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Philip Korman: Tending the culinary soul of Thanksgiving

In the past, when I gathered for Thanksgiving with friends and family and glanced down at my plate, I often saw food that was lacking something. Although I was surrounded by people with deep connections to me and each other, that same depth of connection to our surroundings was not visible on my plate. The canned squash was tasteless except for the excess sweetness of melted dots of marshmallows. The cranberries were shapeless, a gelled mass that invoked non-poetic comparisons to Jell-O and the tomatoes in the salad were tomatoes in name only. The turkey was always too big for the number of eaters, and impossible to imagine ever being able to fly.

And everyone’s dinner plate had food spilling over the sides, as we all buckled up to eat too much, as if that was somehow a victory.

How did a holiday ascribed to the meeting of two cultures, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians, celebrating the local harvest of fowl, venison, fish, berries, fruit, pumpkin and squash, turn into this? And looking forward, how do we extend the strong sense of caring and commitment that we feel for the people who share the Thanksgiving meal to the meal itself and the community at large?

The soul of Thanksgiving is not only in the people at the table but in the food on the table, grown from the land that surrounds us. It is a local harvest holiday, that with a bit of intent and planning can enable the meal to reflect love for our family, friends, neighborhood and community.

So far, my little steps have included growing some of the food we will serve, and I am excited to use our family’s garlic, butternut squash and spices in the meal. I am buying more local food in season and canning it for Thanksgiving and the winter beyond, including applesauce for all. I am directly enriched by the opportunity to thank the farmer who grew my winter share of squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, turnips and salad greens that will end up on the Thanksgiving table. I am pleased that I buy my winter farm share with another family and drive it to their house, giving me another reason to see them. And I am excited that local turkeys can now be bought directly from Local Hero farmers and food retailers.

Now, when I look down at my plate, I am clearer that the two values I want integral to the celebration of this holiday are “We grow our own food” and, “no one goes hungry.” These are the same values that provide the foundation for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s new Food Security Plan, and of course they were the reason for the 53 Puritans of the Plymouth colony’s heartfelt sense of gratitude in 1621. I firmly believe these values are a necessity for creating a strong, resilient community as we face our own contemporary challenges from poverty to climate change.

Rather than shopping till I drop on Black Friday, I will first open my checkbook and share resources with the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, food pantries and programs that make it possible for all members in the community to access local food, such as CISA’s Senior FarmShare Program. And I will turn my eye toward coming “Green” Fridays and “Green” Saturdays as winter farmers markets start opening up for the season in Amherst, Easthampton, Greenfield, Northampton and Springfield.

My hope for next year is that we “take back” Thanksgiving as more and more of us serve up the local harvest and more of our neighbors share in the local bounty.

Philip Korman is executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).

Believe me, I get it. Somehow, considering the neighborhood, it seems perhaps a constant exercise in preaching to the choir. I recommend that anyone interested in local food, farming, etc., go to the Farmer's Exchange in Greenfield and buy a DVD titled 'Root, Hog, or Die.' Made in 1978, it chronicles a farming year in the lives of families in the hill towns; one family is my husband's. It's an eyeopener, especially in these days where (somehow) youngsters manage to come up with the money to buy farmland, and then sell fabulously expensive meat and vegetables to the well-heeled folks in Northampton and Amherst, that no one in the lower middle class could ever afford (what was the price I saw on a pound of locally grown winter spinach?) Our recent ancestors wouldn't have believed it in a million years.

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