Thanksgiving and the New Home Economics

(cross-posted at

This year I attempted to make my first big turkey dinner. The holiday meal has long been one of those womanly rites of passage, viewed as complicated and requiring days of preparation and moving parts, more dishes that can fit on a table, and a skilled cook.

Since I’ve spent the past year studying time use, though, I wondered if maybe Thanksgiving could be done better–in a way that tasted wonderful, but didn’t involve too much labor. My family wanted to go watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the morning, and I didn’t want to stay home, chained to the stove. Plus with a nursing baby and a 2-year-old, there simply weren’t going to be long stretches of uninterrupted cooking time. My husband planned to do an equal (if not greater) amount of cooking, but again, with the two small kids, we were going to be trading off kid and cooking duties most of the day.

So what to do? As I learned from writing 168 Hours, you can save many hours by planning ahead and thinking things through. I took a quick look through my stash of November and December magazines to find the easiest, but best looking holiday recipes I could. I streamlined the dinner to what we consider essentials: turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, corn bread, green beans, cranberry sauce, and pecan pie. I chose recipes, and ordered the ingredients from Fresh Direct, which delivered our frozen 12-lb turkey late Sunday, in time to thaw in the fridge for Thursday. I could have bought the whole dinner ready-made, but decided just to take that approach on the pie.

At the same time that I was doing all this, I was reading through some December 1959 women’s magazines—Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, etc.—for a column I planned to write. Juxtaposing my menu planning with this task made one social trend very clear to me: we have moved from a fussy, casserole- or gelatin-based cuisine to one that focuses on enhancing the food itself.

Modern recipes and 1959 recipes don’t seem to consider the same things ideal at all. We value fewer, better ingredients. My cranberry sauce was just cranberries, apple cider and sugar. It never occurred to me to mix it with Jell-O and put it in a mold. How would this have improved it? My green beans did not in any way involve onion rings or cream of mushroom soup. Green beans are good on their own, or maybe with some almonds at most. Though we didn’t do sweet potatoes, my 2009 magazines had a refreshing lack of marshmallows in their recipes; one enticing one was just sliced sweet potatoes in olive oil, salt, honey and chili peppers. My mashed potatoes featured nothing but potatoes, milk, butter, salt and grated Parmesan cheese. The most complicated dish was the stuffing, and even this we got down to mostly simple ingredients: bread, celery, mushrooms, onions, stock, herbs and an egg. The turkey got a rub of butter, garlic and herbs. Throw in a bottle of wine, and you have a feast—albeit a far different feast than the Christmas dinner described in the 1959 Woman’s Day, which features “Lime Charlotte Russe” with green Jell-o, meringue, and a double-boiler cream mixture, and “Blanc Mange with Jelly” with red Jell-o and another double-boiler cream mixture. Those dishes take a long time and many bowls to prepare, which just have to be washed, with unclear dividends. We, on the other hand, didn’t have many pots to scrub at all.

My Thanksgiving cooking experience was broadly emblematic of what I call “the new home economics.” Over the past 40 years, the amount of time American women devote to housework (which includes cooking) has fallen precipitously. Some of that is due to technology and modern conveniences; 40 years ago, obviously, you couldn’t order groceries online and have them delivered whenever you wanted. Though we didn’t use the microwave for our Thanksgiving dinner, having a quick way to reheat something makes timing less critical.

But most of the differences are more cultural than technological. A side benefit from shifting from fussy casserole and Jell-o dishes is that food is not only healthier but is far simpler to make. Nothing shows this better than one “Rice Imperial” recipe from the December 1959 Ladies Home Journal. With its rice, candied fruits and (of course) gelatin, it’s touted as great for sweet tooths. It’s also apparently great for people with a ton of time on their hands. Though women’s magazines were, in the 1950s, years from alerting readers to the exact amount of “hands on” and “total” time recipes took, the editors did put a flag on this dish. It honestly appears to take 8 hours, and so the magazine includes “a word of warning: don’t imagine you can whip it up between the lunch dishes and your 3 p.m. dentist appointment.”

That line, right there, sums up a big chunk of what has changed on the home front. For starters, whose busy day includes lunch dishes and a 3pm dentist appointment? Very few modern women are at home between lunch and 3pm and planning to spend that time cooking anyway. On week days, most are doing paid work. If they are at home, generally it’s because they’re taking care of small children, an activity that doesn’t mix well with an 8-hour recipe. On weekends, the average modern Ladies Home Journal reader is still doing other things – likely with her children (think sports games and the like) – whether she is in or out of the workforce. Modern women are no longer looking to fill time with elaborate dishes whose main function, as the 1959 LHJ says, is “to make a great show.” They value their time more, and so they spend it on higher value activities, like paid work and interacting with their children. According to time diaries, American women spend a lot more time playing with and reading to their kids these days than they did in the middle of the 20th century, when far more of them were at home full-time.

And so the standard of what is considered good cooking has changed. In Family Circle’s December 2009 issue, the editors advise “Instead of baking treats, follow Willy Wonka’s lead and keep a tantalizing assortment of candy within reach.” I’d rather have a few pieces of chocolate from a sampler with a glass of port than Rice Imperial any day. In 1965, American moms spent 34.5 hours per week on housework. These days, they spend less than 20. Moms like me who work full-time spend about 14.5 hours per week.

I’d say this is a positive development for everyone except the makers of Jell-o. As it is, the net result of the simple cooking philosophy is that I not only got to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade with my kids, I got to go for a run and, of course, tend to the needs of my 2-month-old infant. Time – all 168 hours of it – has to be filled with something. I’d argue that the shift from housekeeping to paid work, children and personal time is a major victory for women (before we even get to the fact that many of our husbands are now taking their turn in the kitchen). And given that dark chocolate squares are much tastier than Lime Charlotte Russe, it’s hard to see that anything meaningful has been lost.

One thought on “Thanksgiving and the New Home Economics

  1. You mention saving time by ordering groceries from Fresh Direct fairly frequently; I’d be really curious to know in more detail how much time it takes online to do this vs. how much time it takes to go to a supermarket where you know the layout vs. going to an unfamiliar supermarket, and whether any or all of the above really work as one-stop shopping. Long before Fresh Direct, I once had a housemate who created a computerized shopping list template by mapping out the aisles of the local supermarket and listing what was in them to be printed out and used as a grocery list each week, so as to navigate the supermarket more efficiently!

    I’d like to mention, for those concerned about the radiation from re-heating things in microwaves–and/or frustrated by how poor a job they do of heating food uniformly all the way through–and/or fed up with how much time you waste programming them and opening and closing the door a million times to take things in and out to stir them over and over again because they’re still not hot yet–that unless you’re defrosting something frozen solid, toaster ovens and aluminum saucepans (aluminum conducts heat faster than other metals) heat food more thoroughly and just as quickly as a microwave, with far less fiddling.

    I’d also like to add, for the health-conscious, that baking (from scratch, not from a mix) is actually a great way to eat less sweets overall, because when you’re aware of how much better home-made baked goods taste than store-bought, there’s not much temptation to buy–or eat–anything made by Nabisco. And since realistically, you’re never going to bake cookies yourself as often as you’d buy them, you end up eating them much less often.

    Have you ever come across the vintage Joy of Jello cookbook at a rummage sale? The photo illustrations are so frightening, it’s a hoot!

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