The Great Divide
Remember When The Food United Us For Thanksgiving?
November 16, 2006
By JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ, Courant Staff Writer
The story goes that a bountiful feast brought the Pilgrims and Indians together for the first Thanksgiving, that food served to unite those very different cultures.
Clearly, there were no gluten-intolerant guests at the dinner table.
Because in these times, the food meant to connect families during the holidays is more likely to divide them.
Chances are good that at least one chair at the Thanksgiving table will be filled with a sister or uncle adhering to a special diet - a vegan or a vegetarian, a diabetic or person allergic to wheat. Whether motivated by health constraints or ethical concerns, their strict eating habits can draw battle lines right down the middle of freshly pressed tablecloths.
Silent judgments are lobbed across the creamed corn. Resentment bubbles in a hostess pressured to make three kinds of sweet potatoes. An aunt wonders why - why just this once! - can't her nephew eat turkey?
With so much meaning tied to food, especially around the holidays, the dinner table can prove a minefield of emotions.
"It's a central part of our lives ... You gather around the table; you share in a meal. It's what we celebrate around," says Joan Romano of South Windsor. She's planning a Thanksgiving menu for about a dozen guests, three of whom are vegan: her mother, sister and brother-in-law.
Ten years ago, when the latter two first went vegan, it was a palpable source of tension. For Annie and Neil Hornish, their deep, moral objections to eating animal products made sitting through a turkey dinner a painful experience. For Romano and the other meat-eaters at the table, the couple's decision felt like a judgment.
But it also tugged at something deeper.
"You put a lot of effort into preparing the food, making the table look nice. ... It's an expression of caring, of love," says Romano. "So when somebody says they're not eating, it's kind of a threat to the meaning of the holiday. You wonder if you're going to be able to get together as a group much longer, because somebody is going off in another direction."
Those feelings make perfect sense, says Leon Rappoport, a professor emeritus at Kansas State University who has spent years researching food and psychology. We use food to relate with one another, use it as the social glue for gatherings and celebrations. So that bowl of candied yams, that pumpkin pie and cranberry relish - there's so much more there if you take a closer look.
"It's a very primordial thing, this business of food," says Rappoport. "It really carries an immense amount of baggage when you stop to think about it. ... It gets down to how people define themselves in relation to the world around them, how they define themselves as a group and as individuals."
Religious and cultural groups have for centuries shown solidarity with one another by this "ritualized feasting" - partaking in specific food customs to affirm their association to a particular tribe. To break from that is to break from the circle.
"It's threatening, because you're setting yourself apart from the group. You're becoming in some sense like a stranger," says Rappoport, author of "How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food."
"So if you grew up eating Mama's chopped liver and all of a sudden you refuse, it's just loaded with all sort of potential emotional conflicts," he says.
If the choice is made for a specific health concern - a potentially life-threatening allergy, for example - family members might be able to rationalize why Uncle Joe can't eat from the same bowl. But emotionally, it still stings on some level to see him eating from a separate one.
It still feels like a rejection, and it still sets the person up as a target for scrutiny.
"Overall, everybody makes moral judgments on everybody else based on their food habits," Rappoport says.
Filmmakers and novelists quickly establish characters by the cocktails they drink and foods they eat. Sons-in-law and potential business hires are grilled over a restaurant meal - an opportunity, if unconsciously, to glean some character trait or social status in their food selections and table manners.
For Kathy Wood of Windsor, the food divide will keep her at home this Thanksgiving, to have a more intimate meal with just her husband and son. The family changed to a raw-food diet almost a year ago, opting to eat only fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and sprouts that aren't cooked over a certain temperature. That means no meat, dairy or processed foods.
Wood says she and her family have enjoyed better health and energy because of it. But at the same time, "it kills a lot of the socializing we do."
Most of their friends and family have been supportive, if inquisitive. Only once did they encounter an insensitive situation, when family members at a birthday party exaggerated their delight in the cheesy slices of pizza the Woods could have no part in.
Wood thinks her family's food choices make some people uncomfortable partly because it makes them consider their own. Some people respond defensively, she suspects, "because if you can find reasons to poke holes in the diet, then you have less reason to change your own eating style."
To make it easier on everyone, the Woods will whip up an uncooked meal this Thanksgiving and possibly visit some friends in the evening - when the turkey and other tempting treats will likely be out of sight.
For Mark Occhineri, Thanksgiving will also prove a challenge. He has been on a raw diet for the past five weeks, learning the basics of the lifestyle through the same Windsor raw-foods group as Wood.
They both gathered with about 20 raw foodists last Sunday to indulge without the glare of skeptical eyes in a pre-Thanksgiving potluck of nut-based stuffing, cranberry relish and carrot cake - all creatively uncooked.
Occhineri's Italian family has gotten used to his eating habits, which are more a source of friendly ribbing than debate. His father, Angelo, doesn't care for it. His mother, Marion? At a recent family dinner, when everyone else was served heaping helpings of pasta, she set in front of her son a bowl of raw vegetables.
"We kid him about it," she says. "I'm on the fence about it. I wonder how long he's going to keep it up. He's gone from vegetarian to vegan to organic to raw foods. Now I wonder, what's next?
"So long as it doesn't impair his health, I'm for it. I mean, he's 45 years old; I can't tell him what to do."
Will he indulge in the turkey this Thanksgiving?
"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," Occhineri smiles sheepishly. "If [my family] starts getting out of hand about it, I'll eat it to make them happy."
The solution for all of these specialty dieters and their families seems to be in understanding - and in contributing a dish or two of their own.
The Hornishes, for example, will bring over a vegan-approved pumpkin pie and salad they'll encourage everyone to try. Sister Joan Romano will be sure to serve vegetables without dairy and a big fruit salad to accommodate the Hornishes and their mother, Agnes Wosko, who became a vegan four years ago.
The tension has eased considerably over the years. Romano knows the Hornishes won't be passing the platter of turkey around the table. And the Hornishes know not to bring up their ethical concerns about eating it while others are eating it.
"I was afraid this might really put a crimp in the holidays, because a meal is an important part of getting together," says Romano. "But things have really worked out.
"They have strong convictions about being vegan, and I respect them for that. We just celebrate in different ways."
And for the Hornishes, who founded a vegan activism group called The Compassionate Living Project, they had fleetingly considered joining their vegan friends for holiday meals.
But in the end, they knew that wouldn't feel right.
"Everybody talks about what they're going to eat on Thanksgiving, and that's really not what the holiday is about," says Neil Hornish. "We choose to see these events as an opportunity to see the people we love.
"It's not about the food."
Reach Joann Klimkiewicz at email@example.com