Thanksgiving & Eucharist: Things Change, Things Stay the Same

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Thanksgiving & The Eucharist: Things Change, Things Stay the Same

by Melissa Musick

When we gather at the table this Thanksgiving, some of the staples of my post-World War II childhood will be missing. No more glutinous green bean casserole with the canned onion ring crust. No celery sticks stuffed with pimento cheese. No asparagus casserole (the chief attractant being not the canned asparagus tips; they were only a kind of base for the star — crushed potato chips, all crunchy and browned on the top). No relish plate filled with black olives and sweet gherkins. No Coca-Cola Chocolate Cake. No candied yams under a marshmallow cloud. No fruit salad, which my mother called “Ambrosia,” which it is, and which calls for a dressing made of one cup of heavy whipped cream, one cup of sugar, one tablespoon of flour, a dash of white vinegar and an egg. This dressing, mixed, boiled and cooled, was poured over a salad of canned pineapple chunks, sliced bananas and miniature marshmallows. My kids still love it, but they understand it is dessert. Ambrosia is “salad” the same way my gyrations on the floor at various and sundry weddings is “dancing.”

This Thanksgiving I will feast at two tables, one at church and one at home.

But this was before the days of Whole Foods and fresh asparagus in December. If you wanted asparagus or green beans (of any sort) on the table at Thanksgiving, you either had to have a cellar full of home-canned or you could use the wondrous new varieties from the Jolly Green Giant. Ho-ho-ho: my mother and grandmothers and aunts, all of whom spent decades wringing chickens’ necks for dinner, and hauling water and heating it for laundry, and canning produce in the heat of a Texas August, were delighted with the neat rows of cans on the shelf of the local Piggly Wiggly.

green beans

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council’s 1963 declaration Sacrosanctum Concilium, apostolic sees were allowed to offer communion to the faithful under both forms. It was, as Father Andrew D. Ciferni pointed out in numerous articles and talks, not only a theological shift, but also a change in food ways. And food ways, as Ciferni teaches, are among the most difficult of habits and customs to change. He muses on the likelihood that long-held ways of eating can change. He suggests a test: ask mustard eaters to put mayonnaise on their hamburgers, while mayonnaise eaters try one with mustard. Ciferni predicts there won’t be many even willing to take the plunge once.

It’s hard to make changes where food is concerned, especially food that is associated with our deepest memories and joys. I don’t mean to suggest that receiving only the Host is the equivalent of being served canned green bean casserole rather than actual green beans. I mean only to observe that tables, altar or home, are rooted in our hearts, and that any changes there are radical, simply by virtue of being changes to a familiar order.

Our Thanksgiving table, influenced by my children and their spouses, is more colorful now, spread with the deep jewel colors of (roasted, mostly) beets and broccoli and carrots and peppers. If we have asparagus, it is whole and fresh and lightly cooked, looking almost nothing like the limp, army green stalks that slid from the can. If any dish calls for onion rings, they will be sliced in the kitchen from an actual onion. Yams remain on the menu, but the marshmallows are gone. Now, any sweetness is  likely to come from the juice of an orange squeezed over the yams, which means we can taste, really taste, their  flesh.

We serve the traditional turkey, but there are more vegetables on the side, enough that non-meat eaters can heap a plate, too. More and more there are vegetarian main dishes.

My generation of siblings and cousins grew up eating like the farmers who raised us, the farmers we would never be. We ate the way a farmer can eat, after days spent toiling, upright and bending, walking and hauling, before sunrise and as the sun goes down. I remember watching my grandfather sit down and eat an entire fried chicken for supper. His body needed the protein and could handle the fat and calories.

My children are teaching me, not so much a new way, as a way that looks back and forward. The variety of fruits and vegetables available in late fall is new. But the reliance on something other than sodium-laden, canned cream soups and trans-fats and dyes and unpronounceable strings of syllables from the lab, rather than the farm, looks back to the food my great- grandparents knew. As chef and food writer Michael Pollard advises, “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food, but do eat tofu.”

Sacrosanctum Concilium was looking forward and back in this same healthy way. This Thanksgiving I will feast at two tables, one at church and one at home. And I will give thanks for the wisdom, both old and new, that set these feasts before me.

(This article first appeared in Celebration. It is reprinted here with permission.)