Essay Holiday

I’ve had many wonderful holidays, but my favorite memory is that of a few summer weeks spent in Italy when I was about 13. My mom had to go to a clinic there for treatment (nothing severe or worrisome in any way, thankfully), and we all went together as a family and took the opportunity to have a beautiful vacation as well. Why this is my favorite holiday memory is because, besides the fact that it was the first time abroad for me, it was a vacation that has broadened my perspective, taught me a lot, and helped shape a bit of who I am today.

Although we did visit many famous places in northern Italy, we stayed mostly in a little town where some friends of my parents lived. While all the renowned attractions in the country were, indeed, marvelous, nothing immersed me in the Italian culture and nothing helped me understand the locals’ Latin spirit better than my stay in this picturesque, almost magical town that many haven’t even heard of.

At 13, I was quite a shallow girl who was interested mostly in having fun with the girls – and not much else. Thanks to the holiday spent in Italy, I also discovered my passion for music, which stayed alive in me to this day and will probably stay forever. My parents’ friends had a son, Ricardo, who was a pianist. While dad had repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to make me study an instrument (and stick to it), when I heard Ricardo play, I instantly fell in love with music and felt a great desire to learn it. Ricardo taught me the first song I ever played on the piano, a silly, playful little tune that I still know by heart. Oh, and he was my first crush, too.

Another reason why I will never forget my holiday in Italy is the short trip we took to the Italian Alps at some point. I had never seen such majestic beauty before! The snow-covered peaks, the intimidating rocks, the fresh, harsh air – what an experience! And what I remember impressed me the most was the fact that, although this was a popular touristic area, the region was incredibly clean, still “natural”, with places that seemed to never have been touched by humans. Then, the shallow teen that I was learned what a real treasure nature is and how important it is to protect it.

Finally, there’s one peculiar memory from this vacation that stuck with me for reasons that I can’t say I grasp. It’s a pineapple & cheese sandwich that they sold at the clinic my mom went to for treatment. What a simple and ingenious mix of flavors – a sheer joy for the taste buds! I think it was the first time I tasted a mix of “regular food” and exotic fruit all in one, and I believe this is what triggered in me the pleasure I know have for experimenting with flavors in my cooking and coming up with unusual dishes. Looking back on it, this simple sandwich can also be a good metaphor for how you shouldn’t overcomplicate things in life – sometimes, the simplest solution and a bit of flair or courage can bring astonishing results.

My trip to Italy helped me understand more about other cultures, allowed me to find my passion (and let’s not forget about my first crush), taught me to cherish nature and do my best to protect it, and – maybe – inspired in me the courage to experiment (or, at least, it gave me the opportunity to discover that I adore pineapple & cheese sandwiches). This is why it is my favorite holiday memory.

On this Thanksgiving holiday, Lake Effect essayist Kyle Cherek has been thinking about access to food.

Unsurprisingly, my favorite national holiday is Thanksgiving. As the host of a PBS show with “foodie” in the title, it's easy to see how this might be obvious, even trite.

But my reason is always the thing that takes people aback, when they move past the assumed and plumb deeper as to why. It's the only holiday we have that owes its providence to want.

As a national holiday, Thanksgiving cuts across all creeds and boundaries for Americans. It's irrefutable in its good intentions to cultivate gratefulness. It’s inclusive and irreligious. It pulls us all together by its grounding in one of the four things every human needs: food.

Every body, no matter how or where it lives, needs at a minimum shelter for safety, stories for identity, human touch for its heart, and food for its cells (which, at the very least, wish to live out the majesty they were meant to, in health).

The story of the holiday—or the early 19th century Puritan version—of Native Americans helping food-strapped pilgrims and the celebration that ensued is one that we have told ourselves as a nation to square the actual history with whom we want to be.

As a foodie, someone whose days are thick with talking, researching, filming, advocating, honoring and entertaining, around something that, at its most base, is really just sustenance, I can't help but think that America's Thanksgiving now, in the early 21st century, is the perfect focal point for what we, as a nation, have done to the way we gather at the table.

Food today is fetishized to such an extent that history has no comparable. And whether you feel McDonald’s and pink slime are a-ok or are one of the many that believe Michael Pollan deserves the enormous speaking fees he commands, while chronicling our food systems and how and why we cook.

We as a people have turned food into the mirror on the wall in Snow White. We, in a generation, have added the word celebrity to the word chef, and nearly made it a portmanteau and part of the American lexicon (like the words biopic, brainiac, sitcom and jazzercise).

Our media (and I am part of it) is filled with and panders to food writ large and entertainment. Guy Fieri's Times Square restaurant gets rightly panned in the New York Times, and he is on the Today show pronto to defend it.

Walmart rolls out organic produce and in its stores and people feel better about them for a while. Part of the "Yes, we can!" Obama promise is bringing back the Roosevelt White House Garden where the first lady and children can plant and pick and eat for our collective national consciousness. Hipsters grow green things on rooftops and slough off their angst with dirt under their nails.

Well off people serve cocktails in mason jars the way only hillbillys once did, because low-fi growing, cooking and canning is on trend, and craft cocktails made with small batch organic grains taste better in them anyway.

Anthony Bourdain is a national figure of cool. He poses for the flash bulbs on the red carpet of our own culinary love fest. Mark Bittman helps us cook at home as never before and has a new book out…just in time for the holidays.

Whole Foods sprout up across the nation like mold spores on wheel of cheese. Kale chips, bahn mi sandwiches, cronuts sweep the nation. Food trucks are in; drive-through dining is out.

We honor the whole animal, but still love our fois gras from force-fed geese.

Alice Waters helps school children (knew she was legit).

Top Chef makes chef careers, breaks hearts and delivers ratings.

Molecular gastronomy sweeps the nation: beet sassafras chervil foam for everyone.

Amazon reports home sous vide machines are the hot item this Christmas. Doritos are now artisan! People who never cracked open Mastering the Art of French Cooking call Julia by her first name only. MTV gave up music videos long ago; but on the Food Network people still cook, so that’s a good thing, right?

In 2013, according to the USDA Economic Research Service, 49.1 million people lived in food-insecure households. What's food insecurity? It's going to bed hungry or waking up the same. It's school kids losing focus, being angry and having learning slip through their fingers, like so many eraser flakes brushed off a paper, again.

It's the paradox of pantries and refrigerators, full in one lakeside neighborhood, and just twelve blocks west, cheap unfulfilled calories tugging existence along in a manner that denies those cells I spoke of earlier, the majesty that is their very purpose. It’s a gnawing that undermines everything. Everything one does, feels, thinks, touches, believes, belongs to.

If our myth about Thanksgiving and want has any merit for us today, it's that we ought to be too great a place to have so many people be defined by an emptiness so easily filled. The fiction of our food is the story we tell ourselves right now. I love Thanksgiving as a holiday because it begins with food. A meal and gratefulness. The story of emancipation from hunger by acknowledging an interconnectedness that every American can call their own.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Lake Effect contributor Kyle Cherek is host of the public television show Wisconsin Foodie.

Kyle Cherek reads a Thanksgiving essay.

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