A Novice’s Thanksgiving: Sensory Anthropology Gone Wrong
Last year, for my first Thanksgiving in the USA, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner without ever having eaten it before. As an anthropologist, I should’ve known better.
A couple of weeks before the big day, I searched for recipes on websites, checked YouTube channels and flipped page after page of cooking magazines. I wrote down every traditional must-have dish, and I thought I was ready to go.
But in reality, something was painfully missing.
Something that I didn’t even realize until Thanksgiving Day came and hit me.
An outsider can’t prepare for what they don’t know
As a non-American, I had no ability to culturally eyeball an American meal. To culturally eyeball something means to be able to tackle something new in your culture and get it pretty much right. It’s an internalized knowledge, something you know by heart, or a skill that you learn — even memorize — without realizing it.
But when someone asks you how you figured out how to do it, it’s hard to explain without putting it in the context of your cultural senses.
As a new entrant into American culture, I never had any previous hosting experience or observations of this autumnal holiday nor had any sense of Thanksgiving food preparation. I had neither smelled nor seen the colors of these mysterious mixtures. I had never come across anything like them.
I was right in the middle of organizing a traditional ritual with no enculturation and no embodied sense of what the heck I was supposed to be doing.
But until I was in that kitchen, I had no idea I was doing anything wrong.
Setting the scene
Let me give you a bit of background about my challenging Thanksgiving.
I had married for the second time and my current husband was my high-school sweetheart who had been living in the USA since 1991. He has three kids from an American mother. I have one kid from an Italian father. Following my decision to move to the States, my ex-husband moved with his Chilean girl-friend — now wife — to Florida with me.
So, we are not a very traditional family. We are complicated but still surviving happily.
Last year, my husband wanted to have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at our new house with our kids and some framilies (that novel concept to me for friends who are like family. It’s right to use and precisely to the point!). As I was settling into a new continent with new inherited family members, organizing such a ritualistic event would surely make our new house feel like home.
So, I agreed!
It was one of the rare times that support from YouTube, Pinterest, Google, and Alexa made no sense as I was in search of aroma, taste, memories, senses, and emotions that I had not yet experienced.
I longed to hear personal accounts of how my first Thanksgiving dinner should be done, so I called the only person I knew: my husband’s ex-wife. She is a great cook, American, and has an embodied experience and sense of Thanksgiving that she’s developed over 40 years. She was helpful and kind but still, nothing and nobody really could help me.
I thought my shopping list had all the necessary ingredients, but I had no notion of quantity and no perception of quality. I revisited the supermarket many times for missing ingredients and watched every YouTube video on how to cook some weird sweet potato marshmallow dish, a pie made from squash, and a massive bird by roasting it in the oven after letting it sit in my fridge for days.
But the more I was in tune with the script of cooking this unique meal, the more I was panicking.
I knew something was up.
Discovering my error
I left the kitchen and went to the garden, sat down, had my coffee and started to take notes. I’m an academic to my core, I guess.
Years prior, I had written a chapter on the anthropology of food where I referred to the importance of memory, identity, experience, and senses. Lost and overwhelmed, I opened that chapter to remember it and found this,
“The ‘sensory aspect of memory’ is having a full sense of the past in the present.”
Then I remembered.
Years ago, in London, I had invited my American Ph.D. supervisor and his wife to dinner. I planned the menu, shopped for the ingredients and cooked every single dish from scratch. Nothing was pre-made.
The most surprising part of this dinner party was that — just like the American Thanksgiving I would cook years later — I had cooked none of these meals before that night. But unlike Thanksgiving, I nailed it without even trying.
My supervisor’s wife looked delighted with the table setting and the food. The more she tasted, the more compliments I received.
She asked a straightforward question, “Can you give me the recipes?” I mumbled about as I did not know how to answer. I was culturally literate in my culinary traditions, but I couldn’t easily transmit them verbally.
Memories are experiential reflections of the past in the present moment. When we are cooking, we are searching for the senses that inform these memories.
But what if you do not have any memories of past recipe? What if you cannot make sense of what you are about to cook for a Thanksgiving dinner? You’ll likely be filled, like I was, with the crushing feeling that you had just made a huge mistake.
Everyone finds calm in different ways. I knew I had to analyze and anthropologically study my unstoppable anxiety to get it to settle down.
