It’s the week after Thanksgiving Day and some of us are still rubbing our bellies and wondering what possessed us to partake so energetically and copiously. In the nearly 400 years since the first Thanksgiving feast was held the holiday has changed a great deal, but food remains front and center. The celebration at the first Thanksgiving hosted by the pilgrims at the Plymouth colony in 1621 lasted three days. Since there was no shopping or football, I have no idea what they did for three days other than eat.
The celebrants at the first Thanksgiving feast were also the ones who had acquired the food via hunting and gathering from the forest or harvested from small cultivated patches of soil. One-hundred-seventy-five years later, just after the American Revolution, farmers still made up 90 percent of the labor force. Today, full-time farmers make up less than 2 percent of the labor force and an even smaller percentage of the total population. As a matter of fact, we have more people incarcerated in the U.S. than we have full-time farmers, but that’s a topic for another day.
It is interesting to note the distancing of people and their food sources. Not so very long ago, almost everyone had a garden and did significant canning, pickling, and other food preservation, and also raised a few hogs and maybe a steer or two for butchering in the fall. I’m at the tail end of the baby boomer generation and I remember these activities. My grandfather used to tell me stories about how grim it got when the harvest was poor. Today we still have hungry people in our community, but it’s not because there isn’t food available. It is because of a lack of resources to buy the food.
Last week, most of what appeared on our tables came from hundreds if not thousands of miles away, raised and processed by people we know nothing about, and most probably under the control of very large corporations. In northwest Montana, there were likely several families who enjoyed the fine meat of a successful hunt – we did – but for the most part our food appears in the grocery stores ready for us to use with minimal effort. Even in Montana, a significant percentage of the population lacks the ability to bring food from its source, be that plants or animals, to the table. Frankly, even though I’ve spent the last 30 years raising food, I have no desire to go back to the days of yore. Barring a nuclear war or some other catastrophic event beyond comprehension, we will never go back to that way of living.
Even though we don’t raise our own food anymore, we should take an interest in where it comes from, how it is processed, chemicals used in raising and in processing, and the general sustainability of the practices being used. Without consumer input at the market level, the incentive is to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible. That is a depressing race to the bottom for producers that ultimately benefits only the shareholders and high-paid executives of the food processing giants.
Regardless, I hope you had a most rewarding Thanksgiving.