Football, food and the last big tent events left in a divided America

This essay appears in the November issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

Yesterday afternoon I called up my local butcher in Oxford, Mississippi, and placed the same Thanksgiving order I place every year: four beef tenderloins, which is my contribution to the sprawling Thompson family gathering, as it was my father’s contribution before me. This year’s order was a bit melancholy because Wong’s Foodland in Clarksdale, the town where I was born, recently changed hands. They’d been the purveyors of the tenderloins for decades, but lacking time to check out the new owners — such a task cannot simply be trusted to unvetted people — I turned to my local LB’s Meat Market, which has yet to mess up any cow-related missions.

It’s that time of year again, perhaps the best part of Thanksgiving: the planning, the anticipating, the way people know and embrace their roles. There’s a family email chain going around as I write this story. Here’s the most recent exchange:

Leigh Thompson: If someone doesn’t volunteer for the remoulade, then I will be forced to attempt making it and I will not be responsible for the consequences!

Tempe Thompson (one minute later): I will make it!

Leigh Thompson: I knew that would work! hahahaha

I love the rituals of big family gatherings, which feel like a kind of secular Mass. And this changing of butchers, as with any alteration of the patterns of our family Thanksgiving, makes me stop to examine why we do the strange things we do. Why we are forever creating Communions and liturgies out of our holidays.

Our Thanksgiving certainly feels like that. As always, there will be NFL on in the house as the first bloody marys are poured, but the games will be relegated to the background. We are from the Deep South, where professional football has never really taken hold of our imaginations. It seems like the Lions play the same team every year, but I can’t currently for the life of me remember which one. The Bears, maybe?

I do know, however, what happens after we’ve had lunch, and played “touch” football, and made sandwiches out of leftovers: Ole Miss will play Mississippi State, which means we will all gather together, hastening and chastening to make sure everyone has a cold beer and a clear view of the screen.

The Ole Miss-State rivalry has become perhaps the nastiest in all of college football, with real anger and hatred that feels so foreign to my own experience growing up in Mississippi, where it was serious but always a little tongue-in-cheek. The new national anger is infecting even sports. We cover our games with an unironic sense of seriousness — NFL pregame shows are the most unintentionally hilarious thing in popular culture — and the horse-race reductionism threatens to strip from the games their primary function in our lives: a mechanism for bonding people together, and for passing along a story about our families and communities. Some people don’t like how NFL players kneel during the anthem, and others believe that dressing coaches in olive drab and flying jets over a stadium is more disrespectful to fallen soldiers than kneeling could ever be. Neither side is willing to see in themselves what they’re so eager to point out in others.

If we lose sports as a gathering place, then family holidays will be the last big tent left in America. They force us to log off social media and look someone in the eye. That’s something to be treasured, nurtured and defended, and perhaps that’s why these gatherings take on the rituals and language of a worship service. We are hungry to feel connected, because in many communities the church has ceded its big-tent role to whoever wants to pick it up. I’ve got this joking/not-joking theory that the farther away from the center of town a church is located, the crazier and more radical the teachings. The big-tent church — downtown by the courthouse and the city hall — was a place where the gospels of loving your neighbor and walking through life with empathy and compassion were taught, and where a sense of civic duty was nurtured. Those places grow fewer and fewer as people seek out congregations that perfectly mirror and amplify whatever beliefs they carried with them into the building:

We are never challenged.

We are rarely with people who disagree with us.

There’s no American tribe anymore, and both the right and the left carry responsibility for assaulting the ever vanishing idea of us.

People need a tribe and will find one on their own if not given one, which explains a lot about our present politics. We’ve lost the ability to argue without attacking the person making the counterargument. We say a lot of things online that are hard to take back in person. We forward emails — filled with fear on the right and smugness on the left, and an infallible certitude on both — and we talk to and about one another in ways that would have been impossible 50 years ago, if only for the certain ass-whipping sure to accompany such disrespect.

We don’t love our neighbors if they believe different things.

We say we do … but we don’t.

Family gatherings, stripped to their essence, are invitations for us to be our best selves. More than that, they are incubators for those best selves. The charge to everyone present is to keep that best self alive for as long as we can when we leave each other’s company. That’s what I was thinking about last night when I booked tables for 30 Thompsons on Wednesday night at Ramon’s, a beloved Italian restaurant in my hometown of Clarksdale, where this year’s Thanksgiving is being hosted.

The family meal is a parable in the same way that Communion is a parable, or Thanksgiving itself is a parable. We hope that by sitting down together — over Ramon’s fried shrimp or veal cutlets, or four beef tenderloins — we may leave this place better spouses and parents and children, better citizens and neighbors: Go forth into the world in peace, you know?

The preparations will continue.

Just as I finished writing this essay, the next email on our family’s planning thread arrived, in response to Leigh’s game of remoulade chicken.

Charles Thompson: Well played, Leigh. Per usual I am bringing nothing except my charming personality and reckless love for this family. Can’t wait to see everyone! If oysters do happen to mysteriously show up to the party, I’d be happy to be on shucking duty.

There are lots of things to do, and the ritualized doing of them is as much a part of the celebration as the actual breaking of bread. I hope these holiday traditions don’t ever become the destination instead of the vehicle, as they have in so many other parts of our civic and cultural lives. I want to give thanks for my family. I want families to remain big tents — strong enough to repel any invading politician who might want to tear down those walls. I want to love my neighbor. I want to treat the least of us as I would treat God. I want us to cheer hard for the Rebels or the Bulldogs, or the Lions or the Bears (I looked it up), or whatever team is part of your tradition. Not because we hate our opponents, which is the work of man. But because our collective cheers give new life and new voice to silenced family members who once shared this day and now have gone, which is the work of something else.

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