Who Knows: Deborah Gewertz, G. Henry Whitcomb 1874 Professor of Anthropology, on Thanksgiving
Editor’s Update: Writer and editor Katherine Duke ’05 sat down with Deborah Gewertz, G. Henry Whitcomb 1874 Professor of Anthropology just before Thanksgiving 2008 to get an anthropologist’s perspective on the biggest meal of the year. In the two years since this interview was originally posted, Gewertz and Frederick Errington have published a book, Cheap Meat: Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Islands (University of California Press). Gewertz is now on leave from Amherst for the 2010-2011 academic year, and she and Errington are at work on their next book, The Noodle Narratives, in which they will analyze the significance of instant noodles around the world, in terms of history, science, marketing, socioeconomics, environmental impact and human health. Gewertz—who will be preparing turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce for 10 friends and relatives in her home this Thanksgiving—writes, “It seems to me that there's less thanks to be given all around in the U.S. today” compared to 2008. But, she adds, “I imagine most folks will nurture hope to the extent that it's possible.”
KD: What can you tell me about the American Thanksgiving tradition, historically or in current society?
DG: It’s an interesting holiday, Thanksgiving—it’s both a nationalist and a national holiday. It’s nationalist because, of course, it is a celebration of the founding of the United States. The Pilgrims find themselves in a land of plenty, and they have considerable hope that their future will be better than it was in the oppressed countries that they left. That’s the story that we tell. They are thankful for the plenty and for their liberation from oppression, and that becomes a founding myth of the American nation-state. It’s also a national holiday. Native Americans are an exception to this, because they have very little to be thankful for, given the coming of the Pilgrims, but most non-Native Americans can get behind Thanksgiving, a nonreligious holiday that celebrates that which they have in common: namely, the fact that they are citizens of the United States.
KD: What else is Thanksgiving about?
DG: It also works, I think, as a holiday to allow citizens to imagine what people they will never meet are like. This is a concept that was generated by [Cornell University scholar] Benedict Anderson, who spoke about the nation as an imagined community. Thanksgiving allows us to empathize, to visualize those we will never know. We can conceive of all Americans sitting around in comparable kinds of circumstances and families, in their homes, which are both alike and different, but more alike, at least on this particular occasion, eating the same kinds of things and perhaps even watching the same sports. This is what constitutes us as Americans: we’re all eating this meal on this day, and we’re all united as hungry citizens rather than divided by religious allegiances. And it is an American holiday; it’s not celebrated elsewhere in the world.
KD: Don’t other cultures have harvest festivals at this time of year?
DG: Sure. But they play out differently. [Other holidays are] not necessarily productive of a kind of nationalism the way Thanksgiving is.
The other thing about the Thanksgiving food is that it’s actually rather cheap (unless you want a haute bourgeois Thanksgiving). Industrially produced turkeys and your basic sweet potato and root crops are not expensive. Anybody who’s ever been asked for money to help homeless people have a Thanksgiving meal, you’re handed a piece of paper that says, “For 7 cents, you can feed 27,000 homeless people.” (Obviously, this is Gewertzian hyperbole here.) But it’s a relatively inexpensive meal.
So, Americans get together with family. The holiday is also interesting because it’s definitional of “family”: the people who get invited become fictive kin. They’re eating a meal that carries with it the symbolism of the founding of the nation-state and imagining others like them all around the country, participating in the same national ritual. There are lots of messages, but among the messages, I think, is, “Life may be tough. We might not have as much money this year as we had last year. But we have a lot to be thankful for.” Thanksgiving is a time when everyone should be replete and recognize that things could be worse.
KD: In a way, you’re saying that hardship is part of the package—part of the myth of Thanksgiving. Do you think the tough economic times we’re experiencing right now will change the way that people think about this holiday?
DG: My guess is that it’s not going to change things much. I think it would be interesting to track, to see what Thanksgivings around the country are actually like. I suspect that Christmas is going to be impacted more, because of the degree to which it is dependent upon buying consumer goods.
KD: What about traveling?
DG: We may have smaller family units [that are able to get together] and this might disappoint some. But there are always disappointments. After all, there are all sorts of tensions involved in divorced families, for example: Where is the kid going to go? And there are intergenerational conflicts: When does the daughter take over the role of making the Thanksgiving feast from the mother?
KD: Do you consider Thanksgiving a kind of a gendered celebration?
DG: Absolutely. I once had a friend who complained that the men never lifted a finger—except to carve the turkey. They were waited upon, they ate and they watched sports during it all. I don’t think this is completely uncommon.
KD: What is your Thanksgiving going to be like this year?
DG: I am going to my best friend’s home. She’s an anthropologist, and she teaches at Trinity College. Her daughter and her daughter’s husband are coming from California with their twins, and other friends are coming. She’s cooking the turkey and the stuffing, and I’m bringing a haute-bourgeois set of things, I’m afraid: a leek mousse and a corn-and-chanterelle pudding with arugula on the top. I like to cook.