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The drive through Thanksgiving

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These are the sociable months. Thanksgiving is just ahead, and between now and New Year we will find ourselves more often eating in company, which is very different from eating with your own family. It raises questions about things like food etiquette and table manners that rarely trouble us the rest of the year. We know how formal meals should be arranged. We have the ever-present example of the dinner scenes in Downton Abbey and its imitators and, on a more modest level, the festive table in Norman Rockwell’s famous Thanksgiving picture.

Thanksgiving dinner, so beautifully mythologized by Rockwell, is the stress point of the holiday for any number of reasons. Fewer than a third of families are in the habit of dining the old-fashioned way at a table. They eat in front of the TV where they don’t have to talk or look at each other and can study their phones at the same time. But at Thanksgiving, we are brought face-to-face, often with people we rarely see but who know us far too well. Whatever shiny façade we have built up for ourselves elsewhere, the family is not going to be fooled by it.

Family secrets are always at risk on these occasions. Someone around the festive table may decide to share the results of their DNA test. These things are dynamite that can destroy family myths in an instant. All sorts of unresolved suspicions and accusations can be brought to light and tossed like hand grenades into the Thanksgiving mix, by a revealing DNA result. Even if DNA is never mentioned, politics can have the same explosive effect. Nobody dares to mention politics anymore, or religion, and almost all jokes are politically incorrect. It doesn’t leave much to talk about.

For this and many other reasons Thanksgiving dinner can be an intense and stressful exercise in self-control. The traditional menu is long and complicated, which gives more time for arguments to develop. The strain of sitting up straight and keeping your eyes open and your ears shut can be unbearable.

But this is a progressive and dynamic society, always ready to embrace new ideas and new solutions. Forget about dining tables and place settings, and even couches and coffee tables. A national report in The New York Times recently gave some astonishing figures about the drive-through eating experience. It seems that, in the food business, drive-through traffic has increased by 30% in the past four years and is growing fast, accounting for close to half of the total fast-food business. Some big companies have closed their dining rooms entirely.

You can see where this is leading. Cars, especially those big SUVs, are ideal for unsocial dining. Not only are they provided with handy cupholders and entertainment screens, but they allow everyone to sit side-by-side or one in front of the other, which makes conversation less personal. Families that take their celebration to the nearest drive-through, all alone together in their cars, will have a better Thanksgiving experience. It will be quick, with almost no human contact. The food will be familiar, plentiful and cheap. Everyone will have his or her own screen, so awkward family discussions can be avoided, and there’s always Snapchat.

That’s the way of the future — drive-through family life, drive-through dining and drive-through holiday celebrations. It may leave the interior of your car in a horrible mess. But the drive-through car wash will take care of that.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.