Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide: #20 (Side Dish)

November 26, 2012 · Print This Article

Thanksgiving with the Family

 

My wife and my new daughter and I celebrated our first Thanksgiving in Cedarburg last week in the manner her family has for decades; by dressing up as pilgrims, Indians, and a single dubiously distinguished guest donning a turkey costume. As I held my daughter in that turkey costume, I wondered how tasteful or relevant the pilgrim/Indian myth was in 2012, but bit my lip in order to avert a sensitive issue.

Instead, as my child ramped up to a feeding, right when we were sitting down to eat, a heated discussion about breast vs. formula feeding leaped into the vacancy that would’ve been more comfortably filled by an argument about stereotypes and outmoded mythologies.

Having lived the past decade in bourgeoisie precincts of Brooklyn, I was unprepared for the onslaught from my older relatives. I’ve never been exposed to an enclave of formula supporters – everyone I know who’s had a child in the past decade has opted for breastfeeding with the righteousness that one might a when opting for a reusable shopping bag or when signing a petition to end human trafficking. If you listened to any segment on New York’s NPR station about the city’s plan to offer free formula to new mothers, you’d have thought that the city was offering them Four Loko.

 

Four Loko

But apparently there is another side to the argument. And it was made at our Cedarburg dinner table by my older in-laws as they paused periodically to help themselves to canned cranberry sauce – a side dish I dismiss as totally as they do breastfeeding. The pros they presented were scattered and grasping, in the manner that rituals persevered by fashion and habit often are. Still, I would never dismiss an practice simply because a few of its practitioners defended it incoherently. There’s usually an underlying logic to any ritual, even when none of devotees can remember what it is. I know this from years of having to defend contemporary art to students.

Defenses like: ‘breast milk makes a child gassy’; ‘mother’s get anxiety about not producing enough milk, which affects their relationship with the child’; ‘the child may be susceptible to the effects of the mother’s sherry consumption.’

Similac

As the excuses flew scattershot over the dinner table, I fixed my eyes on my great-uncle-in-law (a staunch formula supporter) slicing the shapely gemstone of canned translucent cranberry into perfect coins. Another neat medallion was shaved from the dwindling cranberry cylinder by a great aunt whose pro-Similac pitch beamed through the metaphysical prism of the jellied side-dish and split the resounding argument into its fundamental components.

“Why wouldn’t you want something that was measured and the same every time you served it? That’s why they call it formula.”

Yes indeed. F-O-R-M-U-L-A.  As regular and unwavering as any myth meant to sort out the unknown and uncontrollable vicissitudes of chaotic reality into manageable pieces.

As the Similac-supporting crew whittled down the cranberry plug, they unwittingly revealed their deep appreciation for an entire age when cylindrical foodstuffs – the Primary Structures of food – signified industrial and technological progress. And conversely, an age when eating a farm-raised, grain-fed bird or a bundle of gnarled, irregular carrots was represented a wanting or lack of access to the post-war bounty of articulated metal and mass production.

Donald Judd

The discussion dwindled after a half-hour and the drama of the Lions game took its place. The wedge of cranberry finally toppled as the hand-made cuts took their toll, its concentrically ringed ass ending up in the air. Still close to perfect from behind though. Take the plate away, put the glassy, scarlet disc in a white cube at the Green Gallery 50 years ago, and it would’ve been a minor masterpiece. A sweet ‘n tangy Craig Kauffman, perhaps.

I’m sure none of the cranberry feasters know or care who Craig Kauffman or Donald Judd is, but their taste lets me know that they do in a deeper sense. They lived the same fantasy of industrial routinization exulted by Harley Earl, Kauffman and Judd alike. They helped shape and were shaped by a cultural milieu a half-century ago that has given way to one that yearns for the past they relinquished. One with dusty farms, knotty wood and fresh churned butter. And one with breast feeding. They left behind an untamed and less-regular past for one that could guarantee perfect cylinders of gelatinous, processed fruit that tastes either like irrefutable progress or oversimplified reality depending on who you ask.

 

Cranberry Perfection

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