Saying Thanks

Back in the days when I tended an enormous edible garden in raised beds just outside the kitchen door of my former house, I began a practice of saying thanks to the plants as I harvested them. 

“Thank you, squash plants,” I would say, “for producing these shiny green Romanesco squash with the creamy flesh.” And then I’d add, “Thank you, squash bees, for pollinating the flowers so the plant can produce the fruits we eat.” 

Squash bees (one of North America’s 4,000-some native bee species) pollinating a Romanesco squash flower while they mate. 

I’d thank the heritage tomato plants as I picked their juicy, sun-warmed fruit. And the crunchy carrots I carefully pulled from the soil; I’d thank the broccoli as I snipped off tight florets for stir-fry, the cucumber vines for their crisp fruit sliced for sandwiches, the rosemary as I harvested fragrant branches to lay on salmon filets on the grill.

I’d praise the strawberries for producing the intensely sweet fruits we ate on our breakfast each morning, the first fat spears of asparagus pushing up in spring, the ruffled plenty of Mesclun lettuces, the nutty scarlet runner beans in pods still clinging to withered vines after hard frosts. 

Nurturing those plants from seeds planted with my own hands in the rich soil filling the raised beds Richard had built made me acutely aware of how fortunate I was to be able to harvest and eat such a bounty of food, and how grateful I was to the plants that shared their flesh with us. 

A basketful of food harvested from that garden

That Thanksgiving, as I was preparing dinner using almost all local food, including the last tomatoes and garlic from our garden, I said to Richard, “Why don’t we say thanks to our food before our meal?”

His eyes brightened. “Great idea!” 

After everyone gathered, we held hands around the table and Richard said a traditional grace, expressing our thanks for the blessing of friends and family coming together, for the meal we were about to eat, and then added a short litany of thanks to our food: “To this turkey, whose flesh we will eat; to the wheat that gave its seeds for our bread; to the yams, sage, parsley; the cows that provided the butter; the pecan trees whose nuts enrich the pies…”

Thus began the tradition I continue today of saying thanks to my food before I eat. 

Not at every meal, because I don’t always remember or take the time. But at least one meal a day, I spend a few minutes thanking my food. I also thank the farmers who grew or raised it, the people who harvested, processed, shipped, and sold it. And the pollinators, the sun, rain, wind, soil; the microorganisms who keep soil, plants, and animals healthy; the oceans, estuaries, and shores where our fish and seafood come from; and finally, this glorious living earth itself. 

A summer shrimp and vegetable salad topped with nasturtiums picked from my garden.

Saying thanks keeps me aware of and connected to what I eat, and to the living community of this earth, land and water alike, that nourishes those beings, as well as the people involved. 

Sweet and juicy Colorado peaches, another food I’m grateful for…

Choosing to be grateful and express that gratitude, Arthur C. Brooks points out in a column in today’s New York Times, can actually make us happier. Studies show that people who express gratitude on a regular basis “show significantly greater life satisfaction” than those who don’t. 

The effect is measurable in your brain. “Gratitude,” Brooks explains, “stimulates the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral tegmental area (part of our ‘reward circuitry’ that produces the sensation of pleasure).” The positive effects of gratitude go even farther, Brooks says, citing research which demonstrates that gratitude–even a simple “thank you”–can disarm others’ bad behavior.  

The world is certainly full of ‘bad behavior’ these days. A thank-you won’t likely stop a crazy person bent on violence, but it might well lower the overall tension that feeds that violence. Anything that will help us feel more positive, and behave with more grace and less hatred seems like a good idea. 

So this Thanksgiving, as you sit down to eat, serve up a dose of gratitude along with your meal. Thank your guests for joining you, thank those who prepared your food, thank the food itself. Offer the gift of gratitude–and the positive rewards that come with it, from brain circuitry to behavior.

And after the Thanksgiving meal is cleared away, don’t stop there: continue your gratitude practice on a daily basis. What are you grateful for? Leave a comment below, and inspire us all. 

I am grateful for all who read, think about, and share my words. Thank you for walking this journey with me. 

Stained-glass by Tom Williams, a wedding gift three decades ago that still brightens my days. Thank you, Tommy!