Thanksgiving Traditions

The aroma of macaroni and cheese, collard greens, chicken, ham, green beans, potato salad, yams, corn pudding and corn bread slithers up my nostrils. Four generations of my family form a circle and link hands. We bow our heads for prayer. My uncle asks God to bless the food and the hands that prepared it. We whisper our thanks and say “Amen” in unison. We part and create a path for the elders to make their plates then the children. Everyone has a place at the table. We eat and laugh for hours. Plates are licked clean. Stomachs are full. Pants are bursting at the seams. We find comfort at the table, where our family congregates and share the fruit of their labor. Never do we discuss where our dinner comes from. Never do we discuss the health related consequences of the food we eat. All that seems to matter is the taste and the fact that we have plenty.

Thanksgiving is approaching and I am overcome with memories of Thanksgivings passed.  I am 23 years old and am finally considered an adult within my family. As an adult member of the Williams clan I am now expected to contribute a dish for Thanksgiving dinner as well as help organize the event. In my nine months of being a VISTA, I have attempted to live a more holistic life and make more ethical choices. These changes have become more challenging with the coming holiday season. I am faced with a dilemma. My family does not respond well to change, especially when it is related to food.

My family is accustomed to eating high sodium, fatty meals. I wish to expose them to more healthy versions of the foods they love; the trick is to do so without infringing on dinner traditions that have brought them comfort for years. Food is cultural. The way my family eats is the product of the conditions in which my grandmother grew up. She lived in a slave shack on a plantation in South Carolina with her illiterate mother and four sisters until she was 17 years old. She lived through the depression in a world that already offered her little due to the pigment of her skin. She and her family made the best out of what they could afford and what was given to them which was usually low quality food. Pork fat and seasonings seemed to make anything taste good she says. The depression came to an end, my grandmother moved to New York and eventually Louisville, Ky. She and my grandfather found factory jobs and were able to become financially stable but the way my grandmother cooked remained the same.

Quietly confronting my family about their eating habits will be no easy task for the same reasons talking about food justice and health in the neighborhoods where diabetes and high blood pressure run rampant is difficult. Food is personal. Food is connected to fond memories. It brings us comfort to know we have plenty. It brings us comfort to know that if we cannot offer the ones we love anything, we can at least offer them a warm meal. Thinking about my family and our Thanksgiving rituals reminds me that my work in communities that deal with the same health/food issues as my relatives is delicate. I am reminded to approach people with compassion, understanding and grace. The road to a healthy, culturally appropriate, affordable, and just food system is paved with people similar to my family members. We must remember that the system we are trying to change is composed of people, real people. We must remember we are not only striving to change polices; we are trying to change minds. I am starting with the people I love dearly. It’s time for new Thanksgiving traditions.