The Thanksgiving Anomaly: Why Don’t We Cook the Other 364 Days of the Year?

A new Smithsonian exhibit helps explain why cooking from scratch has become such a rarity

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Harold M. Lambert / Lambert / Getty Images

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” observed Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the greatest of French gourmands. Brillat-Savarin knew a thing or two about food identity: he wrote his masterpiece in 1825, at the absolute peak of French food culture, a belle epoque of foie gras, Normandy butter and a Bresse chicken in every pot. So who are the American people, judged by what we eat?

(MORE: What Happened to the American Middle-Class Meal?)

That’s a question worth asking as many families prepare to consume more home-cooked dishes on Thanksgiving than they do during the entire rest of the year. Convenience has become our national staple, and it’s one of the big themes addressed by a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, called “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000.” The exhibit, which opened Nov. 20, is a lot of fun, especially for those of us with a nostalgic bent; its pupu platters, Veg-O-Matics and Swanson TV-dinner trays stir old memories, even if what we’re remembering are the old TV commercials about these products rather than using the products themselves. Speaking of TV, the exhibit includes Julia Child’s actual kitchen, complete with her oven, all her tools and even her cabinets and counters. The disjunction between the Veg-O-Matic and Child’s emphasis on classic cooking techniques says a lot about who we are. It says that America, for good or bad, has been going its own way for a long, long time, and that way leads to the lab, the factory, the store and the couch, where consumers watch people like Julia Child rather than follow her advice in the kitchen.

(MORE: Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Thanksgiving)

Hugh Talman / Smithsonian

Julia Child’s Kitchen from the Smithsonian exhibition

Child is, of course, the patron saint of a certain kind of American foodie. The woman who taught America to cook French food, she is regarded, eight years after her death, as the epitome of how Americans ought to eat but don’t. When Julie Powell, on her Julie/Julia blog, chronicled her attempt to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, it was more in the nature of a stunt, a David Blaine–style endurance test. Nobody cooks like Julia Child today; that may be the reason so many people look up to her. Galantine a chicken lately? How about peel 24 pearl onions for some boeuf bourguignon? If you have done so, congratulations; you are a true child of Child. For the other 99.5% of the people reading this, I’m guessing you are far more familiar with the following items, all taken from the New and Improved section of the Smithsonian exhibit: a can of frozen concentrated orange juice, a Slurpee superhero cup, a George Foreman grill, a JCPenney microwave, a Teflon Bundt pan. I have never cooked a Bundt cake in my life, but I remember seeing that pan in my grandmother’s kitchen — and everything else on that list too. And those things weren’t signs of corruption or laziness or TV brainwashing; they were fun, practical tools that, Bundt pan aside, we used every day. They were our true foodways.

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New and Improved and Child’s kitchen aren’t the only parts of the exhibit. But they speak to the giant gap between what we actually eat and what we, or at least some of us, think we ought to eat. The Resetting the Table section looks at the innovations of the 1960s and ’70s and includes tributaries that joined the mainstream almost immediately: Mexican food (a frozen-margarita machine), backyard cookouts (a Weber grill and The Barbecue Bible) and high-end kitchen gadgetry (the Cuisinart, Le Creuset pots, an espresso maker). Meanwhile, forlorn and obscure, the Countercultures nook looks about as relevant as bearskin vests: the Mother Earth News, bean sprouters, rice cookers, The Moosewood Cookbook (copies of which can still probably be found, moldering and unopened, on many a baby boomer’s shelf).

(MORE: Does Jewish Food Have A Future?)

Why did Slurpees and microwave ovens become part of the way most Americans eat while brown rice and bean sprouters did not? The answer is simple to anyone who has sucked down a Slurpee or two: they’re awesome. Microwaves are supremely convenient, a quick way to cook Lean Cuisines (which, like so much else we eat, would have appalled Julia Child), whereas almost nobody likes brown rice or home-baked brown bread — certainly not enough to cook them regularly. There are, of course, any number of fads that came and went over the years: fondue pots, Tang, tiki trays. Not every new toy or trick can become universal. Our kitchens, and stomachs, are only so big. But cheap, crappy, delicious, highly engineered and ultra-designed food is in our DNA, and that isn’t going to change. A sequel to the Smithsonian exhibit, curated by the Lunar Institute in 2062, won’t consist of wood ovens, organic gardens and heritage vegetables. What it will include is anybody’s guess. But if who we are really is expressed by how we eat, something tells me it will not come from Julia’s kitchen — or anybody else’s.