How sensory anthropology comes into play
So, I reflected. It was clear to me that during my London dinner preparations, I revisited and recalled my embodied senses and their memories. I subconsciously went through the Aristotelian 5 senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, not necessarily in this hierarchical order) while knowing the taste and the smell of each dish I was planning to include.
All the dishes were culturally eyeballed and produced accurately. They all had cultural ingredients, affect and emotions, embodied stories and embodied senses. They incorporated hand movements, narratives, and more from my family memories.
But these weren’t intentionally pulled and copied from my memory. It was a pre-reflexive moment of knowledge and sensation of how my food should taste, look, and smell.
For Thanksgiving, I had not asked a cultured friend or relative to give me a to-do list filled with unwritten nuances. Not had I had engaged in that anthropological staple: participant observation.
I had no such help for my Thanksgiving meal as a novice, and I was drowning.
Creating meaning to save the meal
I had hoped to relax and create warm memories with my new family. Instead, it was a highly charged, self-reflective and thoroughly unsettling week of my life.
If I went through that food chapter before I had agreed to host Thanksgiving, it could have saved me from all this kitchen tension. I would have realized that I couldn’t culturally eyeball something if I had nothing to recall. I was living in a displaced cultural context and my own cultural senses were not going to be helpful.
Here is what I wrote on the corner of my shopping list that helped me figure out what I did wrong and let me move past it:
How do we know what to predict from the scent of a strange taste that is not experienced, observed, or sensed? Taste buds get alerted naturally for culturally known, experienced taste.
What to expect from a pecan and marshmallow combination? Something sweet?! Is that all? I do not have a memory of this combination.
Funny, I am trying to create a memory for kids, but I don’t even know what to expect or better, I do not know about the taste expectations of the guests. Which casserole is the better one? I cannot also cancel the dinner, as this is ‘the dinner’!
My story ends with a victory over the unknown. Once I calmed myself down, I got back to work. I would make the best darn Thanksgiving meal a Turkish person ever could.
Though I had no sense, no memory, no culturally eyeballed cooking experience, I did not burn the bird! The meal was not ruined!
Indeed, the very opposite happened. According to my American framily, the turkey was very juicy. I brined the whole bird in a cooler for 18 hours with buttermilk and spices and put on loads of aromatized butter with sage and rosemary. The stuffing and gravy were just to the point. The pumpkin pie did have too much cinnamon… but the green bean casserole was to die for! I still do not know why… The mashed potato had a buttery texture. The cranberry sauce was just perfect.
And for the utterly foreign sweet potato casserole?
No comment… I forgot it in the fridge. While I didn’t do so intentionally, now I think there must have a reason. As that one was most utterly unknown dish, my unconscious mind was trying to save me .
By the end of the meal, despite my ignorance, each and every plate was empty. And in American culture, I know that’s a good sign!
Applying lessons learned to sensory marketing
So what would sensory anthropologists say about my first Thanksgiving?
They’d remind us that sensory anthropology does not believe that the five senses are a completely satisfying way to understand how humans see the world. Instead, they try demonstrate how sensing is
2. socially transmittable, and
3. culturally available
I have conducted numerous sensory ethnographic research projects, including one on the differences in food preparation and hosting rituals throughout Turkey. Depending on the region I visited, hosting dinners had significantly different cultural and social meanings that shaped the way the food was prepared and the way the table was set.
Food preparation is part of cultural knowledge. It’s beyond just the five senses that we react to.
In some regions, the entertainment of guests took priority. They considered food secondary yet increased the number of small tapas plates. In some other areas, the focus was on the food and its homemade effort; therefore, the color of the food was the dominant force, not the actual plates’ color or form. In still others, the number of guests determined how successful the dinner party was. Thus, the number of plates were more important than anything else.
As sensory anthropologists, we make sense of a culture through not just the senses, but how the senses interact in that culture.
This is an important lesson for sensory marketing that, while valid, is nothing new.
What is missing in sensory marketing is sensory anthropology.
It’s missing those emotions, memories, and experiences. We don’t just need to sense the same things as our clients, we need to make sense of people’s senses. Our research cannot stop at their reactions if we want to understand why do we or do not react.
Whoever we market to, we need to do more than just eat their sweet potato casserole. We need to host their Thanksgiving dinner.
I’m game. How about you?