It has been awhile! Please forgive us - lots going on for all of us on the Digestable team. Today, I’ll turn it over to Gabriel, and hopefully we will all be back on the publication horse a bit more regularly, soon enough.
Speaking of making and doing, here are the pillars of creation.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
Last Thursday was thanksgiving, a complicated holiday based on a settler-colonial fiction and a day of mourning for many indigenous people from Turtle Island and elsewhere. Of course my white-american self still bends over backwards every year to rationalize celebrating the holiday despite this, but I’m not here to talk about that, at least not directly. I want to discuss a Thanksgiving tradition that has gained increasing prominence over the past two decades, not Friendsgiving or the hot take that “turkey isn’t actually good,” but the Thanksgiving morning ritual of the Turkey Trot.
For those unacquainted with the concept, a Turkey Trot is a short fun-run, between 2 and 5 miles, that takes place on Thanksgiving morning. They take a variety of guises: the Turkey Trot my mom runs every year in my hometown is an “unofficial homecoming” for locals and raises money for the city’s rotary club. Many others raise money for a local food shelf or otherwise play into the “season of giving” tactic that, as addressed in a recent twitter meme, is more about tax write-offs than actually helping anyone. But the thing all Turkey Trots have in common, whether it's the run’s declared purpose or just unspoken subtext, is diet culture. At its core, the purpose of a Turkey Trot is to burn calories before the thanksgiving meal to alleviate guilt about any second helpings or extra slices of pie.
Diet culture is poison. The idea of a 5k run as a prophylactic for “holiday weight” serves the same purpose as a Febreeze commercial implying that your house stinks unless you take up an aerosol habit, to induce anxiety about a non-issue that the product promises to solve. It’s not a coincidence that so many Turkey Trots are run by your local Lifetime Fitness or YMCA, the run is a sales pitch, a second bookend to the holiday season to complement the New Year Resolution discount. And anyway, you need energy from food to live and a 5k only burns around 300 calories, so just eat the fucking mashed potatoes Brandon!
But the issues with Turkey Trotting and calorie counting are deeper and wider than seasonal marketing tactics and both find their root in the calorie itself. Calorimetry, the measurement and study of energy in food, began in 1896 when Wilbur O. Atwater started sealing grad students, cyclists, and anyone who would volunteer in airtight chambers to see how much heat energy their bodies would generate doing various activities after eating various kinds of food. According to Nick Cullather, author of The Hungry World, the tables of data that resulted from these experiments simplified and quantified the wide variety of foods, plants, and animals on which humans sustained themselves. Now a loaf of bread wasn’t a thing unto itself, but a number that could be quantified against a hard-boiled egg, a pound of figs, or a papadum. These numbers could be added together into national and even global calorie totals, turning the multifarious traditions of eating into the global problem of hunger, something that could be solved by plant scientists like Norman Borlaug and philanthropic foundations like the Rockefeller Institute.
All this high-minded caloric calculation turned into the diet culture we have today when Woodrow Wilson created the US National Food Authority in 1917, headed by Herbert Hoover, in order to weaponize the United States’ food supply for the war effort. The calorie allowed farmers’ crops and restaurant menus to be seen as national resources, with high calorie foods like meat and dairy given high importance while low calorie vegetables and spices were discounted. Hoover’s innovation was to train Americans to see their own eating habits as part of the national interest, adopting the idea of the calorie as a way to discipline their bodily urges in order to make sure that American soldiers and citizens were efficiently directing the nation’s store of calories toward the goal of global domination liberating Europe. Americans were to seek “victory over ourselves” in order to gain “victory over the enemy of freedom.”
We can see the echoes of this turn of the century innovation everywhere, from parental urgings to think of the “starving children in ~*~Africa~*~” before letting food go to waste, or the glorification of Michael Phelps’s body as an alchemical machine converting enormous amounts of Chinese calories into American gold medals during the Beijing Olympics. This is where I see the Turkey Trot’s more insidious nature. The thanksgiving meal, for better or for worse, is made up of plants and animals indigenous to so-called North and South America: turkey, beans, corn, squash, potatoes, and cranberries. Instead of celebrating the gifts of Turtle Island, letting them connect us to the land in which they originated and the cultures that bred and nurtured them for generations; instead of using the meal as a meditation on our role in the painful history of exploitation and genocide of land and people, we convert them into calories.
The calorie robs these plants and animals of their history and their connection to ecosystems and practices in the same way the Carlisle School and attacks on the Indian Child Welfare Act rob native children of their families, the way removal, partitioning, and national parks rob entire nations of their ancestral land, and the way pipelines, fossil fuel and minerals extraction rob native people of clean, sacred water. The Turkey Trot converts indigenous food, culture, and history into clean-burning American energy and spends it running an anxious circle, worrying about the weight of our energetic opulence instead of sinking into the nourishing embrace of the land that creates us.
This column is the result of a lot of thinking on this subject. I spent last week doing some web-divising with Travis Amiel which you can see here, and I talked about running and calories in the “fun food fact” section of the GBBO recap podcast I make with Cole Steffensen. [Cole has also started a very Second-Look weekly newsletter which you should check out].
I would also recommend listening to This Land by Rebecca Nagle to learn more about the present struggle for Native rights in the US as well as the episode of This American Life on the genocide of Dakota people in Minnesota.