A Family Recipe: Researcher Digs Into Uniqueness of Thanksgiving Meal

By Tom McLaughlin

While many holidays are associated with certain foods – think Feast of the Seven Fishes for Italians on Christmas Eve or corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day – more than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is centered, both literally and figuratively, around the meal itself.

Thanksgiving“Thanksgiving can be said to be about a lot of things – the Pilgrims, family, community, friendship, sharing – but when you cut away the layers, so to speak, it’s all about the food,” says Sean Duffy, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University–Camden. “It is a subtle distinction, but one that I think is very meaningful.”

To demonstrate this notion, Duffy conducted an informal experiment that in many ways resembles an episode of Family Feud. He asked 30 people to provide a list of words that they associate with four major holidays: Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Memorial Day. He then counted the number of words used in reference to food across these major holidays. Duffy found that the average number of food-related words for Thanksgiving was 80 percent, while, for the other holidays, the average number of such words was around 30 percent.

“Memorial Day was about wearing white and going down the shore, Fourth of July was about fireworks and parades, and Labor Day signified the end of summer and the start of school,” says Duffy, who notes that the results remained consistent when he surveyed a second group of participants using another set of holidays.

So then Thanksgiving is just about stuffing ourselves to our heart’s content, right?

Well, not so fast; there’s actually a lot more baked into food traditions, explains Duffy. According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, the celebration of food is important culturally as a way to identify with a group and form a historical chain that links individuals to both the past and the future.

“Food traditions link us with individuals and contexts: one’s great aunt, long gone from this world, revisits through her cranberry sauce with orange zest recipe,” says Duffy. “We are suddenly swept back in time to an afternoon in the 1960s when, as a child, we watched her carefully measure sugar and mash cranberries. And that secret ingredient that you may someday teach your children to use – these moments in the kitchen are chains that bind generations.”

In many ways, says Duffy, all recipes handed down from generation to generation accomplish this aim. However, although it is a family tradition that extends beyond Thanksgiving, it is one that is pronounced during the celebration of this particular holiday.

“You might not look forward to grandma’s Fourth of July hotdogs, but her Thanksgiving stuffing might resonate across generations,” he says.

Duffy notes that Thanksgiving – and the fascinating cultural and social dynamics of the meal – is not an American invention. In fact, harvest festivals have been celebrated in multiple cultures dating back thousands of years. Whether it is Octoberfest in Germany or the mid-autumn festival in China, historical antecedents to Thanksgiving are found throughout the world.

“To put a lid on it,” says Duffy with a laugh, “this harvest meal continues to be the centerpiece of a ritual in which celebrants are able to give thanks, to share a common bond, and to preserve traditions spanning distance and time – and those traditions have never tasted so good!”

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