All Commentary
Thursday, November 27, 2014

I, Thanksgiving Dinner

Market miracles to be thankful for

Nobody knows how to make Thanksgiving dinner. Despite its ubiquity in homes across the country, no single individual could ever articulate all the know-how required to produce a Turkey Day meal. It is a miracle and a mystery.

At first, this claim sounds improbable. Don’t lots of people know how to make Thanksgiving dinner? After all, almost every family has a talented cook who prepares it. Maybe Grandma labors in the kitchen all day long. She goes in with a raw bird and a sack of sweet potatoes. Eight hours later, she emerges with a veritable feast.

To be sure, Grandma plays a role. Her recipes and cooking techniques transform basic ingredients into cohesive dishes. She is certainly the proximate cause of our bounty. Take a closer look, though, and there’s much more than meets the eye.

Thanksgiving dinner is made of several components: turkey, potatoes, stuffing, cranberries, corn, squash, pumpkin, milk, butter, and so on. Grandma buys each of these raw ingredients from the grocery store. Think about what it takes to run such a store. Contemplate all the unsung heroes — all the hands that contribute to a successful market. The butcher cleans, defeathers, and prepares the turkey. The baker bakes numerous loaves of bread to be cubed for dressing. Shelf stockers display produce. Clerks transact Grandma’s purchase. A bagger bags her items. Thanksgiving dinner depends on the successful interaction of every one of them, each with unique skills.

Of course, none of the ingredients starts at the grocery store. Each one comes from a different farm: potatoes from Idaho, cranberries from Wisconsin, corn from Nebraska, and milk from California. In addition, Grandma uses 12 — 12! — spices to flavor her dishes, none of which originated in the United States. Grandma is talented. But do you really think she knows how to extract nutmeg from the Myristica fragrans tree in the Banda Islands?

The squash is grown on a large farm in southern Georgia. Farming is an incredibly complicated process; not even the farmer could articulate how to farm. He uses an irrigation system designed in California and built in Mexico. His tractor, assembled in China, contains an engine from Milwaukee. Do you have any clue how rubber tires are vulcanized and shaped? Neither does the farmer.

Back at Grandma’s house, she uses a refrigerator, an oven, and countless other tools. A well-educated engineer designed every appliance. The engineer drew blueprints and submitted them to a manufacturer. The manufacturer employed thousands of laborers, each with a specialized job on the assembly line. The oven was assembled with a precise mixture of steel, metal, and plastic. Before the assemblymen ever laid their hands on the machine, miners unearthed ore and oil. Innumerable refiners, smelters, welders, molders, salesmen, accountants, managers, and assistants of all kinds aided in the production of Grandma’s oven.

Consider all those who played a role in transportation. Ship captains, pilots, overnight truckers: Thanksgiving dinner couldn’t happen without them. Given the nature of their employment, they all drink gallons of coffee every day. Don’t forget about the coffee bean roasters. They contributed, too.

Do you still doubt my original assertion? Grandma knows her role in final preparation, and she knows it well. The same goes for the individual grocers, farmers, miners, manufacturers, and everyone else who helps make it all happen. Millions upon millions of people work together — often unwittingly — to bring Thanksgiving dinner to the table. It’s a vast web of interrelated choices and actions. In the end, no single person knows — or could know — how to make dinner.

Thankfully, that lack of knowledge stops no one. They act without the foggiest of idea of the final destination or the ultimate purpose of the fruits of their labor. More importantly, each member of the chain is necessary; not a single step could be dispensed with, or else Thanksgiving dinner would never exist. While no one knows how to make it, every contributor adds an essential, specialized piece. What’s more, each individual contributes without necessarily knowing of, caring about, or wanting the final product.

Many readers may have noticed the obvious homage to “I, Pencil,” a famous essay by FEE’s founder Leonard Read. What he wrote about the pencil can apply to anything we enjoy through trade, including Thanksgiving dinner:

There is a fact still more astounding: the absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Hand at work.

Thanksgiving dinner results from the “millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding.” No one knows how to make it. No one conceives of it or forces it into being. Yet it still happens.

On Thanksgiving, be thankful for the benevolence of voluntary commercial exchange. No other force in the universe is equally responsible for our prosperity. Nothing else is more fundamentally human — or more delicious.