Evidence of the (sometimes) illusive American food culture
Studying abroad in Santiago, Chile last semester and living with a Chilean family I assumed I wouldn’t participate in any Thanksgiving festivities. It wasn’t a big deal, I thought. I had done very well in the not-being-homesick department so that success would extend to a Thursday like any other Thursday, right?
Wrong. As the holiday approached, my need to be with family and eat turkey steadily increased. Luckily, a team of exchange students (largely American) came to the rescue. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t alone in my first Thanksgiving away from home state. We decided that if we couldn’t be with our families, at least we would be away from our families together. It was the next best thing; a day to forget we were thousands of miles south of the good ol’ USA and to pretend the stuffing tasted just like grandma’s.
Surprisingly, there was little need to pretend. Our potluck was impresionante, as the Chileans would say. A snapshot of the dinner by the numbers:
- 40 people (American, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, British, Australian, French)
- 1 turkey
- 4 types of mashed potatoes
- 1 green bean casserole
- 3 variations of sweet potatoes
- 1 Portuguese cake
- 3 Spanish tortillas
- 2 apple crisps
- 1 tv showing American football
- Barely any alcohol
The last bit is noteworthy: most of the American students figured we would end up with a small quantity of mediocre food and a large supply of alcohol but the opposite proved true. The quality of the food and the amount of effort put forth to make this Chilean Thanksgiving memorable and as close to the real thing as possible (with a dash of international flavor) demonstrated the importance of this holiday and, in my opinion, helps prove the existence of an American food culture.
The idea of a ‘food culture’, particularly with respect to that of the US, is interesting because of its multi-dimensionality. Some argue we lack a food culture, that it is an amalgamation of other food cultures, that we are defined by fast food, or that we have many regional food cultures. I think opinions 2, 3, and 4 could all fall under the large umbrella of our food culture but believe there is a more important underlying theme. The definition of American food culture is illusive but probably not impossible to determine. Personally, being able to succinctly define this complex food web is simply not that important. You don’t necessarily have to be able to explain what something it in order to know it’s there. Let’s look at Thanksgiving to expand on this idea. What characterizes Thanksgiving? Turkey, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, stuffing, pie, binge eating, football, turkey sandwiches on Friday, etc. So, mostly food. And traditional foods.
The only way to create traditions is to have a culture through which generations can pass on customs. There was not one day when thousands of families all around the United States simultaneously and independently decided to prepare turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie on a certain Thursday of November…and make it a regular thing. These traditions reflect national cultural unity and are a throwback to a probably embellished ‘historical’ event. But, alas, the validity of the tale is not the matter in question here. A food culture is a tool with the power to unite distinct people. In a nation that can feel so disjointed and at odds with itself, Thanksgiving serves as a reminder of our common heritage through the food we eat and (as a bonus) the strength of American food culture.