Welcome to The Reheat, a space for Eater writers to explore landmark (and lukewarm) culinary moments of the recent and not-so-recent past.
Thanksgiving is a controversial American holiday that, when put on film, can easily misfire as we see in so-called classics like The Mouse of the Mayflower, the 1968 animated TV special that relied heavily (if not entirely) on racist stereotypes and a prettied-up version of the 1621 harvest that brought together the indigenous Wampanoag and British settlers. When done right, a film or TV Thanksgiving scene approaches the tradition more analytically or skeptically, either from a historical standpoint or by delving into the awkward familial dynamics that are often magnified by the holidays. See, for example, Ang Lee’s moody masterpiece The Ice Storm (one of the best dinner scenes of all time) and John Hughes’s bittersweet comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Also at the top of the pile? A Thanksgiving movie that’s not actually a Thanksgiving movie at all. Cue the harpsichord and finger snaps because we’re talking about Addams Family Values.
In the 1993 macabre masterpiece, a sequel to the first live-action Addams Family movie, Gomez Addams (Raul Julia) and his wife, Morticia (Anjelica Huston), celebrate the arrival of baby boy Pubert. When siblings Wednesday — the role that launched Christina Ricci’s incredible career as glamour goth — and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) suffer from a bout of jealousy and try to kill the Pubert several times, Gomez and Morticia hire nanny Debbie Jelinsky (Joan Cusack) to keep the kids in line. What they don’t realize is that she’s a serial killer who marries rich bachelors and murders them to collect their inheritances. When she seduces Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd), Wednesday becomes suspicious of her intentions. To maintain her cover, Debbie has Wednesday and Pugsley shipped off to a summer camp.
Camp Chippewa is supposed to be a place “to learn, to grow, and to just plain have fun,” but it’s the exact opposite. Wednesday and Pugsley act and look nothing like the other campers, the majority of which are preppy blondes with racist, ignorant worldviews — that are unfortunately shared by their parents and the camp owners, Gary Granger (Peter MacNicol) and Becky Martin-Granger (Christine Baranski). Wednesday and Pugsley remain outcasts throughout the summer, refusing to participate in group activities, including the Grangers’ Thanksgiving play. The Grangers and other campers, led by mean girl Amanda Buckman (Mercedes McNab), decide to “make an example” out of them. They lock them in a cabin isolated in the woods and make hem to watch heartwarming Disney movies until they’re cleansed and “normal.” (Forced assimilation under the guise of helping sounds... vaguely familiar.) Wednesday and Pugsley give in — or so they think! — and Wednesday even agrees to play Pocahontas, a historical figure with no connection to the first Thanksgiving, in the big show.
On the final day of camp, the children perform the Grangers’ Thanksgiving play, which is, of course, a racist account of the first Thanksgiving. The pilgrims are played by Amanda and her clique of friends. As Pocahontas, Wednesday leads the other camp misfits — the campers of color, the ones with hebraic features not erased by rhinoplasty gifted by rich parents, and those with disabilities — as Native Americans to the Pilgrims’ feast. After Wednesday presents Pugsley, the turkey, as a gift to the Pilgrims (“I am a turkey. Eat me!”), she snaps back into her authentic self and deviates from the script to deliver a truly great speech.
Thanksgiving is synonymous with harmony — a day to “celebrate a seminal event in American history,” Gary Granger says when he introduces the play — but Wednesday’s revolt refutes the myth at the core of the holiday. She calls attention to the painful historical truth about this country’s relationship with its Indigenous people, that their land was stolen and they were forced to live separately, in poverty, while European settlers reaped the benefits: “Years from now, my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the roadsides. You will play golf and enjoy hot hors d’oeuvres.” While Addams Family Values explores the rigid dichotomy between “us” and “them,” Wednesday’s speech turns the spotlight on it. It’s an iconic moment and a reminder that America’s first Thanksgiving isn’t really the heartfelt celebration our textbooks and children’s books made it out to seem.
The uprising that follows turns the Grangers’ and fellow campers’ own preconceived stereotypes against them. “Remember, these savages are our guests,” Amanda, in character, says at the beginning of the scene, explaining to her acolytes that the Native Americans lack a European education and “shampoo.” Wednesday then introduces herself as a friendly “Chippewa maiden,” before getting... not so friendly. After breaking down the hypocrisy of the play and Thanksgiving in general, Wednesday concludes, “And for all these reasons, I’ve decided to scalp you, and burn your village to the ground.”
Since its inception, The Addams Family has never been politically correct, exactly. It’s subversive and silly, known for challenging cultural norms: reading cartoonist Charles Addams’s original work, which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1938, is like taking a trip through the looking glass as it pokes fun at the nuclear American family. You could feasibly argue that Addams Family Values isn’t a Thanksgiving movie. It takes place in the summer and the Camp Chippewa plot is only one half of the movie, Wednesday’s riot lasting less than five minutes on screen. The characters certainly don’t sit down for a turkey dinner (would the Addamses even eat Turkey anyway?), but it’s dazzling how quickly and effectively Wednesday’s speech provides viewers with a righteous dissection of the holiday.
So this Thanksgiving, go forth and feast but consider viewing Addams Family Values after dinner to reflect on the complicated history of the holiday. And hey, if a little education is not enough reason to watch this beloved classic, there’s always the “Eat Us” song that precedes Wednesday’s speech, a spectacular showstopper of giant dancing turkeys singing in unison: “Eat us cuz we’re good and dead!”