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Thanksgiving, our quintessential local-food holiday

Of all our national holidays I've always loved Thanksgiving best. Aside from the fun of cooking and eating terrific food together, it's the only national holiday that hasn't degenerated into an entirely commercial affair. In fact, it even seems to recognize America's natural abundance. The story of Thanksgiving is fundamentally about our American relationship with the natural world. While the cynic in me could tell stories about pumpkin patches of my childhood now paved over by shopping plazas, the optimist in me chooses to focus on the hopeful elements of the holiday, and also on some interesting possibilities that are gaining fresh credence with the growing local foods movement. The power of sharing The story of the first Thanksgiving has been heavily mythologized for 300 years, but in short it goes like this: Pilgrims shared a celebratory harvest meal with the Indians who had helped them through their first rough season. Without Squanto's expertise planting corn and squashes, the Pilgrims' harvest would have been very lean. Although it's not clear if the Pilgrims actually invited the Wampanoags to dinner, the Thanksgiving story includes the powerful idea that sharing food creates relationships. Since I've lived in a small town, I've experienced this sharing first hand. The pumpkin that I'll use in pie this year comes from the garden of a neighbor, who gave it to me as a gesture of thanks for help I gave her with her son. I've also had neighbors share everything from fresh caught salmon to crinkly Savoy cabbages. While the fresh food is delicious, what is especially gratifying is being part of the web of appreciation, abundance, and local knowledge; community and backyard gardens give us the potential to spread the goodwill of thanksgiving throughout the year. Core value: local Of course, the original Thanksgiving dinner was an entirely locally grown and harvested affair. (Governor Bradford sent men to hunt for more wild fowl when 90 Wampanoag guests showed up unexpectedly; the guests went out and hunted more venison, too.) The key elements of Thanksgiving cuisine were and still are foods notably native to the Americas. The turkeys we eat today (though now bred for enormous breasts with regrettable effect on the fowl's physique and well being) are the descendents of wild turkeys. Of all domestic meats, only turkey is native to the American continent. The cranberries that we enjoy in sauce today are related to the wild cranberries that grew and grow in coastal bogs. Same with potatoes, squash, and corn-all food-stuffs of the New World. The pumpkin, too, was also a native vegetable. As such, pumpkin pie is a far more American dessert than the proverbial apple pie. And so the story of Thanksgiving gives a gentle bow to the notion of a food system that fits into its place. Creating meals in season, with local produce, is a way we can aim to better fit our eating into the places where we live. I am fortunate that on my Thanksgiving table this year, we'll have potatoes, greens and onions from our own garden plus squash and cranberries from nearby organic farms. The traditional turkey is harder to source locally. Our bird comes from California and is labeled "free range," but I don't know more than that. Cook to your heart's content Thanksgiving is one of those days when everyone gets into the kitchen, rolls up sleeves, and cooks. It is a time when we can enjoy mashing potatoes and making pies while visiting with family members. It reminds us what fun it can be to cook. This is important because the simple act of cooking well is something that can fundamentally help to improve our health and food system. By buying simple, high-quality, fresh ingredients and spending less money on pre-packaged products and meals out, we can create better tasting, healthier food for our families. If we bring some of these hopeful ideas of Thanksgiving to our tables not only on the third Thursday of November but also to meals throughout the year, we just might help to build a healthier and better food system. Happy Thanksgiving to all! What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Ann VileisisAnn Vileisis is the author of Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get it Back, which was recently recognized as a Finalist for the Connecticut Book Award. Visit her website.