I must admit something: I’m sort of a cooking Scrooge at the
holidays. Whether it’s that all the food is seemingly beige, the sides and turkey are never hotter than lukewarm, or the sheer stress of driving anywhere with a loaded slow-cooker strapped in the backseat (baby on board!), it all adds up to be way more stress than it’s worth.
Apparently, I’m very much not alone. Holiday cooking, no surprise, makes us all a bit unhinged. Even though a survey found that 87.8% of people in the U.S. plan to make a holiday meal, a whopping 70% of the same group said they’ve lied to someone about enjoying a holiday meal. Two in five Americans even say that the holidays negatively impact their mental health, with 39% saying that holiday meals are often the main source of their stress. Martha Stewart (Martha Stewart!) has also thrown in the hat this year, cancelling her own Thanksgiving celebration this year.
Of course, traditions are hard to break, but I do have a hunch that the holidays are making us more deranged than usual. So why do we do it, year after year?
Well, outside of how truly nice it is to get together, feel merry and jolly, catch up with your Cool Aunt Susan, I have my suspicions. As an avid Reality TV watcher and aspiring scholar, I wholeheartedly believe that we all kind of love to have a few flavors of drama going around, even when it means coming into contact with holiday stress.
No one wants to follow the directions.
One of my favorite Instagram accounts ever (simply called @nytcookingcomments) is a cornucopia of reasons why we can’t have nice things: We can’t (and won’t!) follow the cooking directions, no matter how clearly they’re laid out. As the name suggests, the account chronicles the bizarre, hilarious, and often sweet comments left by people who have tried the recipes by New York Times Cooking section. Appropriately, the holidays bring out the wildest of commenters. They range from complaining about dry pie crust (before talking back to themselves to admit they left out half the butter), a cake that came out tasting like turkey, to simply making so many substitutions that the outcome barely resembles the original recipe. What the comments suggest, including my favorite Delish comment seen on our mini pumpkin pies recipe (seen below), is that the high drama risk-taking of the holidays is really part of the special sauce that makes the season so emotionally tense, yet also the most memorable.
In my family, the holiday food drama is the most heated part of the season, while the food is often tepid. They are very Southern, in that they love to delight in tiny little “bless your heart” moments whenever possible. With of the territorial nature of who made the deviled eggs, who forgot to put the Almighty Cornbread Dressing in the oven, and having to sneak in recipes with ingredients my often new-food-averse family members refuse to eat (one year it was, tahini), I often opt out of the day altogether. I save myself a couple hundred clams and a few headaches and skip the meal back home to eat a whole lot of Thai takeout (my dream feast).
Unsurprisingly, brands and whole industries are taking note of it and cashing in, finding new ways to market the holidays entirely, such as the heartburn medication, Omeprazole, canned cocktail concierge services (like Cutwater), and weed companies.
Thanksgiving? More like THC-Giving.
‘Tis the season, it seems, to also go to an altered state. If the holiday season is often seen as the season of giving, it now seems to be the season of coping. Case in point: the advent of a of “Danksgiving” products marketed to help you get through the day rather than enjoy it, like cannabis-infused turkey gravy from Kiva, THC-based “social tonics” like Nowadays and Cann, and coffee cups that are actually bongs.
I receive hundreds PR emails a week that are either about 1. the holiday food I must make this year, and 2. the THC product that will help absolve me of the stress over having to think of all the must-make dishes out there. It’s a true vicious circle, and not one I’m entirely surprised or mad about. The combination makes total sense, but I do worry about the message it sends: This is just something we do, no questions asked.
Holiday food is also really weird.
Stuffing things into cavities. Chunky gravy that needs sieving. Drinks with egg yolks and cut with brown liquor. Holiday food is not the most appetizing (often it’s very jiggly), yet we never question why these dishes are nonnegotiable. The culinary historian Michael Twitty wisely said that we reach for these “gross” foods every year, as a way to feed our own nostalgia and memory, while also allowing these foods to serve as stories and relics.
While I’m all for the gorging, I do wish there needs to be way more flexibility in the menu, whether it be with a lasagna, lobster risotto, or even grilling out. Twitty says that the change we might crave is inevitable, as the same recipes we eat now have naturally changed since even our grandparents adapted these recipes from their grandparents.
If it’s up to me and my own future family, it will be takeout. My best Thanksgiving ever involved no cooking at all; I simply snuck Indian takeout into a movie theater with my French roommates during a snowy Boston Thanksgiving. It was, no lie, the best: No clean up, only the food I wanted to eat on that very Thursday, no travel required. It lightened my heart and lowered my stress, which I think is the reason for the season.
Perhaps the derangement we all often fall into (whether we mean to or not), is the bitter we take with the sweet; The nice “cousin walk” you must take to digest the meal and the drama. The awkward conversation with Uncle Steve about politics perhaps pairs well with buying yourself time to respond by stuffing your mouth with a bite of mashed potatoes. The delicious craziness you, believe it or not, are already look forward to for next year.