November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving: Tradition and Freethought

Traditional Thanksgiving
By Ben Franske, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the things that has always drawn me to freethought, starting long before I knew what the meaning of freethought, is its encouragement questioning the things others seem to take for granted. I used to drive my family crazy by doing this. As I was trying to fall asleep last night, I memory from long ago returned to me that I thought might be appropriate to share today.

By way of context, I should note that I've always had issues with food. I know that lots of people do, and mine aren't appreciably worse than anybody else's. At the same time, I must acknowledge that they seem to be fairly weird. I say that because of all the people I've met in the course of my life, I've yet to come across someone who seems to derive less pleasure from food than I do, viewing it as something of a necessary evil. Whether it is fair or not (I think it is), I blame my family for this. They had and still have some odd attitudes toward food, and I believe that the manner in which they handled the fact that I was a very picky eater as a child is a big part of why I ended up the way I ended up.

With that out of the way, I'll get back to the memory that came back to me last night. It concerns the traditional Thanksgiving meal in my childhood home. If we were at home that year and not at the home of a friend or relative, the traditional meal was exactly the same every year: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, a green vegetable (e.g., green beans, asparagus, broccoli), and either pumpkin or pecan pie for dessert. This is what was prepared and served every year. I never enjoyed any of this particular meal. I didn't hate it, but none of it was terribly appealing. Had someone told me that they were going to prepare a special meal for my birthday or something, none of the items on this traditional Thanksgiving menu would have appeared on it.

The lack of appeal had nothing to do with the manner in which the food was prepared in my childhood home. Over the years, I've eaten this meal and slight variations of it in the homes of other family members and friends. It wasn't any better anywhere else.

Part of the memory that suddenly came back to me last night was the realization that my mother - the one who cooked this meal every year unless my father was cooking the turkey on an outdoor grill - rarely seemed to enjoy eating it either. I'd regularly eat as little as I could get away with at this meal, mostly moving my food around to make it look like I'd eaten some of it. She wasn't quite this bad but didn't eat much of it either compared to what she would eat normally. As for my father, he's one of these people who loves to eat and seems to enjoy almost everything equally. I don't think this would ever have been the menu he would have selected if it was up to him though.

The rest of the memory that came back to me involved me as an early pain-in-the-ass teenager asking my mother one year why she insisted on preparing this same Thanksgiving menu every year when nobody seemed to enjoy it. Her response was one of puzzlement, quickly followed by the claim that she thought everybody liked the food. I had to laugh at that because I'd made it as clear as anything could be for several years that I didn't care for it at all. But that really wasn't the point since my view of food was thoroughly warped by that time. The point I tried to make was that she herself did not seem to care for it. "You don't like it, I don't like it, and Dad will eat anything. So why keep doing it?"

The answer, as you will have undoubtedly guessed by now, was tradition. "This is just how we've always done it." I wanted to know why that mattered. Why does this have to be what we eat every year for Thanksgiving? The fact that we've always had this meal did not strike me as a valid reason for why we needed to keep doing so. Had either of my parents really loved this menu or had some sort of emotional attachment to it because it was what was served on Thanksgiving in their childhood homes, I might have understood the appeal. But the first of these reasons was clearly untrue and the second was never expressed.

Since moving out of my childhood home, I've never cooked a turkey or attempted to incorporate any of the traditional Thanksgiving meal into my day. I eat what I want to eat on Thanksgiving without any regard for tradition. I see no reason to eat something I don't enjoy just because someone thinks that is what people are supposed to eat that day. I've eaten this traditional Thanksgiving meal a couple times at friends' homes when I couldn't think of a good reason to turn down the invitations, and I have had family in town for a Thanksgiving or two who insisted on preparing it. I enjoy it even less today than I did as a child.

For me, freethought is about questioning the things others do not question (e.g., faith, custom, tradition, assumptions). Why should I eat something I don't like because you tell me it is tradition? Since when is "we've always done it that way" a sufficient reason for doing anything? When the answers to such questions are not satisfactory, freethought is also about being willing to go one's own way and say no to the customs or traditions one does not find meaningful. I don't mess with the traditional Thanksgiving meal because I've never enjoyed it. Unless I have a damn good reason to do otherwise, I'd much rather do something I do enjoy.

I've made some slow progress over the years in rehabilitating myself from some of my odd food-related issues. I still have a very long way to go, but I have reached the point where I sometimes enjoy cooking. And once in a while, I am even able to enjoy eating.

Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who are celebrating it, and I hope those of you who, like me, are not celebrating it have a good day too.