17 comments
zaglossus
zaglossus

What does it say about a society that, with all the labor saving devices invented in the last two centuries, so many think they don't have time to cook? We're only talking about 1 or 2 hours out of the day to prepare properly the great majority of nutritious, filling and delicious meals.

valente347
valente347

I love to cook, but it can get to me. If you have to cook every meal, every day, on a very tight budget, there's not much room for creativity. I make our bread, use bones to make stock, prepare very little meat, and hardly ever throw anything out because it's gone bad. I still spend more than I'd like. I thank God for my microwave - it (quickly!) melts butter and chocolate, thaws the meat I always forget to move from the freezer to the fridge, steams vegetables, boils water, holds my bread as it ferments, and reheats leftovers all without heating up my tiny Texas kitchen. 

While I love the idea of having a backyard garden to save costs, the start up is pretty prohibitive, and my thumb is black. I also rent a house in the mountainous desert with a backyard full of sand and fire ants and no shade or wind protection. Needless to say, the few herbs I can manage to grow in pots barely hang on with 6 straight weeks of 100+ temperatures. At least we save money on heat in the winter. (It was in the 70s while I was making Thanksgiving dinner.)

I guess what I'm saying is if there was a cheap way for me to eat out more than once a month, or buy more convenience foods, I would. I think cooking for holidays might be a bit more fun that way as well.

ibtlius
ibtlius

40 years of militant feminist propaganda has entrenched one of their top dumbest notions on each successive female generations that 'cooking' is somehow a demeaning task for women imposed on them by the 'patriarchy' and the only way to 'redeem' womanhood is to be a low-wage corporate slave. As a result home-cooking nutritious meals for the family took a catastrophic hit and the profit-hungry corporations filled the void by flooding our lives with cheap, unhealthy junk food that is now well on its way to killing both America & Europe with every disease on the book affecting even our youngest children not to mention the sky-rocketing healthcare costs that we end up unncessarily footing the bill for with our tax dollars.

This isnt enough though, we need to hit rock bottom before the realization dawns on a massive societal scale owing to hard personal experience as there never was a and will be a better teacher than 'Experience'.

FuzzyElephants
FuzzyElephants like.author.displayName 1 Like

"... almost nobody likes brown rice or home-baked brown bread"

Wow Time.  Thanks for making me feel like a weirdo. 

weinsteinrk
weinsteinrk like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I am a 50 something woman, employed full time, with a husband and teenaged son at home.  I prepare most of our dinner meals every night.  I love to cook, although sometimes it is a daunting task. It isn't difficult to prepare dinner each night with the appropriate balance of protein, fruit, vegetable and starch. Lean meats are available that can be prepared quickly with little waste (unless you want leftovers for the next night).  I grow a lot of our vegetables in our garden during the summer and dehydrate, freeze or can the surplus.  I also have a small cold-frame that provides fresh greens until mid January each year.  My husband doesn't cook, but he does the dishes and helps with the heavy lifting in the garden.  My son helps to cook and clean up.  This is what a family does.  We eat very well, are fit and healthy.

samuel.weinbeck
samuel.weinbeck like.author.displayName 1 Like

SWM, age 24, disabled (one leg only), work full time. I cook every day and only eat food that I prepare.

JonGibson
JonGibson like.author.displayName 1 Like

@samuel.weinbeck i'm missing my right leg above the knee and insist on cooking good food, gardening something every year and don't much care for conveniences.

quitasarah
quitasarah like.author.displayName 1 Like

From your article it's as if cooking like Julia Child or eating TV dinners or McDonald's are our only options. I cook most nights (with some occasional help from convenience foods like frozen turkey burgers) and also love to eat out at local, quality restaurants or with take-out from the local tacqueria. Of course, I'm cooking for 2 and don't have kids yet, so that could change, but so far so good. I do it for our health, our finances and because I don't want to join the ranks of the morbidly obese in this country.

