Giving Thanks with Food

Thanksgiving, America’s homegrown feast of gratitude, has two cousins in the Islamic calendar, where food is the instrument of thanks.
Giving Thanks with Food

In the U.S., chilly weather and falling leaves signal the coming of that classic American holiday, Thanksgiving. The holiday emerged from a hazy national myth of friendly Calvinist pilgrims, “far from home in a lonely wilderness,” dining happily alongside their new Wampanoag friends, in celebration of a good harvest.

The veracity and details of the story can be debated, but the fact remains that millions of Americans celebrate the holiday every year by coming together, partaking in a feast and, in theory, actively giving thanks for the abundance. Every family feasts in its own way, but roast turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, green beans, mac and cheese, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie usually make an appearance.

Abraham Lincoln’s post-Civil War inscription of Thanksgiving into the American calendar reflected the original, vehement Christian piety of the early colonists, but in a more general, unifying tone, to “heal the wounds of the nation.” Its starkly Christian roots have faded with time as it has become, for the broader American society, a secular celebration of family, food, and gratitude. Today, when Americans follow just about every faith, Thanksgiving offers a comfortingly unifying moment to acknowledge the gifts we share.

Thanksgiving will be celebrated in the MENA region too — by American immigrants and by returnees who have lived in the U.S., and their friends. But for everyone, even those with no U.S. connection, the idea is very familiar. Giving thanks with food is a practice bound to no particular faith, society, or nation.

The Thanksgiving holiday was one answer to the question: how do we best give thanks — to God, to the living world, to family, friends and neighbors — for our lives and the abundance that sustains us? Food, for just about everyone, has always been an ideal medium for giving thanks.

Giving Thanks with Food

People have long sacrificed the lives of other animals to appease or give thanks to higher powers. Sacrificed animals are generally not just left to waste — their meat is eaten and treated as a celebration.

Eid al-Adha is the most important holiday across the Muslim world, and celebrates the patriarch Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son, Ismail, to prove his faith in God. In the story, also told in the Jewish and Christian traditions, as Abraham cuts his son’s throat, a lamb suddenly replaces him and is sacrificed in his place.

To commemorate this act of faith, able Muslim families sacrifice a sheep (or cow, goat or camel). Feasting follows. The family keeps one-third of the animal’s meat, gives one-third to those in need and gives the other third to family and friends. This day, the holiest in Islam is marked by the sharing of edible abundance.

During Eid al-Adha, not a single part of the animal is wasted, and this is key to the act of gratitude. Sometimes, Thanksgiving can feel like sanctioned gluttony, an overindulgence. Food can go to waste. Particularly when the unbridled consumerism of Black Friday immediately follows, Thanksgiving can feel more like taking than giving.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the absence of food can also be used as a medium for thanks. Fasting, as much as feasting, was common amongst the hardline Christian colonists. In many traditions, feasting is only done after fasting.

Many Christians partake in a 40-day Lenten fast, commemorating the Biblical story in which Jesus spends 40 days fasting in the desert, resisting Satan’s temptation. The Lenten fast is generally not strict, but rather a time to abstain from luxuries — most commonly, meat — and personal indulgences — sweets, alcohol, fast food, TV, and coffee.

Lenten self-denial is intended as an act of gratitude for what is regarded as Jesus’ selfless sacrifice, and a spiritual cleansing in preparation for the celebration of Easter (which often involves hefty meat roasts).

Muslims in America and beyond practice the act of grateful abstention for a month every year. During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset for 30 days. Food is the medium for giving thanks as well as the cause for thanks. Hunger is a potent reminder to be grateful.

The sunset breakfast feast, called iftar, is, like Thanksgiving, a meal of abundance and gathering. Friends and family gather at dusk, laying out on table or picnic blanket the food and drink for which fasters have yearned all day.

The Prophet Muhammad is said to have broken his fast with dates, but iftar traditions vary widely across the Muslim world. Moroccans eat harira (a rich lentil soup), boiled eggs, dates, juice, and an indulgent spread of sweets, namely syrupy shebbakia. Afghans break their fast with kebabs, lamb soup, and rice-based pulao. Egyptians will very likely have hearty fava bean (ful) and baklava.

In contrast to Eid and Thanksgiving, the absence of food, too, brings thanks. Fasting heightens one’s sense of gratitude, for the first bites that follow and all those after. For people with the privilege of eating three filling meals a day, plus snacks and treats, choosing not to eat resets one’s perspective and realigns expectations. It serves to remind that we share the world with untold numbers of lives for whom not eating is not a choice.

Becoming intimate with that reminder inspires gratitude for having a choice. In the cases of Ramadan, Lent, or other religious fasts, that gratitude is directed at God.

But if empathy for less fortunate neighbors is the intent, personal gratitude alone will not feed another person. As for many observant Christians during Lent, observant Muslims are expected to give generously to charity during Ramadan (a pillar of Islam called zakat). Mosques and Islamic charities across the world offer free iftar meals, often eaten communally, to those who cannot afford to buy one.

Parallel to zakat, giving is a part of Thanksgiving in the United States. Community centers, senior centers, homeless shelters and charities of all sorts gather food and offer free Thanksgiving meals to those in need. Some offer turkey to those hit by disaster, as one town is doing for victims of the devastating fires in California. Part of giving thanks is sharing the abundance.

Those celebrating Thanksgiving this year are participating in a time-honored practice of giving gratitude by way of food. For families of all religions, Thanksgiving stands in line with a constellation of other, deeply-rooted expressions of thanks that find their voices at the dinner table.