Thankfully, Thanksgiving demands lots of time, toil


True confession time: I don’t like turkey.

Guest Writer

Eric Schuck knows his way around a poultry processing plant, which may help explain his holiday preference for ham He also holds a Ph.D. in economics and a professorship in agricultural economics at Linfield College. So who better to write about the historical, economic and cultural customs of a traditional Thanksgiving Day repast? Schuck has also been chosen for two Fulbright fellowships along with his active duty military tours in faraway lands. But he plans to be home with his wife and two children this holiday season.

I know, I know. That’s borderline heresy this time of year. But I just don’t care for it.

What can I say? Like the venerable Latin maxim, “De gustibus est non disputandum” — In matters of taste, there can be no disputes.

As a compromise, and out of respect for the fact I’m outnumbered 4 to 1 at our table, my family generally celebrates Thanksgiving with a smoked bird from Carlton Farms. That’s a shameless plug, but they are fabulous. And my wife usually buys a small ham to humor me. 

My preferences aside, turkey plays a central role in Thanksgiving.

This is largely historical. Turkey was once highly seasonal and rather expensive, so was very much a special occasion meat.

Times change, though. That’s really no longer the case.

Over the past 60 years, newer production practices — specifically, the advent of highly concentrated poultry farms and better refrigeration — mean turkey has become relatively cheap.

Between 1960 and 2018, the average wholesale price of Thanksgiving turkey went from about 25 cents a pound to about 50. Considering 1960’s price equates to roughly $2.19 today, that effectively amounts to a pretty serious price drop.

To be sure, this hasn’t come about without cost of another kind.

There are legitimate arguments about the animal welfare impact of modern meat production. Having spent more than my fair share of time around contemporary poultry farms, I can only describe the experience as “breathtaking” — and not in a good way.

Bottom line, though, the trend has been toward ever-cheaper turkeys for our holiday tables. And that’s not unique to turkey.

Across the board, American food continues to cost less over time, as adjusted for inflation. As a result, Americans spend less on food today than previous generations did.

In 1960, the typical American household spent about 17% of its disposable income on food. Today, it’s less than 10%.

Ironically, the continued drop in food expense is happening alongside another, very different, trend.

According the USDA Economic Research Service, over the same stretch of 1960 to 2018, the portion of the household food budget spent on meals away from home rose from around 25% to right around 50%. So while foodstuffs for the American table have become increasingly cheaper, we have become less likely to take advantage by eating at home.

There are quite a few reasons for this shift away from home cooking. Rising female participation in the labor force, higher overall income levels and smaller household sizes all play roles in the movement away from eating in and toward eating out.

Taken as a whole, there is a definite logic to restaurant dining. For many families, eating out is its own form of liberation. There’s no arguing that.

It reinforces the degree to which time has become less abundant in our lives when virtually everything else is becoming more abundant.

Under this cold rationality, a home-cooked meal becomes all the more special. Indeed, when so many forces of the world conspire to push us away from our own tables, choosing to sit down to eat together seems a pretty dramatic act.

Think about it. The point of Thanksgiving dinner is to produce a lot of food with the express intent of sharing it with as many people as we can muster. That’s not exactly a tribute to cost-benefit analysis and ruthless time management.   

So Thanksgiving bucks a lot of trends in American food, regardless of what we eat, where we eat it or who cooks it.

In fact, it contrasts so much with today’s norm, it’s probably fair to say the meal really isn’t about the food. After all, why else would I eat a bird I hate?

In fact, it’s about choosing to spend time with people who matter to us. That may mean family by blood or family by choice and, to be honest, it really doesn’t matter so long as they are joined at the table in love.

I rather like that. It’s a sentiment worthy not only of Thanksgiving, but also thanksgiving.

Enjoy the day!



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