Ashli Quesinberry Stokes (Ph.D., University of Georgia) is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and the Director of the Center for the Study of the New South at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her award-winning research specializes in using rhetorical approaches to analyze public communication and public relations controversies, often concerning activism and corporate advocacy. In addition to her recent book about the rhetorical nature of Southern foodways, Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining the South (with Wendy Atkins-Sayre; University Press of Mississippi), she co-authored a textbook about global public relations with Dr. Alan Freitag, and has published in the Journal of Public Relations Research, Journal of Communication Management, Public Relations Review, the Southern Communication Journal, Studies in Communication Sciences, and the Encyclopedia of Public Relations, among others. Before returning to academia, Stokes worked in agency and corporate public relations in Atlanta, GA.
Thanksgiving Food and Gratitude
If you have been asked to make a specific dish for Thanksgiving, be honored, not bothered. Research suggests that making your famous green bean casserole might help you to critically reflect on your culture and traditions while remaining grateful for them. While food means nutrition, we also build family, community, and cultural memories around it. Food acts rhetorically, with what we choose to eat and serve sending distinct messages.
The phrase “you are what you eat” may be cliché, yet there is truth in saying that food crafts part of who we are. When we watch a family member make the dressing (or stuffing, depending on where you are from), we are watching a ritual. The cook reenacts cultural practices that shape how we see others and ourselves and whether we identify with certain roles. Thanksgiving meals connect one generation to the next, bringing us together around a shared experience. We learn about who we are and who our families are, even through arguments about whether to cook the dressing in the turkey.
Food stories can open up dialogue. At regional restaurants, people of varied race, ethnicity, and class come together to experience a culture through its food. Even if they don’t know initially that they are connected, they are. In the American South, for example, corn that is ground into cornmeal for cornbread also forms the basis of tortillas for Mexican restaurants that increasingly dot Southern towns. Food emphasizes these common backgrounds, even if people feel they share nothing else. So eat your turkey or just the green beans if you are vegetarian. Talk about how the meal is made, who cooked what, and what it means to you. Your family members and friends gathered around the table might find that despite all your differences, you feel a shared sense of gratitude.