s strict-constructionist formula of culinary glut and material dearth is an appropriate measure of our deepest instincts. We stock up in the fall, and fill up, as a cushion against the coming leanness and meanness of winter. Like chipmunks.

But I wonder, would it be celestially incorrect to express our thankfulness with fewer pies and more things? For me, from my sons, a gift certificate to a local bookstore or a bottle of single malt Scotch would go a long way in allaying the moody season’s built-in affect disorder. For that I’d be truly thankful. And from me to them, perhaps a cellphone upgrade or Netflix subscription. Would this seriously undermine their Occupy Wall Street morality?

I know, I know, I should be a little more patient. Why risk a cosmic meltdown, sending sun, moon and family members into an end-of-days freefall? After all, we are just weeks away from lots of boxes, wrapped in colorful paper and tied with ribbons and bows. Old man winter is on his way with a sack full of things. And, I almost forgot, there’s the 100-percent grass-fed, grass-finished, hormone-free, dry-aged and locally-produced prime rib! Now that’s worth waiting for.

Zester Daily contributor L. John Harris is a food writer, filmmaker, artist and the former owner of Aris Books, publishers of cookbooks in Berkeley, Calif. Harris’ most recent book is “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” a collection of his food cartoons and texts about America’s culinary revolution. (

Image: Thanksgiving dinner. Credit: L. John Harris

Zester Daily contributing writer and illustrator L. John Harris has lived and worked in and around Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto since the 1960s. Since the sale of his cookbook publishing company, Aris Books, in 1990, Harris has worked as a journalist, cartoonist and documentary filmmaker. He is the author of "The Book of Garlic" (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975) and the graphic memoir "Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History" (El Leon Literary Arts, 2010). A vintage guitar collector, Harris launched the nonprofit Harris Guitar Foundation in 2013 in collaboration with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.