November 27, 2002

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World enough

OF ALL OUR holidays – and they do seem to be proliferating – Thanksgiving is probably the one most beloved by food writers, because it is the food holiday. Oh, there might be a soupçon of football, if that is the game the Detroit Lions can be said to play, but mostly there are things to eat. In fact, there are almost invariably too many things to eat, so that one reels from the table with a vow to exercise more restraint next year, assuming one survives. But excess is, or has become, the American way; "plenty" means "more" now, having lost its subsidiary meaning of "enough." There is never enough in today's America; we cannot stop gorging ourselves, whether on entertainments or imported oil or Thanksgiving starches.

One casualty of gluttony is quality. If your purpose is to eat as much as possible, and the available supply is unlimited, then you aren't likely to care too much about the quality of that supply. Bounty (amplified nowadays by various agro-scientific miracles) tends inexorably toward mediocrity. Truly to savor something requires a threshold understanding that there isn't that much of it – the supply is limited, and a bite or two is all you're going to get. Such delicacies come and go all too quickly, yet one never forgets them.

It has always struck me as odd that Thanksgiving is celebrated here in exactly the same fashion as in puritan Boston, with roast turkey, bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Those Pilgrim dishes are fine, and I like them, but they don't have much to do with our own bounty – a bounty we overlook on the very day we should be celebrating it. Why, for instance, isn't some form of Dungeness crab on Thanksgiving tables throughout northern California? And where are the incredibly ripe, end-of-season avocados, and the satsuma mandarin oranges, whose brief season of availability begins in the weeks just before Thanksgiving? And how about some sourdough bread and a good bottle or two of chardonnay or cab? All these goodies would make a splendid meal and an equally splendid reminder of some of the magic at work in northern California.

Of course, Thanksgiving isn't just about food. In unsettled times – and times haven't been so unsettled in this country for at least a generation – we, or most of us, are thankful to be alive and whole, to inhabit still the lives we have always lived, to feel the sun's warmth and smell the eucalyptus on the damp morning air and know that the world, changeable and ever changing, has not yet become a completely unfamiliar place.

Paul Reidinger paulr@sfbg.com