Feature image photo by istetiana via Getty Images
Holiday meals have always been mired in conflict for me. One aunt proclaims the dip my mom made is too fattening. Someone else gets too drunk and blabs about their partner’s vasectomy to the whole table, kids and all, as we sit down to eat. Some cousin or other is going through a particularly tumultuous phase — often this was me. The best part of the holiday was slipping into the kitchen to wash dishes, where I was visited by various relatives who would sweep in to have a secret word with me and slip me a drink as a reward for my services. When we hosted, drinking with my mom when all the relatives had left was a treat and a relief when we would recount the night’s infractions, try to make each other laugh about the barbs we’d received, dancing around with my little sister and mocking our relatives’ various insults.
I started baking, seriously and on my own, in middle school. It was in fact for Thanksgiving, and then for Christmas, that I began to make pies. I taught myself to make sweet potato pie and apple pie by following recipes in my mom’s books. I am pretty sure this is while my dad was first deployed — or it was while he wasn’t really speaking to me for a year while he was dealing with some of the most acute effects of PTSD. I can’t remember if I baked pies while he sat red-eyed on the couch or while he was crouched in the dust, the medical tents he worked out of getting hit by shellfire. And when I say he wasn’t speaking to me, it was less like he was holding a grudge, and more like he just wasn’t able to be there at the time, though he tries really hard now. His favorite dessert is pie, and I was certainly trying to learn something that he liked, that I liked, that we shared a love of, whether he was there or not. He’d light up for pie.
It was Easter when I made my first holiday meal top to bottom. My dad was deployed and all my other relatives had some kind of other plans. My sister was young — seven or eight. My mom declared that she would not be making Easter dinner. She made a lot of declarations like this. She wouldn’t do this or that. She wouldn’t take care of two children on her own, for example, so I had to go stay weekdays with my grandmother. She wouldn’t take me to see friends because she didn’t feel like driving. That kind of thing. So, I looked at my little sister, and I thought about all the Easters I’d had, and I told my mom I would make The Dinner. I’d watched my share of Alton Brown, okay? He was like the Bill Nye the Science Guy of cooking poultry. I decided I would make us each a Cornish Hen and some sides, likely mashed potatoes, and I’m unclear about what else. I am pretty sure I also got some Pillsbury rolls and that I made a vegetable, too, likely green beans. Anyway, I did my darndest to herb and salt and put butter under the skin of those hens and roast them appropriately, to baste them and check the temperature. I pulled those dead birds out of the oven and set the table and served Easter dinner to my mom and my sister.
I expected some sort of healing. I think I remember getting something out of it like what I wanted to feel, but it was nothing like the euphoria I expected. The distinct taste of disappointment mixed in my mouth with the juices of the poultry. My mom had, perhaps, hoped to make some kind of scene out of “Not Cooking” and unlike the feigned helplessness of a man on the AmItheAsshole subreddit, she was not trying to be so incompetent as to force me to do the labor — she wanted us to wallow in her misery, to not have a holiday dinner. She just had not anticipated this outcome and she was not particularly interested in being gracious about it. She barely talked to us through the dinner.
Then there was me — at some point in my journey toward preparing this holiday meal, I had gotten it into my head that if you just cooked the best meal, and gave it to everyone, that you would then, obviously, feel good, everyone would feel good. There would be laughter and joy. People would smile at you and tell stories. Someone might tell a joke, maybe even one of the shaggy dog stories my late grandfather had always held the table captive with for sometimes up to a quarter of an hour while the turkey got cold, before we even said grace (because on that side of the family, the head of the table tells a joke before we say grace and it can really become a hostage situation). I do remember my baby sister and her soft strawberry brown hair and a hen as big as her head on a plate in front of her, eating it sweetly, with the admiring eyes a small sibling of that age reserves only for the bigger one.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m a robot who’s tried to learn about living on this earth from commercials.
Over the years, I kept trying to cook for others, to have it be a point of unity. Sometimes it was; often it went unappreciated.
I became vegetarian at 21 in one night, after reading accounts of slaughterhouses. I gave the rest of my meat to my roommate and her cat and, without knowing much about vegetarian cooking, bought some tofu and prepared it inexpertly, learned to make hummus to a degree, and figured out which packs of instant ramen were more or less acceptable for my new diet.
