Here’s a holiday word problem: If the average Thanksgiving turkey weighed in at 16 lbs. this year, and Americans ate 48 million turkeys, how many pounds of turkey did we eat? I’ll accept the answers “an absurdly large amount,” “much more than I would have guessed,” or “768 million lbs.” And that's not counting all the fixings.
Two things strike me as remarkable about these very straightforward National Turkey Federation statistics. First, every one of those turkeys had to be cooked. Not microwaved. Or reheated. But actually cleaned, stuffed, rubbed, basted, and all those other cooking things most of us rarely do in everyday life. (A recent Harris poll found that only 40 percent of Americans cook at least five times a week, but 75 percent classify cooking as using frozen and prepared foods).
Second, Americans don’t particularly love turkey. In fact, I searched dozens of polls of America’s favorite foods and turkey didn’t crack the top 10 in any of them. When was the last time you roasted a whole turkey, even a small one, on a day that wasn’t the fourth Thursday in November? I rest my case.
So why does almost every American family, regardless of ethnic background, spend the day doing something they don’t particularly care for – cooking – to prepare a food they don’t particularly like?
You could argue that we continue to prepare the Thanksgiving turkey because of tradition or a sense of history or even out of habit, but I suspect the real answer goes deeper: I think Thanksgiving is a testament to our primal need to cook. You could argue that cooking is the activity that most defines us as humans. Other species also have language and can use some tools, but only humans can cook. I cook; therefore, I’m human.
Another Thanksgiving fact: If you take away Christmas, Thanksgiving is far and away America’s favorite holiday. (And let’s face it, for lots of reasons, Christmas is in a class of its own). But Thanksgiving, with only its homely bird to offer beats out holidays with firework displays, tricks and treats, and green beer. Pretty impressive.
So if you buy my argument that a large part of the reason Americans love Thanksgiving is the cooking – the savory smells that fill the house, the simple foods transformed by love and attention into something sacred, you have to wonder why most of us spend a lot more time watching other people cook on TV than cooking ourselves. Why don’t more people do this most human of activities more often?
The obvious answer is that everyone’s busy. And while that’s true, the average American spends over 4 hours a day watching TV. So one way to cook more might be to watch less. That’s what I do. And when you consider a few of the things cooking has to offer, giving up another episode of House Hunters or a re-run of Seinfeld won’t seem like such a sacrifice.
Here are three reasons Americans should cook more, besides the fact that it’s healthier and less expensive.
One: It’s a chance to be the star of your own show. I don’t mean that you’ll get a show on the Food Network (they’re pretty well stocked with 145 programs). I mean that when you cook, the family gathers ’round. Your kids, significant other, friends will all watch. They’ll ooh and ahh. They’ll make a big deal out of you.
The kitchen is the heart of the house. When cooking is added, it becomes the stage of the house, as well. Start cooking, and an audience appears. Remember waiting till your mother was done putting the cookies in the oven so you could lick the bowl filled with made-from-scratch batter? Remember getting your hand slapped (lovingly) by your grandmother for tasting the sauce before it was done? That’s love...and theater.
Two: Cooking gives you a chance to make something without using power tools. If you’re like me, this is a very potent reason. I’ve always admired people who make things. My father made furniture. My wife makes clothing. I have a friend who builds lamps out of old auto parts. I stand in awe of the process by which raw materials become things as if that were their purpose all along. A well-made object seems to contain a soul.
Like more and more people today, I don’t really make anything. I create documents and files. I’d like to say I manufacture paragraphs out of words and sounds and syllables. But that’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty. And so I cook. Just about every day. From scratch.
Three: Food is the most shareable currency we have, besides love. You probably don’t pass out money to your friends – but you can pass the paella. You can’t cut the inlaid walnut end table you made into pieces, but everyone can get a piece of your homemade chicken pot pie. In an age where most of what we share are digital images and videos of cats, it’s good to think about sharing something of sustenance with family and friends.
So if you love the smell of turkey roasting in the oven, think about making one on an ordinary day in the middle of January. There’s no law against it. And at around a $1 per lb., it’s a healthy, inexpensive way to show off your humanity.
Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.