Sociologist Priscilla Ferguson on Thanksgiving

November 21, 2014
Tablesetting for the Thanksgiving Feast, a 10-year-old tradition at John Jay Dining Hall. Image Credit: Eleanor Templeton

Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson is a Columbia sociologist who thinks and writes a lot about food. In her 2014 book, Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food, Ferguson argues that today, conversation about food can even trump its consumption. We take pictures of it, we plan vacations around it, and we spend countless hours watching others prepare it. Ferguson, who has written extensively about French literature and culture, was definitely on to something when she decided to focus in her recent book on the central role of food in 21st century global culture. Her interest in what her sociology department webpage calls “cuisinology” makes her the perfect person to talk about the one American holiday that celebrates food and its consumption like no other – Thanksgiving.

Q: Some Thanksgiving hosts judge the quality of a meal by how quiet the table grows as people start to eat. How do we judge the success of the meal at a time when so many people post photographs and lengthy discussions of the food they eat online?

We don’t really do “new” for Thanksgiving. It’s a cultural phenomenon more than a culinary one, defined by long-held rituals that include particular foods and older dishes. What doesn’t change is the nature of the meal, which celebrates country.

Q: Is the Thanksgiving meal more protected from changing fashions than other holiday meals?

Yes. Thanksgiving is so traditional that it begins with an official act from the head of state. It has to be declared. It’s rooted in a specific legend that we embroider year after year. That makes it more confining than a Christmas meal, which can vary and often incorporates many ethnic and national cuisines. Consider how hard it is to find a fresh turkey in July, yet they’re rolled out in November because this is a very specific time for them – even if your turkey is actually tofu.

Q: The average weight of a Thanksgiving turkey last year was just over 30 pounds, 14 pounds more than in 1960. Is it ethical to eat so much more than we need during Thanksgiving and at other holiday meals?

One of the points of this holiday is eating — a lot. One is allowed or expected to consume far more than usual, and we don’t make the same choices that we would in everyday life. You don’t have to choose between mashed potatoes and a sweet potato casserole. For many, it’s a time-out from choice. America is defined by its bounty, and we show our appreciation by consuming it. While food is always more than food — it involves emotions, ethics and ideas — food is also always food. It involves our bodies.

Q: Thanksgiving dinner is traditionally prepared by a small army of family members cooking in separate households, but many of today’s cooks no longer prepare meals as their parents did. Do you think such generational change will fundamentally alter the Thanksgiving meal?

I don’t because while Thanksgiving has always been about who’s cooking what, the role of convention is more important. There always will be minor changes, but in the end it reverts to recipes that originate in someone’s family. We are tied to our memories of Thanksgivings past, so the food critic or experimental chief is less welcome at the table. It’s an, “I got this recipe from my grandmother” kind of thing. You can’t get away from food stories.

Q: What dish do you most look forward to this year?

I’m looking forward to a cranberry pudding that I haven’t had in over 20 years. It comes from a friend’s mother’s recipe. We’ll be eating with vegetarians so I’ll miss the turkey, but I’ll roast a leg for turkey soup. The best part of the meal comes on Friday with the leftovers.

— Interviewed by William McGuinness