One of the things I miss most about North America is the tradition of Thanksgiving. Whether it be Canadian Thanksgiving in October or the American high jump at the start of the ‘Holiday’ season, I love Thanksgiving. Mockingly called ‘turkey day’, it’s just at the right time of year for a good feast and brings people together, family or friends. Sadly, it just isn’t a British thing. Strange really as many churches hold Harvest Festivals around this time to celebrate the success of the harvest and gather donations of food for vulnerable members of the community. The best thing was the gathering of people without the additional pressures of Christmas gift giving.
C&EN blogs are hosting a chemistry blog carnival in honor of turkey day (http://cenblog.org/grand-central/2012/11/foodchem-carnival/) and one of their prompts is to consider what Thanksgiving looks like in 100 years with the aid of chemistry. Perhaps we should consider what Thanksgiving looked like 100 years ago before the aid of chemistry.
100 years ago, the population of the world was around 1.6 billion people. The US had a population of around 95 million. The US now has a population of around 315 million and the world is coming in around 7 billion people. That’s a lot more mouths to feed this Thanksgiving. The world wars were inconceivable 100 years ago, as were most modern gadgets. William Howard Taft, then President of the USA made his Thanksgiving proclamation, noting the prosperity of the nation and the rich harvests worthy of giving thanks (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=72438).
So what is different 100 years on due to chemistry? Agriculture has been revolutionized with the advent of fertilizers. The Haber process, chemistry’s dubious product of WWI, provides sufficient fertilizers that such a large population increase would even be conceivable. With 500 billion tons of nitrogen fertilizer being produced annually, the impact of the Haber process on the Thanksgiving table is substantial. The variety of side dishes on offer, from sweet potatoes, green beans, and other veggies rely directly on fertilizers.
Animal husbandry has undergone just as many radical changes in the past 100 years, not always in a positive sense. It is no longer a requirement for a family to raise a turkey (or go shoot a wild one) to furnish their Thanksgiving table. We are now capable of rearing massive numbers of birds and other animals for meat. And we’re able to do this, sometimes in horrific conditions, thanks to chemistry. Without antibiotics, growth hormones and other medicinal compounds, rearing animals on this scale would not be possible.
Now I know a lot of you are reading this and perhaps rolling your eyes thinking ‘well that’s why I buy organic’. Even organic produce is not immune from the products of chemistry. While mass pre-emptive medication of animals is not the organic way, organic farming does not preclude the use of appropriate medication should animals fall ill. And I don’t mean homeopathy.
Dinner won’t be cooked on a wood burning range for the majority of Americans this year, it will be cooked on electric or gas stoves and in microwaves. The role of chemistry in developing the non-stick pans, microwave proof dishes, and pans that indicate when they are at the right cooking temperature is widespread. We have the convenience of buying disposable plates and cutlery (thanks polymer chemists), brightly coloured printed napkins (thanks dye chemists), effective washing up liquid to clean the pots (thanks surfactant chemists), and quite possibly ibuprofen for that ‘morning after feeling’ (thanks medicinal chemists).
In the past 100 years the changes brought to Thanksgiving Dinner have been substantial, many brought about through the application of chemistry. There is no reason to think that chemistry’s influence on Thanksgiving will diminish in the next 100 years. We just can’t quite imagine far enough yet.