Thanksgiving Dinner: Why Don’t We Cook the Other 364 Days of the Year?
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” observed Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the greatest of French gourmands. Brillat-Savarin knew a thing or two about food identity: he wrote his masterpiece in 1825, at the absolute peak of French food culture, a belle epoque of foie gras, Normandy butter and a Bresse chicken in every pot. So who are the American people, judged by what we eat?
(MORE: What Happened to the American Middle-Class Meal?)
That’s a question worth asking as many families prepare to consume more home-cooked dishes on Thanksgiving than they do during the entire rest of the year. Convenience has become our national staple, and it’s one of the big themes addressed by a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, called “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.” The exhibit, which opened Nov. 20, is a lot of fun, especially for those of us with a nostalgic bent; its pupu platters, Veg-O-Matics and Swanson TV-dinner trays stir old memories, even if what we’re remembering are the old TV commercials about these products rather than using the products themselves. Speaking of TV, the exhibit includes Julia Child’s actual kitchen, complete with her oven, all her tools and even her cabinets and counters. The disjunction between the Veg-O-Matic and Child’s emphasis on classic cooking techniques says a lot about who we are. It says that America, for good or bad, has been going its own way for a long, long time, and that way leads to the lab, the factory, the store and the couch, where consumers watch people like Julia Child rather than follow her advice in the kitchen.