Taste of Home: Why talking about food is part of ‘United America’

Allan Benton shows off country hams in his smokehouse in Tennessee

In Madisonville in eastern Tennessee, Alan Benton shows off one of the hams in his family’s huge smokehouse. The Bentons’ family owned business has been selling hams, prepared through the traditional dry-curing process, from this small town in the Smoky Mountains since just after World War II.

Why talk about food? Well, for obvious reasons—we love it! There are entire cable TV channels devoted to food!

But, in OurValues? Why talk about food as a way to explore Americans’ 10 Core Values—as described in sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker’s book, United America? Today, Dr. Baker is adding a new study guide for group discussion to the resource page for his book. You are free to download and use this new discussion guide (or any of the other guides) to spark spirited conversations about the issues raised in United America.

THIS WEEK, in five columns, we will look at the many connections between food and values. Academics, especially scientists and historians, have been studying this connection for at least 200 years. The axiom—”Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are”—began appearing in the early 1800s in texts on “natural science.”

In the 1960s, the French historian Fernand Braudel surprised his scholarly colleagues by devoting a major portion of his massive series, “Civilization and Capitalism,” to the foods and culinary customs of ordinary Eurpeans since the 15th Century. In his volume, “The Structures of Everyday Life,” Braudel explained that food preparation was key to the development of successful communities. For a very long time, serious historians had tended to write only about major events like wars and global exploration or about heroic or infamous persons. Braudel understood that modern Europe was shaped far more profoundly by the way ordinary families preserved their grains and ate their starchy foods to survive and thrive.


Pew researchers tell us that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans plan to share a special meal with “family and friends” at Christmas, this week. Turkey is very popular and some news reports this year suggest that beef is successfully competing for the prime spot on the holiday menu—but grocers and culinary experts will tell you: In America, Christmas Ham is the traditional showpiece at a family dinner.

What does ham have to do with American values? Plenty! We share this tradition of Christmas Ham, because our country was settled largely by poor farmers who had no experience with upper-class tastes for fancy holiday fowl: turkey, duck, goose or pheasant. Those entrees were out of reach of most farming families in Europe—the kind of folks who dared to cross the Atlantic and become American colonists. Certainly, turkeys and other fowl were available to early Americans who lived near woods or along the frontier, but the vast majority of American farm families followed an annual cycle: They fattened their pigs through the summer and prepared their hams in the autumn. The first major ham dinner was at Christmas. That’s why many Americans east of the Mississippi still have a nostalgic taste for cured “Country Ham,” a tradition that extends from the Carolinas through Virginia and into Kentucky.

If you’re slicing into a Christmas Ham, this week, remember: It’s far more than a holiday taste. That ham is a story with connections to at least 3 of Dr. Baker’s 10 American Core Values: “Freedom,” “Self Reliance” and “Pursuit of Happiness.”

Your Story Matters!

Please, add a comment below, sharing your food story. Share this column on Facebook or by email. You’re also free to print it out and share it that way. And, if you haven’t done so already, please help support the OurValues Project by ordering a copy of United Americaand learn about the various free study guides that can help you spark discussion with friends.


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“War on Christmas?” Is it the war that never was?

Pew polling on how Americans celebrate Christmas

CLICK ON THIS PEW CHART to visit Pew’s website and read the entire report about Americans’ attitudes toward Christmas.

The “War on Christmas” is a seasonal favorite topic, but how real is it? Is there really a war?

It depends on who you ask.

If you’re Fox News front man Bill O’Reilly, there is most definitely a war, as we discussed on Monday this week: American Atheists have erected anti-Christmas billboards in the south. In early American history, the first war on Christmas was waged by, well, Christians (Puritans, to be exact). At the turn of the 20th century, working women rebelled against the practice of giving lavish gifts to their bosses. Returning to modern times, we discussed how some retailers are naughty and some are nice.

Today, we ask: What do Americans today think about Christmas?

In Texas, it’s pretty clear. By law you can say “Merry Christmas” in public schools without fear of penalty or retribution or frivolous lawsuits. “Merry Christmas” is protected speech in the Lone Star state. So is “Happy Hanukah.”

