Fifteen years ago, I spent Thanksgiving in a church basement in Albany, N.Y., eating turkey and mashed potatoes and drinking strong black coffee. The food had been prepared by some anonymous ladies at the church who cared about those less fortunate. I did not want to be there, did not feel I belonged there, did not consider myself on the same level as the rest of the folks who were there for a free hot meal. I had been to college, was a child of the '60s, had protested the war in Vietnam.
But I did not have anywhere else to be. I was at the lowest point of my life, separated from my husband, separated by choice from my parents and siblings, unemployed, and living on the good graces of some very patient friends who did have other places to be. I do not remember that Thanksgiving with pride or fondness, but it is one I hope I never forget.
On this day of loneliness and despair, some ladies from the church guild gave me solace and a good meal.
Over the next several years, I was fortunate in finding my way back onto the beaten path. I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. I pieced together other areas of my life, married again and became very middle class. I went to work preparing meals in a small corporate dining room, got my own American Express card and mortgage, and gave to the United Way.
While reading a food-service trade magazine recently, I came upon an article applauding the efforts of the industry in sending foods that otherwise might be wasted to shelters and soup kitchens. I recently had made such a contribution myself, and had chuckled when compliments and requests for recipes had been channeled back to me.
But as I continued through the magazine, I noticed how food was often used as an attention-getter--including a five-foot chocolate-ice-cream bust of Gorbachev.
We produce more food in America than anywhere else on earth. And we consume more food in America than anywhere else on earth. I have seen more food thrown out, wasted or used as decoration than I care to remember. Food is pitched at me all evening long as I watch television. My classical radio station advertises one fine restaurant after another. Our supermarkets have become huge department stores of the very best the world has to offer in every imaginable food item.
But where do we draw the line? It is offensive to see food used as a gimmick, or advertisements encouraging people to buy foods that aren't very good for them in the first place.
On Thanksgiving, I think about all the holiday tables I have waddled away from; the constant vigilance needed to keep from gaining weight; the half-finished plates pushed away in restaurants when served too much food--again; the feeding frenzy in the markets prior to this joyous celebration.
I remember the people with me in that church basement in Albany. They really needed that place.
I really needed that place.
I am not attending the family festivities this year. I want to give thanks for this great American tradition by passing on to someone else what was once so freely given me. I plan to be one of those anonymous church ladies.