And changing what my gender's stereotype means to me.
Thanksgiving is hands down my favorite holiday. It has all the food, family, and oversized sweaters of other holidays, only it somehow feels cozier, and there’s usually more pie. It’s fairly relaxed in terms of attending—you go, you eat, you drink, you leave. And maybe it’s a little more stressful if you’re hosting, though let’s be real, you’re probably not hosting if you can’t handle a little stress. But stressful or not, pie or no pie (J/K, there’s always pie), my family’s Thanksgiving is pretty sexist. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it.
Let me explain.
From the time I was little, I always spent the holidays helping out in the kitchen. Every occasion hosted at our house meant waking up early with my mom and cooking and cleaning for hours before guests arrived. Over the course of the evening, we, along with any aunts or grandmas or female cousins, would serve and clear and clean in a steady cycle. Meanwhile, the men and boys would sit, eat, and later retire to watch the day’s most exciting programming (a parade, a football game, a golf match if you were very unlucky) or play video games (I was dying to play Super Mario Kart, too, but there was never any time!). After the guests had gone, and my dad and brother returned to their respective diversions, my mom and I would spend as many hours cleaning up as we’d spent prepping that morning. By the time we were done, every last dish, fork, pot, and pan was safely tucked away, with no trace of the feast that had happened earlier.
As a teen, the gender implications started to overshadow the adolescent fury that these were chores I had to do and my brother did not. I’d complain to my mom about the men never pitching in, just being waited on hand and foot. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t set the table or clear plates too. She’d just shrug it off, but I hated it. The quiet insurgent in me fought hard against the obedient daughter, but the obedient daughter always won. Who else would help my mom, if not me?
In my twenties, it was probably living away from home that gave me a new perspective on the role of housework in my life. Away from home, cooking and cleaning weren’t my job to do because I was a woman, but because I was a roommate, or a partner, or because I had to take care of myself. This was also when I started my career in food media and really got into the cooking of it all. And so food and cooking became something else to focus my energy on, in everyday life but especially during the holidays.
When I’d return home for Thanksgiving, my mom and I would try new recipes together, or we’d riff on old ones. We’d experiment with spatchcocking or brining or other turkey-roasting methods. We’d accidentally burn some Brussels sprouts (her) or forget to add salt to the biscuits (me). On Christmas Eve, the Feast of Seven Fishes became a fun culinary challenge for us to tackle. And we’d catch up on work and life over deveining shrimp and debearding mussels and all of it made us closer. This was how we changed what it meant for us to be in the kitchen. And as the excitement in the kitchen grew, who helped out kind of stopped mattering. Maybe my brother would cut up some vegetables if it meant he’d be around when the stuffing came out. And maybe my dad would clear a plate or two if it’d get him a slice of pie sooner.
Over time, the cooking and cleaning became less of a chore, and more of a pleasure—a preference, even—and my indignation about it slipped away. And so I’d spend the holidays a little less disgruntled and little more grateful for the time in the kitchen with my mom. More than that, I grew to look forward to the wonderful meals we’d make and to how much everyone enjoyed them together.
Looking back, it’s ironically this sexist tradition that made me love to cook today. Being in the kitchen wasn’t really my choice in the first place, but it’s so much more to me now than a sad, outdated gender role. It’s why I make my grandmother’s apple crunch pie and discovered my family’s favorite pumpkin chiffon. It’s why I spend my weekends baking more bread than I know what to do with. It’s why cooking is what I do to de-stress or challenge myself or feel accomplished after a long, winless day. I resent the idea that women belong in the kitchen more than anyone else—on Thanksgiving or any other day of the year—but I've redefined the stereotype to make it something valuable to me. With any luck, one day it won’t even be a stereotype at all.
This Thanksgiving will be at my parents’ house. I’ll spend Wednesday night baking pies with my mom, and we’ll be up early on Thursday cooking and cleaning. My husband will be there, too, so he’ll help prep and cook and stuff—because he likes to, and because we like to do these things together.