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This woman’s Thanksgiving plight perfectly captures America’s fraught food culture

We’re living in the United States of Divided Dinner Tables.

Don’t pass the bread — unless it’s gluten-free!
Michael Cogliantry/Getty

In response to a great New York Times column by Aaron E. Carroll about America’s obsession with clean eating, a reader recently shared her mounting anxieties about hosting Thanksgiving dinner. Her story perfectly encapsulates what a burden our atomized food culture can be:

Welcome to the United States of Divided Dinner Tables. We’ve shifted from a culture where everyone eats the same thing at supper to a hyper-individualized one, where guests almost certainly won’t be willing to break the same bread, or eat any bread at all.

On holidays like Thanksgiving, we now bring our diets, health issues, and world-changing eating agendas to dinner with us. This isn’t always a bad thing; it can be evidence of a growing awareness about where our food comes from and what it can do to our bodies.

But some of our dietary aversions are more driven by fear than reason, as Carroll — author of the new book, The Bad Food Bible — pointed out in the Times: “By fretting about food, we turn occasions for comfort and joy into sources of fear and anxiety. And when we avoid certain foods, we usually compensate by consuming too much of others.”

Our divided dinner tables also mean hosts like Ellen can be left panicking over how to accommodate everyone — and swilling vodka in the kitchen to cope.

It’s no surprise that Thanksgiving is more complicated for cooks these days. Just look at the statistics. At any given time, some 7.5 percent of Americans are on a diet — trying to reduce their carb intake, increase their protein, or avoid inflammation-promoting foods.

The number of Americans who follow gluten-free diets has skyrocketed — despite the astonishing dearth of evidence supporting these diets for people who don’t have Celiac disease or wheat allergy.

With sugar as the public health enemy du jour, Thanksgiving pecan pie may be more likely to be met with dread than pleasure.

Then there are the religion-based food restrictions (Kosher, Halal, etc.) that some follow. And there are the allergies that require people to avoid certain foods, or risk anaphylactic shock. These are also on the rise, further confounding the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Some 6 to 8 percent of children under age 3 and up to 3 percent of adults now have a food allergy, according to the Mayo Clinic. Peanut allergies, while still rare (affecting about 1 to 2 percent of US children) have more than doubled over the past decade in North America.

More and more Americans are also avoiding animal products. According to the NDP Group, 27 million Americans now identify as plant-based eaters, following vegan, vegetarian, or flexible vegetarian diets, while per capita consumption of dairy alternatives has grown since 2013. So the staple of the holiday, the Thanksgiving turkey, and that ice cream with the pecan pie, are also now controversial terrain.

If you take the long view of history, it makes sense we’re more persnickety eaters these days. Food has never been as cheap, plentiful, or varied. With this abundance has come obesity and other diet-related diseases, as well as environmental crises, that are forcing us to think harder about what we’re putting in our troughs.

If current trends hold, though, in a few years, hosts like Ellen may be better off serving a big bowl of quinoa during the holidays than a turkey. Might that please everyone?

Join the conversation

We loved reading Ellen’s story, and we’d love to hear from you: What’s it like to host Thanksgiving or be a guest in the United States of divided dinner tables? Share your story in the comments on this Facebook post.