Why we’re so devoted to our holiday recipes

Recipe debates tend to get people heated fast. Things get particularly fiery around the holidays, when people share their tips and preferences online. Arguments about the best Thanksgiving dish rage on: People seem to feel strongly about things like jellied cranberry sauce, for example, which is popular in America around Thanksgiving but grosses out a lot of people with its sweet flavor and odd texture.

There are perennial debates about stuffing (or dressing), sweet potato preparation is a constant controversy, and, last year, writer Maya Kosoff’s Thanksgiving “seafoam salad” got a lot of attention as an unusual side dish option. Then there’s the debate on whether to have a turkey at all — is it delicious, or is it a dry waste of time? And how to prepare the turkey can differ greatly from person to person. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s recipe, for example, includes oranges. Outside of the holidays, Twitter users dunked on Drake’s birthday menu, which featured a mac and cheese dish with raisins in it.

We get very touchy about our comfort food and what we bring to the tables where we celebrate. To find out what exactly it is that triggers such strong reactions in people, we spoke to Donovan Conley, a food researcher and associate professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, whose work focuses on the cultural and social aspects of food and taste — what shapes our opinions and makes us decide what is “good” or “bad.”

Can you tell us a bit about your views on the strong feelings that people have toward holiday recipes and how your expertise informs it?

I think various things are going on, but the first and most important thing, of course, is the question about memory. Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, a really major food presence in America, always describes food and its appeal as about memory. It connects you to some of your most cherished past moments.

And for a long time, I thought, “That seems a little simplistic.” But I think he actually gets at a lot. When you scratch at that question of memory a little more, what it gets at is the fact that food is extremely intimate, right? When we’re growing up, we become attached to the things that are near to us and that are familiar to us.

My wife and I both had previous marriages. When we came into this relationship, she had three kids. She doesn’t cook. So she made salmon every year for the kids for Thanksgiving.

And so I come on the scene, and I have all these lovely memories of roast turkey, and I make this beautiful bird and gravy. The kids couldn’t care less. They always want salmon. I’ve made peace with the fact that every Thanksgiving I have to make a turkey and a salmon, which is fine. But it’s interesting that it speaks to how we latch onto our positive feelings from our past, and these come to us through our domestic experiences, that come to us through the recipes that our close relatives would make. And so it’s that repetition and that familiarity that we grab onto.

The other thing to remember is recipes are like accents and the way people talk. They’re very tied to place. They’re very tied to your particular cultural habits, and that’s very much about what’s around you and what’s available, right? And so if you grew up in a certain region where there was an abundance of this kind of potato versus that kind of potato, that’s what you’re going to use. So it’s about identity, it’s about memory, and it’s about your rootedness and connectedness to a particular place and time.

I think that’s why people get really defensive about this way or that way of preparing something. Because it’s not just about the flavor, it’s about your sense of belonging, and who you are, and what matters, and what you care about.

I was reading some Aristotle this morning, and he writes this in “Sense and Sensibilia”: He says, “The faculty of taste is a particular form of touch. This explains why the sensory organ of both the touch and taste is closely related to the heart.” So taste is a form of touch, and eating is a form of contact with our immediate world.

And so there is this deep groundedness and rootedness that comes with the recipes that we cherish. So it’s more than just a whimsical preference for this ingredient versus that ingredient, I think, to the extent that people are willing to go to battle, or defend certain recipes. I think there’s a lot of that underneath it, which is, “This is my very being and my very sense of myself is wrapped up in my memory of this particular food item.”

Can people internalize that in the reverse, in that with certain foods and ingredients, they associate them with bad memories and approach specific foods that way?

Sure. The aversion thing, right? Yeah. I think turkey for my kids is an aversion to that. But it manifests differently. I don’t know that people fight so hard over foods that don’t matter as the ones that they think do matter. But there are lots of judgments that flow out of these preferences as well. The way that a lot of our sense of our preferences develops organically, naturally, in terms of what I described. This is just how we were raised; these are our practices. But it’s very easy to go from there to “this is just the way we do it and therefore good,” to “others do it differently and therefore not as good.” So then that weird judgment thing kicks in.

I don’t watch Food Network anymore, but I used to get so exhausted by it every summer [when they had] barbecue programs. Everyone had to do their barbecue episode. And then it’s like, “Oh, there’s fights over who has the best barbecue.” It’s so boring. And that question about New York pizza versus Chicago pizza. I think it’s more about generating media content, frankly. I mean, it’s all good, it’s all delicious, right? These are regional-specific differences, and fantastic barbecue comes out of all over the place. But it’s really about that rootedness and that history of practices that are specific to a certain kind of culture.

What would you say about the American palate when it comes to their Thanksgiving foods, and what do you think it says about American culture?