How about Americans elsewhere?

The vast majority of Americans celebrate Christmas, according to a Pew poll last year (I doubt things have changed much since then). And by vast I mean vast: nine of ten Americans celebrate Christmas. Most of these celebrants plan to spend time with friends and family, Pew reports.

Of course, not all of the celebrations are religious. Just over half of Americans (51%) say that Christmas is “more of a religious holiday.” About a third (32%) say it’s a cultural holiday. And 9% say it’s both (or something else).

Is the “War on Christmas” real?
Do you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?
Do you side with the American Atheists or Bill O’Reilly?

Your viewpoint is important!

You can leave a comment below. Or, you can talk with friends on Facebook. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

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“War on Christmas?” Are retailers “naughty” or “nice”?

American Family Association Naughty or Nice list


Do you prefer “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas”? Choosing the appropriate seasonal greeting is an annual conundrum for most people. And, it’s a conundrum for businesses, too. Does the traditional greeting ‘Merry Christmas’ alienate or attract customers? What about the politically correct ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Season’s Greetings’?

It’s safe to say that most large retailers will try to do whatever maximizes sales. And this year, a lot of retailers are “for Christmas,” according to the America Family Association (AFA). Each year, the AFA compiles a “naughty or nice” list of retailers, encouraging shoppers to boycott “naughty” companies.

The “nice” list includes 52 companies, such as Amazon, Bass Pro Shops, Kmart, Zappos, Nordstrom, and Sears. Among these 35, there are five super nice companies that actively promote and celebrate Christmas: Hobby Lobby, Wal-Mart, Belk, Lowe’s, and AFA Online Store.

The “naughty” list is much shorter, including a dozen companies. Examples are Barnes & Noble, The Limited, Pet Smart, Supervalu, and Victoria’s Secret. This year, the AFA is calling for a boycott of Pet Smart and invites you to sign a pledge.

Some companies are neither naughty nor nice. They “marginalize” Christmas, according to the AFA, by infrequently referring to Christmas. Fourteen companies are in this limbo state, including Best Buy, Safeway, Starbucks, and Whole Foods. (You can see the complete lists here.)

Which greeting do you prefer—Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?
Do you patronage retailers that are “for Christmas?”
Does a retailer’s stance on the holiday matter to you?

Your viewpoint is important!

You can leave a comment below. Or, you can talk with friends on Facebook. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

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“War on Christmas?” Are you a SPUG?

New York Times SPUG Christmas giving headline November 1912

The New York Times headline from November 1912.

Puritans in early America waged the first war on Christmas, but they weren’t the only ones. Others have followed in their wake. Enter SPUG—Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving. Over 100 years ago, this society arose to combat the economic costs of gift giving. Is it time to restart SPUG?

Author-historian Paul Collins recounts the story of SPUG in a Slate magazine essay. As he writes—

“SPUG started with a bang at the Nov. 14, 1912 meeting of the Working Girls’ Vacation Fund. Founded a year earlier to help Manhattan shop clerks set aside a little money each week, the fund had quickly grown to 6,000 members, with savings of $30,000. But those savings faced a jolly nemesis: Christmas. Sapped by the extravagant gifts that female department store clerks were pressured into giving supervisors—often to the tune of two week’s worth of wages—the fund’s members took action.”

The basis of this “War on Christmas” wasn’t religious or ideological. It was economic and political. This was a working women’s movement. “SPUG squads” formed to deny their male supervisors’ extravagant gift expectations.

The SPUG movement denied the many male applicants until Teddy Roosevelt petitioned and become the first male SPUG.

The society eventually changed its name, Collins notes, from the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving to the Society for the Promotion of Useful Giving. Under this banner, members focused on giving to the needy.

SPUG didn’t last long, but the economic costs of gift giving persist.

What do you think of this campaign more than a century ago?

Your viewpoint is important!

You can leave a comment below. Or, you can talk with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons and asking friends to read this series with you. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

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“War on Christmas”? Who waged America’s FIRST war on Christmas?

