When antiquated gender roles no longer fit the family dynamic, someone’s got to break tradition.
Of all the holidays that I bemoan, Thanksgiving is the one in which I play my Pick Your Battles card and allow myself to enjoy without too much inner turmoil. In spite of the holiday’s history, for me it prevails with a modern, singular purpose that I don’t mind: familial appreciation.
That family might be your community family or maybe your blood-tied family, but either way it tends to be a holiday centered on getting into the same zip code as the people you love most in the world. My own family’s Thanksgiving observations have altered many times over the years, ranging from 8-hour drives to my aunt and uncle’s house when I was a boy to smaller gatherings at my parents’ house during my teenage years to the modest tradition today comprised of family and friends of family.
Regardless of where or how Thanksgiving happened, one constant remained throughout all those alterations: Traditionally, the women cook and the men watch sports and talk in the den.
I’ve never been to a Thanksgiving dinner that wasn’t with my family so I’m not sure if this is typical of the American household in 2012 or if our house is a minority with how the cooking duties are divided down the gender line. For background, and in defense of my family, I will add this: My mother is the maestro of Thanksgiving dinner because she’s an excellent cook. However, regardless of any explanation for these gender roles, in my family this is simply How Things Are.
In most respects, I am my mother’s son. While both of my parents raised me, my mother was always the decision-maker when it came to my childhood sleep-over requests. She was the one who taught me how to be an amazing parallel parker and she’s the one who introduced me to the world of classic literature right after I’d grown out of Dr. Seuss books. She was the mother that answered the phone one September morning when I was 19 and needed to be picked up after having spent a night in jail, and she was the mom that has patiently worked with me and the corruptible depression I’ve struggled with my entire adult life.
Through all of this, though, the one thing I never picked up from my mother was the ability to cook. The entire time I lived at my parents’ house growing up, I never once was even curious about tip-toeing into the kitchen to learn from my mother while she was toiling over the stove. It wasn’t for lack of opportunities, either—my mother cooked dinner more nights than she didn’t. I was simply ignorant and too self-absorbed to take an interest in learning how to cook.
Re-reading that last paragraph, I’m mortified at how ungrateful I was.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I realized I needed to sharpen my knives, so to speak. I decided I needed to learn how to cook because it seemed like something that could impress single women (it’s always the basest impulses that prompt us, isn’t it?). The only problem was that now I was living on my own so I was forced to hone my skills in the loneliest manner imaginable via cookbooks from the library and online archives of recipes.
Often, I found myself wishing I could go-go-gadget my arm back in time and slap some sense into my insolent self so that I’d pay more attention to my mother’s cooking science. As it was, I had to eat a lot of shitty trial-and-error dinners.
Over time, and after chewing through countless mediocre dishes, I eventually became a competent cook. I’m not ready to compete in the next season of “Top Chef” by any means, but I won’t poison anybody, either. I generally enjoy it regardless if I’m cooking for myself or for a potluck party. It’s nice being able to make food that people will like (even if those people aren’t women I’m trying to impress).
Which brings us back around to Thanksgiving.
Having become a competent and even—dare I say—satisfying cook, I began to feel this odd displacement on Thanksgiving. I no longer belonged in the den with the rest of the guys watching television and ruining our appetites with an over-abundance of snacks. The rest of my Y-chromosome-bearing family members might be all thumbs when it comes to finding their way around a kitchen, giving them a feasible excuse to not help with the holiday cooking, but I wasn’t. With the exception of my mother, I might have been the best cook in the house.
I remember feeling guilty. I was ashamed to be sitting on my ass doing nothing while my mother worked herself into a migraine in the other room preparing multiple courses for us to enjoy in a few hours. Even with the help of the other women in my family, it was never a consummate Thanksgiving if my mother didn’t have to lie down in the evening and take some heavyweight migraine medicine thanks to the stress of cooking all day.
Women in the kitchen, men around the television. This wasn’t a Louisa May Alcott novel, this was my real life in the year 20-whatever and, as the situation was, it had become an untenable arrangement I could tolerate no longer.
I got up from the couch and quietly walked out of the den. Even though I was trying to discreetly relocate myself to the kitchen, I suspected all of the other men in my family could read my intentions in comic book-style thought bubbles floating over my head. I feared they could smell the act of sedition I was about to commit against the traditional gender roles in my family.
I walked into the frenzy of my mother’s kitchen, a stuffy effluvium of half a dozen types of food cooking at once, and quietly sidled up next to her as she rolled out pie dough for the fourth time that day. The following is my approximation of our proceeding exchange:
“Hey Mom,” I began. “What are you doing?”
“Rolling out pie dough for cherry pie.”
“Oh. Um. I want to help. What can I do?”
She didn’t stop rolling the pin over the dough so much as it skidded to an abrupt halt. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that look she gave me, a kaleidoscopic mix of surprise, confusion, some more surprise, and bemusement because she couldn’t tell if I was joking. It was the kind of expression I’d expect from her if I’d just announced that I was crowned Queen Oscar in last year’s Chicago Pride Parade.
I forget how the rest of the exchange unfolded, but it’s trivia in the shadow of the greater statement: I was a man who from here on was going to spend time in the kitchen helping my mother cook Thanksgiving dinner. I remember getting teased a little bit from both some of the men and women in my family when it was apparent that I was working in the kitchen.
Since that particular Thanksgiving, I’ve become a fixture in the kitchen alongside my mother, playing the part of her sous chef. Certain dishes I offer to cook and others she actually prefers me to cook because she swears that I make them better than her, although, as someone once astutely pointed out to me, everything tastes better when someone else makes it.
While I say that last part with only a little self-aggrandizement, there is a ring of truth to that aphorism: In more than one way, by helping my mother prepare Thanksgiving dinner, I’ve given her a chance to enjoy the holiday in a way that hadn’t been available to her before. For her, I was able to relieve enough of the stress that she isn’t afflicted with post-holiday migraines anymore. For myself, I was able to belatedly learn how to cook from my mother.
More than anything, though, by choosing to go outside the comfort zone of gender roles in my family, by being the person I felt compelled to be instead of remaining the man I was ashamed to be, I’ve established a new bond with my mother that brought us closer together. For that, I will forever be thankful.
Ivan Handshank is a nom de plume used by this writer so he won’t have to sit at the kids table this Thanksgiving.