Thanksgiving food is not known to be gourmet by any means. The clichéd American Thanksgiving plate is turkey, which is very savory. Gravy, which is extremely savory and fatty and rich. Mashed potatoes, again, buttery, rich, savory. Corn sometimes. But it’s very much fat and some sugar. There’s a little bit of tartness with the cranberries to cut through all that fat. But Thanksgiving food is just heavy, rich, not particularly complicated or nuanced food. It’s broad appeal-type food. Then, of course, within that, everyone has their own particular sides. And then aside from that, it’s a roll of the dice in terms of any particular family preferences.

I used to hate Thanksgiving when I first got really interested in food because I love to cook a lot and I like to push myself. Thanksgiving is not challenging. I can whip together Thanksgiving with my eyes closed. It’s really, really simple. It really just appeals to that basic palate of fat, easy to chew. It’s not texturally challenging. I hate to say it, but it’s pretty close to baby food, which is, I think, the broad appeal of it, too. Mashed potatoes and gravy is my son’s absolute favorite thing. The reason, I think, is because it’s that consistency, which is really easy to deal with and it’s just fat, butter, and salt. So Thanksgiving food is broad-appeal food. It’s like everyone can hook into something, more or less.

Growing up, I was really not interested in Thanksgiving, just because the traditional Thanksgiving foods to me were just dry. I do like Thanksgiving a lot now that I’m older. But as a kid, I was not interested in it because I felt the food was so bland.

Even the best version of Thanksgiving food is still pretty mundane. It’s a kind of buffet food. I’ve done versions where I’ve tried to fancy it up and make it really impressive. But frankly, I think Thanksgiving food is just meant to be comfort food. It’s comfort food, whether or not we even love the food. We love the ritual, coming home, being together. The food is part of the formula, even if we don’t particularly love the food, but you plug into the code that you get to enjoy once a year.

I think it’s maybe especially pronounced in a context like the one we’re in right now where there’s so much stress, anxiety, uncertainty. There’s scarcity. I feel like if our food memories and our emotions around food are about preserving our favorite parts of the past, that’s accentuated in a time of radical uncertainty and fear and anxiety. You hang [on] even tighter to the things that matter the most. That’s a hypothesis. If our emotions around food memories are connected to our positive pasts and preserving that, it makes perfect sense that in times of radical uncertainty and anxiety, we would dig into that and double down on that kind of stuff.

It’s reconnecting with some of your favorite parts of your own life, I think, because the memories are there and they’re associated with these foods in very material, physical ways. They’re not just choices that we necessarily make freely. It’s deeply embedded in us, in our psyches and physicalities.

One of the things people are worried about with the pandemic this year is that everyone is expecting that post-Thanksgiving case spike. It’s been such an isolating year for so many people, but I feel like there’s something very American and ingrained into us about Thanksgiving and the holiday season that I find so fascinating. This is the one thing that we cannot really let go of, even in the interest of public safety.

Yeah, exactly. We’ve been really bad about this throughout the summer. We’re going into some scary times. I fully expect people to ignore the need to stay distant. But it’s really hard when things suck so bad to not indulge in some of the most precious experiences that you have.

I think for a lot of people, it’s maybe not just the food itself, but the total context of sitting down with this plate of dry food or whatever, but there’s a game in the background, or there’s the smell of candles, or whatever it is, that total configuration of elements is something that means a lot to all of us. But for Americans, it’s Thanksgiving in a particular way. And then it’s Christmas in a particular way.

But I think every culture has their version. I lived in China for a while. Chinese New Year is like, we can’t touch what they do for Chinese New Year. So it’s just our particular form. It evolves over time, too. These things evolve over time and yet we still hang on to them tightly.

One of the things that’s really fascinating to me about food is the way it interfaces between this biological necessity, right? We all have to eat, but then it also interfaces with cultural values and meaning-making. And so there’s that part of it where what we eat growing up is very much about that necessity, and what’s available, and what we’re accustomed to, and so on. And then that carries on over time and it becomes a key part of how we think of ourselves. Everyone goes through that same version of, these are the things that are available, this is the way my parents are now transferring their own cultural learnings on to me, this is what I pick up and adopt, and so on.

I’m really fascinated by that whole historical dynamic. But that connection between the necessities of nature and biology on the one hand and the choices and values and preferences that we would call cultural on the other hand. There’s an interesting swing that happens back and forth when you’re talking about recipes and the things that we care about.

You mentioned that those kinds of food preferences and memories are shaped on a historical or a cultural level by what food is available. I find it interesting because Thanksgiving foods are also so filling, which might have to do with scarcity or just some crop availability at the time that Thanksgiving was born.

I’m Canadian, actually. We largely do the same thing up in Canada. But we actually have Thanksgiving, I think it’s a month or three weeks before the American Thanksgiving. That’s because of an earlier harvest because of colder weather.

But it’s the same idea. It’s celebrating the bounty. And so it’s all these vegetables, and let’s kill a bird.

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