New England Puritan minister and leader Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather (1663-1728) was a very influential Puritan minister, author and pamphleteer. He was a scientist, as well, who conducted early experiments in developing hybrid plants and methods for preventing the spread of disease. He also was relentless in defense of his Puritan faith and became infamous for touching off the Salem witch trials.

Americans Atheists are at the frontlines of today’s “War on Christmas.” Across the trenches, since 2005, Fox News has led the defense.

But do you know who led the FIRST war against the holiday? You might be surprised!

Turns out: The first War on Christmas in America was led by … Christians!

That’s right, Christians—namely Puritans—rejected Christmas as a pagan holiday. They saw to it that Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston! (You can read more on the “Christmas Controversy” paged at Wikipedia.)

The Puritan opposition to Christmas was imported from England where, according to History Today, Puritans since the late sixteenth century fought the war on Christmas. The “vileness” of the holiday, from the Puritan perspective, was described by the Elizabethan-era Puritan Phillip Stubbes:

“That more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery, whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the years besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.”

Now, that sounds like a “War on Christmas”!

Did you know that the Puritans outlawed Christmas?

Are you surprised to learn that Christmas was actually banned in Boston?

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“War on Christmas”: Do you believe it’s real?

th Bill O Reilly Declares the War On Christmas Begins YouTube


Come December each year, millions of American parents are confronting the question: Is Santa Claus real? OurValues.org will not weigh in that perennial conundrum. That’s far beyond our pay grade to answer. Good luck, parents.

But we are well equipped to explore the question: Is the “War on Christmas” real?

Signs of the seasonal strife are starting to emerge. The Washington Post reported on one sign: billboards by the American Atheists. One of the billboards shows a girl in a Santa hat ostensibly penning her annual Christmas wish list. Instead, the text is: “Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I’m too old for fairly tales.”

According to the organization’s press release, this billboard is in keeping with ‘its tradition of ‘firebrand-style’ billboards at Christmastime.” American Atheists featured its firebrand billboards in Bible-Belt cities like Memphis, Nashville, and St. Louis.

The atheist group also attempted to acquire billboard space in Jackson, Mississippi, but the billboard owners rejected the offer “due to content.”

Fox host Bill O’Reilly is an annual defender in the yuletide conflict, and his first salvos have been fired, reports the Huffington Post. His guest is a psychotherapist who presents her analysis of why beleaguered atheists conduct war on Christmas.

Have you spotted this year’s signs of the “War on Christmas”?

Is the “war” real?

Your viewpoint is important!

You can leave a comment below. Or, you can talk with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons and asking friends to read this series with you. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

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Race in America: Will body cameras help the public—or the police?

Police body cam with communication microphone

POLICE BODY CAMS are so popular these days that Amazon offers dozens of models. This style replaces a police officer’s standard shoulder microphone with a high-tech camera built into a microphone. Click the photo to view its Amazon page.

Demonstrations are popping up around the country—and many Americans are calling for the widespread use of police body cameras to record their interactions. Obama has pledged millions of dollars to support the use of the technology.

Do you think it’s a good or bad idea? Would it reduce fatalities?

Americans overwhelmingly say it’s a good idea, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Almost nine of ten (87%) say so. This support cuts across racial lines and political lines. For example, 85% of White Americans, 90% of Black Americans, and 89% of Hispanic Americans say body cameras are a good idea.

Should the police be required to wear body cameras? About seven of ten Americans (69%) say yes, according to a new poll by Rasmussen Reports. Consensus about this cuts across racial, demographic, and political lines.

Would required body cameras reduce the number of fatal incidents that involve the police? Twelve percent of Americans say that it would increase fatal incidents. Just over a third (38%) say it would decrease them. And 50% of all Americans say it will have no impact or are unsure.

Who would the cameras protect? Half of all Americans (50%) say it would protect police officers more than the people they deal with, while 26% say it would protect the public more than the police who wear the body cameras. White and Black Americans tend to agree on this—it would protect the police more than it would protect the public.

Do you think police body cameras would reduce fatalities?
Should the police be required to wear them?
Would body cameras tend to protect the police or the public?

Your viewpoint is important!

You can leave a comment below. Or, you can talk with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons and asking friends to read this series with you. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

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