You Can Acknowledge Thanksgiving’s Problematic History and Eat Pie, Too

Give mindful eating a new meaning this Thanksgiving.

November 21, 2018 ● 5 min read

By Aralyn Beaumont | Art by Cassandra Landry

Two years ago, I ended up at a friend's Thanksgiving table instead of my own. As the cohort of family and friends settled down around two long dining tables, the host stood up.

She asked all of us to take a moment and think about the protestors on the Dakota Pipeline. All at once, our minds drifted to the people braving the extreme cold, opposition, and hunger to protect their land, those descendants of the same people who fought the same battle hundreds of years before, a moment we were clumsily celebrating with our Thanksgiving feast. The room turned somber.  A few of us placed orders for supplies to be sent to the protesters on our phones. My appetite wavered. 

There is so much pressure to keep the peace, especially around the holidays. Ignoring the hard truths in our society while we feast together feels as pointless as the robotic "I'm good!" you blurt out unthinkingly when a friend asks how you are. Are we so averse to ruining the mood that we lose sight of Thanksgiving's context?

The well-trod idyllic Thanksgiving narrative resurfaces every year as food publications everywhere repackage jazzed-up turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing recipes with autumnal cheer or bored resignation, and consumers everywhere click away. But how alienating is all that for indigenous communities? How harrowing to those faced with celebrating the birth of a nation that maligns, murders, and incarcerates so many within their communities? What does Thanksgiving become to them?

The lines between activism and conviviality may be closer than you originally thought: take Julia Turshen's latest cookbook, Now & Again. The book is composed of seasonally driven menus, including one for a "No Stress Thanksgiving." For Turshen, eradicating stress is more than a quick cranberry sauce: it’s about remembering the painful history behind the holiday.

"Being able to hold the good with the tough means having a clearer understanding of the meaning of Thanksgiving," it reads, then goes on to list organizations like Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations and the American Indian College Fund, so readers know exactly how they can help.

"As a cookbook author, I don’t just want to give you an idea of what to cook for dinner—I also want to talk about ways we can be part of our communities," Turshen says of her decision to include such an explicit call to action in an otherwise fairly conventional cookbook. "I don’t think you can tell the story of an ‘All-American Thanksgiving’ without at least acknowledging the story of indigenous Americans. These things can't exist separately in my mind.

"People who buy cookbooks are people who’re willing to take time to read them,” she adds. “They’re people who are thinking intentionally about what they want to cook, and with that comes the desire to take care of people and feed people. With all of that comes this amazing community that can do so much good. I don’t think we should underestimate those readers."

Food, she posits, is a powerful way to enact change precisely because it exists so directly in our everyday lives. Thanksgiving is comforting, familiar. A Thanksgiving menu with pretty pictures of turkey and stuffing is common ground. In Now & Again, the holiday becomes the perfect entry point: It frames activism in a way that feels truly empowering and immediate, and makes the reader feel like they've already found a door to a positive movement.

Food brings people together, but it also manages to feel frivolous in the face of very real struggle. It all comes down to our intentions and where we place our attention: An "All-American Thanksgiving" can be one where we think about how to brine the bird, but also think about the families who can't afford to have a turkey dinner. Debate lattice versus crumble pie tops, but remember the families who were ripped from their land and never afforded full access to American freedom. We can consider swapping mashed potatoes for cauliflower rice, while also thinking about the shattered families of color who only seem to grow in number each year. While the world seems to insist on one thing or the other—ignorance or protest— you can have a love for marshmallow yams and also care about our imperfect history. 

Basically, we need to ask ourselves what we're overlooking. In a passage born out of the painful conservations she'd have with her younger brother about police brutality against black men, food activist Shakirah Simley wrote in Turshen’s previous cookbook Feed the Resistance: "These conversations [that unpack racial trauma] should occur everywhere and all the time, particularly in school cafeterias, food pantries, church kitchens, public parks, and at dining room tables."

"People of color have to do this work year-round, throughout very painful tragedies and circumstances, so I think it's really important for white people to do this work,” Simley tells me. “It’s a time of reflection, right? For a lot of people, they go into the new year thinking a lot about resolutions. I feel like those resolutions are often individually focused, but it would be great for people to connect with their families and think about what resolutions they can set to serve their greater community."

In 2014, after Mike Brown's murder, Simley created a placemat called Make Room for Mike to raise awareness about state-sanctioned violence against black people.

"We asked all types of families to make room at the Thanksgiving table for people [whose] lives were taken by gun violence or by state-sanctioned violence," she explains. "It was a very simple, very powerful act of acknowledgment that not everyone can celebrate with the type of joy and connection that they deserve. It can be really powerful for a lot of black and brown families who are forever separated to have the acknowledgment at the Thanksgiving table."

For Turshen, holidays are the perfect time for this kind of reflection. Invariably, there's a mix of people at the table, gathered around a bounty of food and grateful for the good in life. "You’re able to talk about uncomfortable things in a way—with no pun intended—[where they’re] digested,” she says. “You're accessing people you know. In some ways, I think it can be easier to talk to people you don't know. But to actually acknowledge hard truths with your family, friends, whoever it may be—I think that's the work we all need to be doing.”

Every moment is an opportunity. I think back to my friend standing up at our dinner table in 2016. How the protests of the time lacked glittery signs or Trump piñatas, and often ended in arrests and destruction. True activism has a distinctly individual flavor to it: your beliefs take shape in everyday interactions and infuse your whole life. Even on holidays.

"Thanksgiving as a holiday is painful, particularly for our indigenous communities. We need to ask ourselves, what does it actually mean and what are we actually celebrating?" Simley says. "The holidays are good times to have these conversations because they’re often times when families and chosen families are together and they can a) have these difficult or uncomfortable conversations but b) be around the table to do that, which is a safe space. You can’t have these conversations without people feeling uncomfortable, so guilt and shame and sadness are an intrinsic part of it. So many families don’t have the luxury of not having those feelings on major holidays, because they have lost people throughout the year."

"My joke is ‘serving sheet-pan chicken with a side of social justice,’” Turshen says. “This can all exist at the same time, they don’t have to be separate. Incorporating new things like volunteering and having difficult conversations should be weaved into the routine to normalize them and make them just as expected as pumpkin pie."