Thanksgiving pies at Rosemary Piercy’s home outside of Dardanelle, Arkansas. 2011.
The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier and on the Boiled Down Juice. This week the paper is running the regular column as well as this additional Thanksgiving piece.
In the Folk Studies and Oral History class at Arkansas Tech University, the students have recently begun working on their research projects, exploring living traditions and/or oral histories in their communities. In preparation for these projects students are asked to explore some of the living traditions in their own lives. Several of the students bring up specific family recipes, taking note of foods that connect families and communities across generations.
Folklorists often talk about Foodways, the study of the gathering, preparation and consumption of food. In this sense, food is a window into a much larger exploration of a given region, the cultures within that region, and the unique and individual stories that contribute to the larger whole. This week is an especially great time of year to talk about food, as many of us will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by a feast of dishes ranging from decades old to Pinterst-era new.
Maybe your favorite pie recipe is preserved on a butter-stained index card written in your grandmother’s swirling handwriting from decades ago. Or maybe the recipe is stored in your head, a secret passed down selectively and verbally. Or perhaps you found a creative new dish online and tried it out for the first time this year, which may be picked up by the younger generation and become the traditional recipe for the family years down the road. Your grandchildren might one day ask you how you learned to make the dish and you may find yourself talking about this thing called Google and a world filled with endless food blogs. But it’s not just the recipes that offer stories.
We might take for granted the easy access to large, frozen birds in the store, but an exploration of the roasted turkey on the table can tell us a lot about the politics of factoring farming. That butter-stained recipe on an index card is an avenue to learning more about a deceased relative who grew up in the Depression and learned to make much out of very little. Dig a little deeper and you might find information about your Italian, African, or eastern European ancestors. If you’ve recently moved to this country you’re most likely creating new traditions that blend traditions from your former home with the food options available here, creating a fusion of dishes that reflect an emergent culture unique to you and your family.
We tend to think of food in terms of nutrients, health, or even comfort. But as any holiday dinner will reveal, it’s so much more than just that. Food can build bridges between generations and cultures, helping us find commonalities amid differences. Access to food can tell us more about where we live, even literal soil beneath our feat. Food is endless series of windows into learning more about the people that came before us and a way of expressing where we want to go from here.
So what was on your table this Thanksgiving week? Did you grow any of your own food? Did you prepare a generations-old recipe? Did you start a new tradition, blending the old with the new? Tell us what was on your table. I’d love to hear more and possibly share some of the stories in upcoming columns.