This was some months after getting together with my future ex-spouse. When I was trying to make being engaged within a queer relationship — but to the wrong person — work I took to cooking for holidays with a fiendish resolve, especially because my future mother-in-law took such umbrage with my vegetarianism. If I dared to use seasoning or vegetarian or dairy substitutes, my dishes were deemed “fancy.” She fashioned herself after her humble upbringing, where she indeed shared a bed with her two sisters, but now, she was the proud owner of a cherry red BMW and kept every Christmas card sent to her by “the Obamas” because she was a high donor. It was less about disdaining fanciness — she loved her flashy jewelry and any signs of wealth she could accumulate for herself — and more about finding a way to dig at me, to call me uppity for eating vegetables. Anyway, she gave me a death stare once when she kept insisting something was Polish, and I, a Buffalo-born Polish-American person kept getting more and more confused by her claim that eating pork and sauerkraut on new year’s day was a Polish thing until I looked it up on my phone and declared “oh it’s a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, that explains it” at which the color drained from her face because heaven forbid she engage in something reflective of her American regionality and not her European heritage.
Soon, my mother joined for Christmas, which my then future mother-in-law hosted. We had assigned the dishes we’d make along lines that felt more like two feuding generals dividing territories after a bloody war than anything cooperative. She would make some things, me, others. Her husband, as was his passion, was in charge of the meats and set out to fire up his grill in the cold. That man is a good man, though I have always wondered what he saw in her — but then, I think at times that we found each other and connected in an unspoken acknowledgement that we were both her narcissistic supply.
She and I were, though, both preparing brussels sprouts. I began them in the way my aunt had told the family she made hers. I caramelized two red onions, added balsamic vinegar and brown sugar, and tossed in thinly sliced brussels sprouts so they browned in butter, vinegar, onion, sugar and salt. The result was a caramelized, bitter, salty and sweet brassica symphony. My mother in law spent a great deal of time getting increasingly wasted on white wine, then cut a bunch of brussels sprouts in half, put them in a pie dish, submerged them halfway in water from the tap, and “baked” them that way. When they emerged from the oven, she drained them (I think) and sprinkled slivered almonds on top. As I prepped my brussels sprouts for serving she looked at me and her brussels sprouts and said “simple” — like it was an insult that I make anything with a flavor. I don’t think I need to tell you hers went largely uneaten.
I thought that if I could just make the better brussels sprouts that she would capitulate and see she was being fucking weird, that my fiance would respect me and defend me from his mother’s barbs, that my mother would express her enjoyment of my work — but no one did any of these things. They ate the brussels sprouts and the rest of what I made heartily, but it was too taboo to acknowledge me too much. It just felt like throwing my work into a bottomless pit. It always did. Every holiday meal was met with silence about whatever I’d cooked at the table until it was deafening, until I couldn’t stand it, until I wanted to break all the plates in front of everyone and just scream at them “A PERSON PREPARED THIS. SAY SOMETHING.”
When we broke up, I was happy to break up with the whole family dynamic, too.
After we separated, I lived a blissfully single life for a moment, until I met my girlfriend, Sadie. That first year together, we decided to host a Friendsgiving Brunch. Recognizing that some members of our community might have nowhere to go later in the day and that others might be heading to less-than-fun family gatherings, we staked out the morning time. Come for breakfast, we said, pop in or out whenever you need, bring drinks or nothing, and we’ll have food.
We turned out making our finest breakfast foods, pancakes and basil cherry compote, potatoes and tarts, asparagus and hollandaise, shakshuka and bread — nothing redundant with the day’s traditional dinner fare. People showed up with kombucha and screwdrivers in reused containers, as well as a small variety of other items. Mya the dog flitted about between people set up around tables and groups of chairs and got pets to her delight until she collapsed in the center of the floor exhausted with the pleasure of company. Some people stopped for a short time, others, indeed, stayed most of the day having nowhere else to go. By the time evening rolled around, Sadie and I had nothing left to do but to clean up and eat leftovers and watch movies. Mya passed out, tuckered from all the socializing.
We repeated the same event the following year, and found it just as lovely. We were happy to be a stop along the way to the obligatory, a little secret space that also meant you didn’t have to worry about breakfast. This might have been the height of my holiday celebrations. While I still wasn’t a part of anyone’s dinner, Sadie and I had found a role that suited us, especially as we realized we would have to grow into queer elders, into the older people holding the doors open for others. We would welcome you on Thanksgiving morning, even if your family wouldn’t or if you didn’t have one, and even if your family did, but you still felt like a misfit.
