They are what you eat

Writer and critic A.A. Gill once responded to a popular Jedi mind trick defense of vegetarianism — “Would you eat people?” — with the following observation: “What is it about the food on your plate that you think isn’t about eating other people? We are, all of us, eating other people’s habitats. We’re eating their lives, we’re eating their labor, we’re eating their children, we’re eating their water, their fresh air… We eat people all of the time.”

It is a healthy dodge during a faux-debate on the merits of cannibalism. As Thanksgiving approaches, I was reminded of not only the retort, but its symbolism; how food takes on the qualities of our lives while fueling the people who live them in a perpetual values machine. Taken in that light, each member of a family could easily find themselves on the menu.

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Turkey

The linchpin fowl. The reason why your people have gathered, even if one of your agnostic cousins doesn’t eat meat. There is no meal without the gobbling game. We make wishes with its bones, stuff its paunch to bursting with love. It is the best part of the meal the day after, a wine becoming richer as time passes. Turkey is always mother.

Stuffing/Dressing

Of my many aunts, my favorite was Aunt Tweetum. She was a complex woman: a rural Nelsonville girl gone full city in possession of an emphatic, barking laugh that made you laugh back, even when there was no joke on the table. Coupled with whatever her ambrosial perfume of choice was, no woman ever made Kool cigarette clouds smell so good. Her pantry was filled with romance novels instead of canned goods, a miscellany of unrequited passions and paperback lovers with which she could not bear to part. If you call this dish “stuffing” in your house, then this is your Auntie all day. This is certainly not a Stove Top love. If, however, your clan refers to this side as “dressing”, then this becomes the sigil for the saditty aunt who always brings a dish that she bought instead of cooked.

Mashed Potatoes

This prescribed provision used to be solid — nay, hard. Now look at it: peeled, pounded to a pulp, mashed, whipped. But it does its job: It fills you. A pat of butter sinks into the spoon-pressed divot and makes a golden pool of itself, and it is in that drooling moment that you see your father’s face in the mound. Salt of the earth, he/it is. 

Cranberry Sauce

Unless you’re an actual pilgrim, the only time you partake of this deceptive fruit is at Thanksgiving. You don’t even see a cranberry any other time of year unless it hurts when you pee. No matter how much sugar you put in it, it’s going to come back on you a little sour after first blush. And who hits you like that every year? Who comes on all nice at first, pulling quarters out your kid’s ear, only to reveal themselves tart in the end? Your racist uncle, that’s who. And like cranberry sauce, it’s a staple, but you’ll never understand why. Also much like your racist uncle, you’d be surprised how the world doesn’t end when you don’t have it at dinner.

Sweet Potatoes

The kiss of cinnamon sneaks up on you. Dark syrup pools in your mouth making you think that the candied bloom in your jaw is the point of food altogether. It is only after several too-large bites that you discover their rambunctiousness has overwhelmed your palate. You remind yourself to take the potatoes in smaller bites, to pace their presence in your rotation, that perhaps they deserve their own plate. With this realization it becomes clear that the children’s table flies under the banner of the candied tuber.

Roll/Biscuit/Cornbread

Meant to be torn apart in any form, the assemblage of edibles in a breadbasket may have one or all three foodstuffs in play. And like the doughy cornucopia, your cousins serve a sopping purpose: to soak up all the dribbles of drama and story from your life. A good cousin is the stalwart roll: warm, sincere, and a staple at the table. Sweet on top but solid business underneath their crust, your country cousin is all cornbread. Finally, the cousin who always has something to say about your weight to deflect from the fact that they, too, are not what they used to be in high school is the superfluous biscuit, vying for attention despite their milquetoast ways, an unnecessary and common bread that can be had out of a can if one is lazy enough, their opinions popping out of twisted and loud, like unasked for joke snakes. Your biscuit cousin can go to hell.

Pumpkin Pie

If your grandmother is sweet and full of stories and loves a good parade on television, she is made of the velvet embrace that is a well done pumpkin pie. If, however, she is the grandmother that keeps asking why you don’t have any children, she is the slightly less awesome Sweet Potato Pie, and redundant, considering you already have sweet potatoes on the table.