Honoring Abundance by Wasting Less: Thanksgiving Comes of Age
November 28, 2014
Michael Erard / Al Jazeera America
In the US, 35% of perfectly good Thanksgiving turkey meat is wasted. Americans purchase some 46 million turkeys for Thanksgiving but waste over one-third of the meat. 377 million pounds are eaten; 204 million pounds are wasted. Rethinking what surplus means on the day of bountiful turkey, cranberry sauce and methane gas
"Thanksgiving resembles the potlatch ceremonies held by indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest, in which huge amounts of food or manufactured objects are given away or even destroyed in displays of social status."
(November 27, 2014) -- My mother-in-law is an inventive, skilled cook who comes from a long line of Texas farmers and ranchers. Her family members, she says, "waste nothing." So there's an edge to the story she tells about her first Thanksgiving as a young wife, when she interpreted the cookbook's instructions to "baste the turkey with a stick of butter every 30 minutes" to mean a new stick of butter each time.
"I don't know how many sticks of butter I used," she said, "but the turkey was very moist."
Whether it's cooking snafus that result from experimentation with unfamiliar recipes or the preparation of bounteous meals, Thanksgiving is a holiday of waste. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans throw out 35 percent of the turkey meat they buy.
From this, Dana Gunders, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, extrapolated that Americans discard 200 million pounds of turkey every year. Compounding the ecological cost is the fact that turkey production has the sixth largest carbon footprint of 20 sources of protein, after lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon.
The Environmental Protection Agency has identified another consequence of food waste: climate change. When old food is cleared out of the refrigerator to make way for the turkey, vegetables and other foods, it goes to landfills, where it generates methane gas. (Leftovers from the Thanksgiving meal itself generate methane in landfills, too.)
But reducing this environmental impact isn't as easy as merely using a Thanksgiving meal calculator, smaller plates or better recipes for turkey leftovers. To get people to change and make Thanksgiving less wasteful, we have to delve into what a food surplus means.
The reason for the waste isn't hard to figure out: Thanksgiving requires us to violate the First Principle of Food Waste, which says, "The more repetitive your diet -- the more you eat the same things day after day -- the less food you waste." (The First Principle was derived from findings by the Garbage Project, an ongoing archaeology initiative in Tucson, Arizona, that attempts to understand patterns of American consumption from excavations of landfills.)
At Thanksgiving, we don't buy, cook or eat our usual foods. As a result, cooking accidents probably occur more frequently, because the ordinary home cook has less experience with special foods. Take my mother-in-law's overreliance on butter, for example. (The National Turkey Federation says that most turkey consumption in the United States now occurs during the rest of the year, though I doubt this means that Americans are spending their time cooking more whole turkeys.)
Leftovers from Thanksgiving meals are easier to throw out because we don't usually eat them. We don't feel attached to them. I'd wager that defenders of stuffing and cranberry sauce would be shocked by the huge volume of their favorite foods that ends up in the trash on the fourth Friday of November. (When my wife and I kept a journal of foods we threw out in 2013, we listed ordinary foods like toast and blueberries but also many special items like lobster, leeks, burdock root and Brussels sprouts.)
Many online guides to reducing food waste encourage sending guests home with food. But if the guests don't eat those foods either, even the most lovingly wrapped bundles will end up in the compost.
We also waste food at Thanksgiving because we deliberately create a surplus. Here's where the meanings of food, and plenty of it, come into play. (It's not just Thanksgiving -- you can find a lot on the Web about food waste at Passover and Eid).
We cook in larger amounts than usual not only because we expect more guests, but also because the Thanksgiving meal includes the first and second rounds of leftovers as well as the initial formal one.
One would be ashamed not to be able to provide turkey sandwiches during a halftime show, so one overcooks. Perhaps we're being hospitable and generous to family and friends who aren't expected to reciprocate, but these feasts are designed to show, by their lavishness, that guests can't reciprocate.
In this sense, Thanksgiving resembles the potlatch ceremonies held by indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest, in which huge amounts of food or manufactured objects are given away or even destroyed in displays of social status.
Anthropologist Michael Harkin at the University of Wyoming, who studied communities in British Columbia that practice potlatch, had some caveats about comparing potlatch to Thanksgiving. For one thing, potlatch as we know it is a relatively recent invention, an adaption to European contact.
For another, it varies from place to place. In Alaska, the Tlingit potlatch emphasizes reciprocity and sympathy between groups. In the more famous Kwakiutl potlatch, it is about symbolically conquering the invitee.
Yet potlatch is closer to our own Thanksgiving than we think. "If we accept the myth of the first Thanksgiving," Harkin wrote in an email, "It was very much along the lines of the potlatch, as it was a demonstration of the superior wealth and beneficence of the Wampanoags." In other words, the Native Americans weren't generously saving the early American settlers with a feast; they were ritually conquering them by placing them in debt.
Seen in this light, a surplus of food, even if it leads to waste, is the meaning of the meal. We've done so well, it says, we can afford to waste things.
To change Thanksgiving, we might again take a lesson from the history of potlatch. In the late 19th century, the Canadian government outlawed potlatch ceremonies because they seemed wasteful, but by the 1950s, many communities had revived potlatch. The lavishness couldn't be abandoned, because people needed it to secure their status.
Indigenous communities were also never very amenable to the argument about waste as immoral, because they have a different notion of the ecosystem in which humans exist, Harkin said. In part, their ecological worldview was built on acknowledging and honoring relationships between species. For instance, the bones of salmon are thrown back into the river in order to ensure future generations of fish.
"Overconsumption," he said, "is fine as long as you do the proper rituals and pay the proper respects."
As we prepare our Thanksgiving meals this year, keep a few things in mind to reduce waste:
* Try to cook foods that are part of your diet, so that you violate the First Principle of Food Waste as little as possible.
* In lieu of a ritual that honors the relationships between species, write down what you cook for Thanksgiving and everything you throw away. As I found when I kept the food waste journal in 2013, it's a powerful tool for helping us see what we need to change.
* Don't waste food during the rest of the year. If there's food waste at Thanksgiving, it's because it reflects our worst food habits. If you want to honor the early American settlers, remember that they could never take a food surplus for granted.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.