The Pleasure Of... Irreverent Tradition

On cranberries, champagne, and historical vigilance.

Thanksgiving and the season it inaugurates are among my favorite times of the year. To find a balance between the sense of obligation and of pleasurable capitulation to tradition, I’ve come to believe that lowering the stakes of it all is key, and embracing only what you can get your arms around comfortably. I’ve realized that all I ever want, personally, from any of these wintry light-in-the-darkness celebrations, is champagne, candles, pigs in blankets, people I love, and a minimal amount of dealing with the cold/public transportation/unruly strangers. My Instagram feed over the past few days has served up a lot of basically identical turkeys and pies, and then pictures of other places, other foods, from people who’ve opted out of the holiday entirely, or live in places where it’s merely Thursday. I like the idea of keeping to a few basic observances—the date, the food, the gathering, the decorations—and then doing whatever you want inside that. Often that means reinventing what the holiday means and what’s being celebrated, which I think is not just allowable, but necessary and good.

As an expat in the land of Thanksgiving, I never took part as a child in any historically questionable pageants about settlers and Native Americans, but growing up in the land of Universal Christmas, I did act in Nativity plays that, at the time, few people thought to question in terms of acknowledging religious diversity or disbelief. Today these plays are getting remixed and reimagined so that the celebration can serve and welcome everyone, and it’s clear to me that the only way to preserve the positive elements of a tradition is to look at it square on, each year, and decide what deserves to stay. One nice thing about British Christmas is that there’s so much of it that I’ve found it fairly easy to embrace with a straight face as an atheist, for its message of peace and hope and joy and generosity, and also crackers and chocolate and fairy lights and mince pies. Despite my skepticism last week I do rather like the ritual of gratitude as a salvageable meaning around Thanksgiving, but I chafe against the public performance of it. Some things, I think, are better said to the people you love than to the internet at large. But I think they are worth saying. A moment of grace.

One thing I am trying to do around this particular holiday is lift myself out of enormous ignorance about Native history. I was grateful to this New Yorker piece about the relationship—more wars than feasting—between the Wampanoag and the English colonists, and about the Civil War era invention of Thanksgiving, the mythmaking purposes it served, then and now. It highlights a number of books that dive deeper into that history, and discusses some of the (very small!) steps being made to redress the total writing-out of Native voices from it. In that spirit, this website can help identify, as a starting point for learning more and acknowledging that history, the Native land you are currently occupying. I’m sitting on Lenape, Canarsie, and Wappinger land, here in Astoria.

Reading (and Cooking) This Week

This is also, inevitably, a season for thinking about food, and I’m looking forward to taking some time to enjoy Paul Freedman’s beautiful new book, American Cuisine, a history of regional variety and industrial homogenization, of dominance and decline. My contribution to the Thanksgiving table this year was this cranberry riff on a key lime pie, which I made on the recommendation of R. Eric Thomas, whose newsletter is much funnier than mine. It’s such a tart, refreshing flavor after all the heavy mains that I think it’s a keeper, I think I’d play with the quantities more next time (it makes a huge amount), and stick closer to the original gingersnap crust. I’d serve it straight from the fridge, since it rather lost its structural integrity at room temperature. (The verdict from the two toddlers at our table, by the way, was 50/50: one spat it out with an expression of profound betrayal, one burst out of his high chair asking for more.)

Writing This Week

I’m delighted to share that I’ve taken over the  Feminize Your Canon column at The Paris Review, which means I’ll be writing a monthly essay on a neglected woman writer. My first one is about one of my book subjects, the novelist, memoirist, and tireless labor reporter Mary Heaton Vorse. I’m grateful to the editor, Nadja Spiegelman, and to my predecessor, Emma Garman, for letting me take this over (read Emma’s great pieces here) and am open to suggestions for people to include in the future.