On another note, I was shocked and appalled when I discovered, upon first dating my husband, that his family ordered their Thanksgiving dinner from a local market. His mom doesn't cook, so even mashed potatoes were too much for her. Luckily in the intervening years, we've both developed a love of cooking and entertaining and have steered Thanksgiving back to home cooked territory where it belongs. Just don't ask me to do dishes.

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray like.author.displayName 1 Like

Give me a break, before WW2 women cooked and cleaned and did all that other stuff we all thought they were supposed to do.

Afterwards they got jobs.

Now, they work as much as the men, nobody left to cook and clean and do all that other stuff.

Somehow it still gets done, labor saving conveniences have helped and TV dinners and restaurants among them.

So unless you want to go back to the way it was in the (not so) good old days, get over it, this is the world the way it is now.

JonGibson
JonGibson like.author.displayName 1 Like

@GaryRMcCray NOW they work as much as the men?  They always have, and often-times more.  Those in power often work less than those they have control over.

Rachel1418
Rachel1418 like.author.displayName 1 Like

We're one of the outliers then because we do cook nearly every meal we eat, here at home.   Breakfast is old fashioned oatmeal with fruit added into it, lunch is packed from home made foods (big salads for the adults, pb sandwiches or bean burritos on whole grain tortillas plus cut up fruit and vegs for the kids) , dinner is usually a soup or stew or chili or other.   We make our own healthy chinese food when we want chinese food, we roll our own sushi when we want sushi, we make our own fajitas when we want tex-mex, we cook up whole wheat pasta for spaghetti when we want that.  We might eat out once a month, that's it.  

Why?  because we care about the health of our family.    We wouldn't think of poisoning our children or ourselves with the garbage that many think of as food these days.     

LauraWright
LauraWright like.author.displayName 1 Like

How anyone can AFFORD to eat anything but home cooked meals most of the time is beyond me. Friday is usually pizza night for the kids, but other than that, my husband and I cook (or have our leftovers) virtually every night. We have a garden in back and can/freeze our own tomato sauce, jar pesto and fruit in season and freeze our greens and anthing else we can grow. It's not that hard, and it's so much fun. And yes, we both have full-time jobs.

pendragon05
pendragon05

Because Americans are too lazy to cook nutritious meals but not lazy enough to attention wh*re their sprogs.

BluegrassBetty
BluegrassBetty like.author.displayName 1 Like

While having an early Thanksgiving dinner this weekend at my sister's house, I asked my niece for a sauce pan to make the gravy in. She said they don't have any pans since they never cook. Turns out they did have one she just didn't know what a sauce pan was. She is 22 yrs old.

rcsteiner
rcsteiner like.author.displayName 1 Like

Cooking is hard work, and it takes time.  My wife and I both have full-time jobs.  

We've started cooking again because we can't afford to eat out anymore like we were, so we're eating home-cooked meals 6 days of the week most of the time, but if we could afford to we'd probably be back to visiting restaurants 3-4 days/week.

RevaPearlston
RevaPearlston

@rcsteiner Cooking is an INVESTMENT in time, health and family finances.  It's creative, and involving your children from an early age (3-year olds can mix things) make certain that you pass along your knowledge to your children and help them to ensure their future, too.

Cooking is NOT work.  It is more than possible to put a 3-course meal on the table in 30 minutes.  You can do so even faster, on a day-in and day-out basis by taking some time, once a week or even once a month, to cook big batches of sauces, stocks, soups, etc.  Freeze them in one-meal packages, and you have the basis for a meal.

So, rcsteiner, it seems that you and your wife need an attitude adjustment when it comes to putting food on the table.

JonGibson
JonGibson like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@rcsteiner cooking is hard work??  cooking is one of more excellent things people can do as family.