The New York Times’ version of the American turkey-roasting experience: we’re dumb and it gives us the sweats.

In this past Sunday’s “Week in Review” section, New York Times’ food writer Mark Bittman describes the shared emotions of millions of people when approaching the task of cooking the sacred and sacrificial bird of late November.  Does Bittman describe an experience of joy?  Or the satisfaction of completing an important family task?  Or reverence for a tradition?

No, what Bittman says we Americans feel when roasting a turkey is extreme anxiety in our efforts to “become The Next Food Network Star or, just as difficult, the fantasy version of your grandmother.”

Here is some language Bittman uses to make the reader feel the anxiety of having to roast a turkey is a terror similar to what Polanski made people feel in “Repulsion” (in his pre-child molesting days):

  • “But Thanksgiving is a special challenge, one where panic, insecurity and worry…” (Note, too, the incorrect use of “where,” since a challenge is not a location.)
  • “It’s scary and it’s a lot of work…”
  • “Perhaps even more stressful…”
  • “Put this all together, along with your own sense of inadequacy…”
  • “Everyone is aware of the stress of Thanksgiving…”

The “you” that is either written or employed throughout the article stands for all of us: for “you” the collective whole of the (middle-class) American experience, and for you the individual reading the piece.

But in fact he makes it up.  His question at one point is “when did performance anxiety and guilt become prerequisites for offering family and friends nourishment…?”  It never did.  It’s something Bittman made up to sell the ideological subtext, which is both subtle and multi-pronged.  Let’s go to what I think are the key paragraphs for understanding the subtextual prescription of the article:

“Perhaps even more stressful is that in your role as The Modern Cook, you may feel obligated to make certain your food is politically and environmentally correct, or that you’re using only the “best” ingredients.

“Your grandmother did not have to worry about this; a turkey was a turkey. Your turkey, however, must be free range and organic, and your sweet potatoes should be heirloom and local.  Not only should you pick your own pumpkin, you should process it yourself (while hearing the voice of Martha Stewart say that she would never throw away the seeds — such a tragedy that would be!), and not only should you make your own fudge, but you should use the appropriate (fair trade and high cocoa content) chocolate. It’s a wonder you’re not making your own marshmallows, though Martha thinks perhaps you should.”

In other words, your anxiety comes down to the fear of failing to live up to today’s suddenly higher standards in food products and preparation.  Those standards actually reduce to a few important principles:

  • Use organic and locally grown produce
  • Cook from scratch as opposed to using cans and mixes.

Note that Bittman’s examples exaggerate in a semi-satirical way that makes the action seem ridiculous and yet representative of the principles:

  • Use sweet potatoes that are not just organic, but also heirloom
  • Pick your own pumpkin
  • Make your own fudge (an item that I can’t remember ever seeing at a Thanksgiving groaning board!).

The subtext, never stated, is to go ahead and use canned gravy and frozen string beans.  What is stated is that we should just take a deep breath and realize that everyone is going to love you no matter how the meal turns out.  So what the article does is spin an anxiety which it assumes that most cooks will have, and then tells you to slough off the anxiety by ignoring two very good precepts of healthy and environmentally sound cuisine which he presents in their most extreme and therefore absurd incarnations.  It’s not the judgment of others or long-time open family disagreements that makes you anxious at Thanksgiving, no it’s those damn foodies!

Creating anxiety in the reader is a prime function of both advertising and the “how-to” features of reporters covering fashion, food, fitness, home furnishings, investments, college selection and house gadgetry, since the way to assuage the anxiety is usually to buy something.  Virtually every time a feature story in a U.S. magazine, website or newspaper or radio or TV show talks about anxiety, it will offer the purchase of a product or expertise as the solution. 

Bittman’s article appears to go against this grain, but in fact by demeaning organic and locally-grown as the cause of anxiety (and as examples of the commercialization of emotions), he subtly argues for a different set of products and services that won’t give people the sweats.  He therefore transfers the anxiety from a social situation to a set of goods and services, which creates his deepest level of ideological subtext: that our emotional life should be and is played out through buying things.

Note to readers: Paul Sheldon points out that I should have left Boston off of the list of low-cost, medium-sized cities in my last blog entry.  Thanks, Paul, for the clarification.

32 thoughts on “The New York Times’ version of the American turkey-roasting experience: we’re dumb and it gives us the sweats.

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  10. Right on, Marc. I’ve seen this subtext in numerous articles and have wondered if the authors realize that they are not just trivializing the issue, but also belittling readers who may take the issue seriously. It is “you” the reader they ridicule, and pretending that “you” are an unwitting victim does little to lessen the insult. I can’t imagine much is gained by ridicule, although I do know a few people who eat this sort of article up. They look for excuses not to live a life examined, but I think it’s less because of stress than of selfishness.

  11. I had to read this article myself, to confirm (no particular suspicion of you, it’s just my training) that the article was as absurd as you describe it. It is. If it weren’t enough that the media (think Big Pharma) has most of us suffering from depression, now those few of us remaining must fall victim to anxiety attacks. The only thing that surprises me is that there’s not an ad touting Xanax or EDD treatment (the article does mention “performance anxiety”) in the sidebar. Thanksgiving is perhaps my favorite holiday (remember that I grew up a few miles from Plymouth). It has always been a family event where everybody chips in, and we learn how to make Thanksgiving manageable.

    Your continuing attention to the subtext of an article is what one might expect from one of your academic training. But I wonder if anyone else notices such things?

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