The impropriety of gluttony when many are hungry

November 28, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Only an American could say, without the slightest sense of irony, the thing that my bride said to me on Friday, the morning after we had 16 people for Thanksgiving dinner, when she glanced into the refrigerator and declared:

"We're lucky. There's not much food left."

At Thanksgiving dinner, there had been a 26-pound turkey, a noble bird that gave up its life for the grand cause of human gluttony, plus mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, mushroom stuffing, mixed vegetables, spinach souffle, cranberry sauce, something called ambrosia, which I want to be fed intravenously for the rest of my life, and five dozen rolls, which my mother-in-law brought in case we needed a little something to wash down the mashed potatoes.

By the time dessert was served, and the kids had fled the table and avoided the act of cleaning up, there were seven of us still sitting, thus making for a lovely sort of symmetry: There were exactly seven different desserts, a chance for each of us, if we fed ourselves with both hands (a given, speaking strictly for myself) to sample one of each dessert and thus leave the room looking like floats from the Macy's parade.

And so, Friday morning, there was my bride, expressing the relief of all who have ever faced the dreadful prospect of Thanksgiving leftovers lasting through mid-December:

"We're lucky. There's not much food left."

She said it casually, and naturally I said this was terrific, since we both knew what she was talking about: Who wants to eat leftovers, which become boring when being consumed for the 27th straight day, when the world is filled with such a rich variety of delicacies just waiting to be sampled?

It took maybe three seconds for a sense of perspective to kick in. My bride and I are children of the 1950s, when certain indelible, middle-class images were implanted in our brains, Norman Rockwell visions of families with full plates, big tables with endless food, and nobody in America going home hungry.

We were never rich, and never will be. But the America into which we were introduced was a country that offered routine, enduring images of comfort and security, if only you worked hard and played by the rules.

More and more, those images are going away. Bounty is no longer assumed. The state of middle class is no longer taken for granted.

In East Baltimore on the day we gave thanks, there were 20,000 grateful people who showed up for free food at a meal put together by the tireless Bea Gaddy. The previous day, the various soup kitchens and pantries around the metro area reported unsettling jumps in the number of people they've had to feed since last year. The biggest percentage jump, by the way, was in bountiful Howard County.

In fact, the institutionalized giving away of food -- not just at Thanksgiving, but throughout the year -- is becoming a kind of growth industry, a routine part of the landscape, like drug-abuse centers and prison halfway houses, whose existence no longer shocks us because they've become so familiar.

Thanksgiving thus reminds us of the continuing split in American life, the haves and have-nots each going their own way while the middle class clings to diminishing ground. On Friday, the day after the holiday, there were demonstrations at 22 different locations around this city at so-called "hot spot drug corners."

Organizers dubbed it "Going Out of Business Day," which is mostly a declaration of wishful thinking. It suggests that marches in the street will frighten the various narcotics dealers into giving up their trade.

In fact, the dealers will pay no attention. They live off of people who do not sit down to full tables, and see no hope that they ever will. Some of them showed up at Bea Gaddy's gathering on Thanksgiving Day; others haunt the soup kitchens each lunchtime. Few had rich Thanksgiving dinners at home.

At my house, we made jokes about leftovers while acknowledging these unsettling facts: Thousands needed Thanksgiving handouts. Daily, too many of these people, frustrated and angry and increasingly cut off from hope, turn to the narcotized life. Three of the 22 locations targeted as "hot spot drug corners" are within walking distance of my home.

A thin geographical line separates us, even as we grapple with the psychological line: The more we divide the nation into haves and have-nots, the more difficult it becomes to live near each other without one side feeling rage and the other side checking the real estate ads.

So we felt lucky at my house, the morning after Thanksgiving, to find there weren't many leftovers. Gluttony triumphed. All went home feeling full.

But our reaction is based on an old assumption of endless, replaceable bounty for everyone, implanted in our '50s childhoods. We shall have to update our reactions, by about 40 years.

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