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Why Holiday Meals Matter

Full of warmth and mortification, the holiday eating season is still a vital ritual

By Troy Johnson

It’s holiday meal season. This is it. The big caloric gimme. Our own awkward rendition of the von Trapp family show. Dad’s famous twice-baked potatoes and twice-overcooked ham.

Like salmon, we are drawn back to the place we first plopped into this world, funny-looking and helpless and in constant need of food for the next 18 years or so. We’re drawn to the holiday dinner table by evolutionary instinct, by a hoarder’s amount of pies, by mom’s text campaign (who knew a well-placed heart emoji could beget so much guilt? She did, that’s who).

There will be yams with thimble marshmallows, so deliciously toasted that current research on diabetes is deemed iffy at best. There will be casserole, that great landfill of American cuisine, in which we dump our unwanteds—like canned green beans, boasting all the freshness of Twizzlers in formaldehyde.

We grown kids are to blame. We won’t let our elders put those old family recipes out to pasture, no matter how much Auntie’s cheese balls beg for the sweet mercy of the forgotten. There’s no room for evolution in nostalgia. And we need this nostalgia. The world is so very, very modern. Too many emails and fad diets, too little mocking of dad’s politics after too much wine.

Leave the new food creations to us grown kids with fresh ideas and Pinterest boards. Like dried seaweed atop Grandma’s conservative mushroom recipe. That’s the kind of progressive culinary tweak that cranks up the umami and explains why you’re not married.

Your falling out with gluten is just fine by us. Though, like the night, it’s best kept silent.

We return to the tables with our stories. Often they’re unspoken, like a new haircut, a new tattoo, a new boyfriend, a newly infected tattoo, a newly infected boyfriend. Good or bad, our physical presences tell our stories after another year in the wild.

And the stories will be told. All of them. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happened in puberty will be told at the dinner table long after you’re gone. A casket will not save you from the good cheer of holiday mortification. But stay strong, and remember: If they don’t tell your embarrassing stories, that means they think your mental state needs a good therapist or more, like a flying buttress. Let them tell the stories.

Your falling out with gluten is just fine by us. Though, like the night, it’s best kept silent.

I hear friends complain about the predictable, painful chitchat of holiday meals. Old yarns spun once again, for the hundredth time. Their old pratfalls recounted. The time you did the thing that now makes people say “remember the time you did that thing.” But I think the complainers miss the point of chitchat. Chitchat is the uneventful, often annoying ramp to deeper conversations. They’re the warm-up. You start with what you share, just as we ask an old acquaintance if they’re still surfing or how their dog is, even though they probably quit surfing and the dog’s been sent to the ranch. You stretch before you run. You flirt before you do other things.

Capitalism’s adoption of holidays is no longer a question. The stockings are hung with care, but also with mom’s AmEx. But the dinner table is sacred, unabused by money. There is no gift receipt under the ham. Children don’t complain if their sibling got more ham. There’s ham for all. At the dinner table you don’t have to buy love. You just have to pass the damn mashed potatoes. You just have to not bogart the gravy for love.

Holiday meals are when we let them feed us again. Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt, Uncle, whichever benevolent caretaker kept us alive all those years. Eventually we learned to buy our own, cheaper food, keeping ourselves less alive but alive nonetheless. And we moved on.

This is the time to let them feed you once again. This is important to them. Just do the math. If they fed you three meals a day, five days a week (children do occasionally fend for themselves), and you left their care at age 18, that means they fed you 14,040 times. That’s a habit with burns and scars to prove it. Sure, they may have felt good when you moved out. They may have thrown a party and turned your room into a yoga studio. But their need to feed you never moves on. It stays inside them like an essential organ.

Many are the moms who are struck with pangs in the middle of the night, thinking, “I hope my child ate well tonight.” Even though that child is now 35, married, and doesn’t call enough. Returning to holiday meals allows them to reprise one of their greatest roles. We help them resuscitate their star power in the small society of family. Letting them queue up the band of stove burners and cook their hits for an audience of us. We let them flex that old, once-proud muscle.

That makes the ham more than a ham. That nut-free salad is an affirmation of your peculiar existence. The family holiday meal, pocked as it is with tired tropes and political bitchery and ancient annoyances, is ritual. Families or groups of friends are not born or formed in an instant. They are developed through repetition, through that same old apple pie and that same spiced rum.

They are made through ritual. And the season for ritual is now.

Why Holiday Meals Matter

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