For the first year of the pandemic, the holidays of 2020, we still tried to cook something. On Thanksgiving, I made bread and pumpkin pie starting with an intact sugar pie pumpkin, but the whole affair, with just two people, strapped with grief, was just that — sad. The pie, whatever it might have tasted like, does not linger in my mind the same way the laughter of friends over kombucha and potatoes and sparkling wine still echoes, some three years later. For Christmas, we broke with the sad preparation of traditional holiday foods and instead fired up the charcoal grill outside, lit cigars, and grilled up a feast of veggie burgers and smoked tomato salad, halloumi and green beans and more. I still missed the wassail and swapping of neighborhood ghost sightings that characterized the Christmas Eve party down the street at my favorite neighbor’s house, but breaking tradition, crumbling it up and lighting a fire with it put a salve on those wounds.
For the next two years, for Thanksgiving, my partner and I ordered takeout. This year, instead of worrying about cooking and dishes, we went out on Thanksgiving in what we termed a sort of “cottagecore Purge” because we were free to roam abandoned streets where people had clearly gone off for the day to have dinner at others’ homes. On Thursday, we went for a walk in a forested park and also went foraging for spruce branches (which make an appearance in my syrup post). I picked out a book from a little free library, and we cackled and stumbled upon some lovely people walking their cats. The next day we went bowling (at the lanes where the ALOTO bowling scene was filmed), galavanting around the city, returning only for food. After gluing myself to my desk since the start of September in preparation for the fundraiser, it was a welcome relief to be out and about, doing something that was not an obligation, free to be my own person, to enjoy time with my girlfriend.
This Christmas/Yule we’re planning for more takeout food on December 24th, followed by a simple charcuterie board for the two of us on December 25th. We will, however, be baking. It’s been a long time since we’ve baked together, but it’s something we’ve always loved to share. Who says you have to both bake and cook? We certainly will not be doing it! And yes, we WILL be using parchment paper to make cleanup easier.
Listen, I’m in my thirties, my girlfriend is about to be in her forties, we’re tried and tired and some day I likely will resuscitate my habit of going all out for other people for the holidays — but for now, I am going to let myself rest. I am going to eat charcuterie on the couch and watch a movie with Sadie, and we are going to miss our dog.
The other part of this that gets washed over time and again by people who’ve moved on, is the fact that Sadie already has a disability — and we are doing everything we can to mitigate our risk of catching Covid and therefore exposing each of us to the risk of Long Covid. We don’t get to just “go back to normal.” It’s not an option, not when we’re thinking about future years, future decades. Instead, we mask religiously, and we, for the most part, only eat with people who are willing to eat outside. Personally, considering how warm the world is these days, I just don’t understand anyone who won’t sit outside in a crisp 40 degrees Fahrenheit for a couple hours, but, you know, that’s just me.
The fact is, we’re still trying to figure out what the holidays look like for us because there is no going back. There is — with each and every thing, holiday traditions included — only going forward. I don’t have a new tradition for you, I have a lack of them, I have a clearing out in preparation for what’s next — but I also don’t mind, dialing back on the celebrating, being quieter about things, retreating from people who’ve hurt me or disregarded us. I am, to put it lightly, tired. My mom used to talk about the old Polish women in the neighborhood who, according to her, let themselves disappear, who wore only black and faded into the background as they got older. But I can understand losing a love for the light of attention, for interacting with others. I can see the reasoning behind just wanting to slip and recede a little farther into the periphery.
And so, for a good number of reasons — disability and trauma and pandemic and economy and just because I am so plain beat from the number of hours I work every day, we are embracing takeout and not really cooking for the holidays this year. In terms of expense — it actually works out to being more or less the same. In terms of time, it’s the one thing we’ve been fighting to conserve in so many ways. I don’t know if I would be so willing to send tradition out to sea like a message in a bottle if I had a better relationship to it, but as far as I can uncover, my most joyous holiday meals are predicated on being able to buck tradition, to build chosen family and community through bonds and not blood. The tragic thing is that this just isn’t possible in the same ways anymore — not with sharing breath and food indoors, anyway — and rather than exhaust myself trying to replicate that with the hollowness that cooking a holiday meal faces me with, I’ve reckoned with being okay with the slick anti-grain of a plastic takeout container in my palm, the laughter of my girlfriend while we watch a movie, food for the ancestors on our altar, and the warm memories that tell us about what we’re looking for in the future.