Anything but Ramen: An enlightening Thanksgiving

Food columnist Aaron Pellish on finding out why cooking matters

Thanksgiving serves two distinct purposes in our culture.

Its primary purpose is to reunite families and loved ones who otherwise might not have an excuse to see each other. The other purpose is to stuff our faces with as much delicious food as scientifically possible, while also ensuring that enough leftovers are preserved so we can stuff our faces again the next day.

For an ordinary Thanksgiving, I would be more than willing to settle for good company and great food and call it a happy holiday. This year, Thanksgiving meant a little bit more.

If you are reading this, you are probably aware that I have been exploring the world of cooking and documenting my adventures in this column. Unfortunately, this is my last column, which means this is the point where my culinary escapade is supposed to have reached its illuminating conclusion. But heading into the holiday, I felt I hadn’t discovered any truths or knowledge throughout my adventure.

I quickly realized while I watched my mother cook multiple complicated dishes for two days straight that I really don’t know anything about food or cooking. I have learned a couple of things and put a couple of go-to recipes in my back pocket, but if I had to cook a Thanksgiving meal, I would find a way to sneak out to Boston Market while no one was looking.

I don’t want to say I haven’t enjoyed my cooking experience. I love all the good food I’ve made this semester, and I’ve still been able to enjoy the less good food I’ve made as well. I value the lessons I’ve learned from cooking and I think I have become a more competent chef as a result.

I’ve learned how to crack eggs the right ways, and I’ve learned when it’s acceptable to deviate from the instructions in a recipe, but I’m not going to be cooking five-star dinners with those lessons. And because of that, I was afraid that my cooking experiment was a pointless, directionless failure and that I hadn’t really learned anything at all.

This year, my family celebrated Thanksgiving at our home with just the four of us. My mom made a crazy amount of food, and we ate until we hurt ourselves and talked for hours the way families are supposed to on Thanksgiving.

After the meal my mom gave me a book called “Joy of Cooking.” It’s basically a cooking encyclopedia with hundreds of recipes and references on various cooking methods and ingredients. The book contained more hard-cooking knowledge than I could have learned if I were to continue this column for another 20 years.

I flipped through the book in the peak of my food coma and came across an intriguing passage in the prologue. The author talks about Irma Rombauer, the creator of the original edition of “Joy of Cooking,” and says, “The human bond represented by cooking meant more to her than fixed yardsticks of elegance or authenticity.”

As turkey continued to stir in my belly, I thought about that passage repeatedly. I realized that I was thinking about my cooking experience through measurements of competence, ability and cooking authenticity.

I had started out this column with the goal of becoming a real cook but, because I don’t feel like an entirely competent cook, my experience seemed unfulfilled. When compared to the meal my mom had just cooked, my experience seemed utterly juvenile.

But the one thing my amateurish attempts at cooking and my mother’s masterful feast had in common was that it brought people together. Just as my brother and I returned home so we could get our hands on as much stuffing and pie as possible, my roommates and friends had gathered around for portions of brisket or chicken pot pie or gnocchi. I realized that what I enjoyed most about cooking was seeing other people enjoying the food I made.

Ultimately, that’s what makes cooking your own meals more rewarding than eating Chipotle seven nights a week. Being able to share moments through meals with friends and family was a highly rewarding experience that allowed me to truly understand the joy of cooking.

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