On Thanksgiving, I'm Redefining My Role in the Kitchen

And changing what my gender's stereotype means to me.

November 21, 2018
Photo by Mark Weinberg

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.

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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?

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Top Comment:
“Really grateful for this piece Joanna! I grew up in a community where a woman's highest achievement was to carry out the vision of the men in the household—to wait on them, serve them, and accommodate them. It is such a beautiful thing that you've re-written the narrative around your own role in the kitchen. I'm learning to reclaim that space as a choice, an art, and a vital facet of my worth (but not my whole worth). Hope your holiday was a joyful one! ”
— Maggie S.

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.

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Maggie S. November 25, 2018
Really grateful for this piece Joanna! I grew up in a community where a woman's highest achievement was to carry out the vision of the men in the household—to wait on them, serve them, and accommodate them. It is such a beautiful thing that you've re-written the narrative around your own role in the kitchen. I'm learning to reclaim that space as a choice, an art, and a vital facet of my worth (but not my whole worth). Hope your holiday was a joyful one!
Tiffany R. November 22, 2018
What you got out of this whole essay, I hope, was that you were the fortunate one. Being a woman is so much more than “gender stereotypes” people today like to complain about. It is a whole being of giving and beauty, of generosity and ambition, of softness and love. You won out in that the time spent interacting with your mother built you up more than the video games and football. You became whole. This should be celebrated rather than littered with the current hot topic words of todays feminists. You are lucky to continue the tradition still, take off your feminist banners and just BE in the moment with your mother. These days won’t last long.
Stephanie B. November 22, 2018
Thanks for this! This is how holidays with my family are; they came from a country with more than a dash of machismo and heteronormative roles. But it did introduce me to cooking - I have a lot of memories helping peel veggies or fill sarmale (cabbage rolls) for holidays when my mom, grandma, or aunts needed all (female) hands on deck.

I haven't been home for Thanksgiving in years, but I've hosted a number of Friendsgivings. I was surprised by how much I knew as far as the logistics of hosting a Thanksgiving meal, probably picked up by being a girl in my family. I'm grateful for the love of cooking I gained from my upbringing, but I have a strong tendency to avoid doing dishes if I'm the one that also did all the cooking ;)
Erin A. November 21, 2018
Thank you for sharing this, Joanna. It so speaks to me, and makes me think about all of my Thanksgivings growing up, where things were so similar to the way you described. Although it is interesting now that a lot of my guy friends, and my boyfriend too, actually end up kicking me out of the kitchen so they can cook. I do think things are evolving as Hana said!
Hana A. November 21, 2018
Thanks for writing this, Joanna! I can so relate. I definitely think it's a product of cultural and generational conditioning... and I can already see the roles in my own home evolving.

Wishing you a great food-filled weekend with the fam, xo.
Joanna S. November 21, 2018
Thank you, Hana. I have faith it’s something that will disappear with future generations. Hope tomorrow is easy breezy :)
Timothy M. November 21, 2018
Loved reading this Jo. The thing that irritates me is when someone, anyone, doesn't help at all. If you are getting a magnificent meal made for you, you need to help--somehow. I understand not everyone likes too/or has the capabilities to cook, but most people have the capabilities to clean, organize, walk the dog or entertain the infant. And in the end, it allows everyone to spend a little more time together after everything is cleaned and tucked away.

Since I haven't spent a Thanksgiving at home in almost a decade this is pretty much a moot point because (almost) all my friends are amazing cooks, therefore, pitch in. But the few that aren't know there's always another way to help ease the load.
Joanna S. November 21, 2018
Thank you for reading, Tim. That cooking isn’t everyone’s expertise is such a good point, and I certainly hear you on the rest! Even the gesture of pitching in alone counts for a lot.
Eric K. November 21, 2018
I love this piece.

It was always like that in my house, too. To this day my mother won't let me wash the dishes or do the laundry (but I swear, I brush her off and do it!). I'm glad you can enjoy the kitchen now without feeling that you have to pick between 'obedient daughter' and 'quiet insurgent.'
Emma L. November 21, 2018
Thank you so much for writing, Joanna. It really resonates.
Joanna S. November 21, 2018
Thank you, Emma! I hope it resonates for others too.