In my family, as in many families, there is a division of labor in the preparation of the holiday meal that is not well balanced. My mother and aunt saddle the bulk of the work when it comes to dinner. Sure, others help, but their efforts are mostly symbolic. Those who can prepare a mean cocktail do so, our cousin with a knack for mashed potatoes brings them, and I, a thoroughly useless cook, make the Chex Mix.
I’ve held this position for an impressive number of seasons, and take it very seriously. In college, that meant starting to cook sheets of Chex Mix throughout the night, sleeping in the next day, and then showing up late — the very model of an ungrateful son. Today, I show up on time with my snack mix in hand, but it doesn’t feel any more helpful.
Removing yourself from the preparation of the meal removes you from the entire affair. Holiday meals are not, after all, meant to be places of passive consumption. Holiday meals are thrown to bring families together to talk, celebrate, and reconnect. Showing up, late or not, with food in hand seems to start the whole thing off on a feeble foot. Let’s face it, the cooking is missing from the celebration. Instead of showing up to a ready-made meal, I have a radical proposition: Make your next holiday meal together, as a family.
I’m not arguing the family should double-down on a potluck approach. I’m talking about a real live British Baking Show-like mass effort —pots and pans being tossed to and fro, stations of choppers and stirrers (and tasters) all chipping in at once. Yes, this is going to take some serious planning and, to really sell it, you’re going to have to play Martha Stewart and host it yourself, with an efficiency you find in a marine corps mess hall. But it’s an experiment done in the name of love, fairness, and togetherness. In other words, it’s worth a shot.
It all should start with an email. Explain your radical holiday proposition, then attach a Google form and have people sign up for different stations and be responsible for the planning of those stations. Encourage people to take on jobs they’re curious about or excited to try to avoid the top-down hierarchy that would come by directly assigning everyone their roles.
Also, apologies to whatever you have going on in there normally, but the kitchen will need to be cleared out of anything that takes up too much space. Use your discretion, but there are gonna be a lot of people crammed in one seriously hot room. You can set up stations by food (one duo dedicated to cranberry sauce, one for squash, one preparing pies for later) or by action (chopping, stirring, baking, boiling). This all depends on the size and general capability of your group. I’d recommend, at the very least, one team for each of the essentials: Team Turkey, Team Veggies, Team Sauces & Gravy, Team Dessert, and Team Stuffing.
Be sure to repurpose the nearest side room for the preparation of snacks and side dishes (a good task for useless cooks like myself). Get a fold-out table and let that team prepare cheese plates, chips and custom made dip, as well as drinks. This might be a good place for a coffee station, keeping everyone else cooking at a breakneck pace. People are gonna wanna nosh as they go, and you’ll want snacks spread around the house for people to munch on in between cooking and dinner.
Finally, get two nimble cousins to act as runners, communicating and transporting ingredients between teams, dashing out to get more spices from the last open grocery store when you run out. They should also set up the dining room during quiet moments, and — perhaps most importantly — curate that cooking playlist.
The whole thing will be chaotic. There will be fails. You will have a mess. But laughter, conversations, and connections will also be had.
As for that mess, the sous-chef approach should extend to the clean up. Here’s another place where the division of labor is woefully ill-balanced. Why is it that the people who cook so often clean? There’s no room for such unfairness in this holiday meal. Divide clean-up into crews you would find in a restaurant: Table clearing; dishwasher duty; pots and pans; floors and surfaces. Draw names from a hat to divide this labor and let the newly formed groups start a second round of water cooler conversations with different family members.
In the midst of the chaos, as host, take note of what a different look this is for a holiday room. During the work, there’s no one asleep on the couch, no checked-out uncle watching TV, no kids looking restless, and no small group of cooks looking overworked and unappreciated. Rather than a motley of individuals brought together by a calendar, the family is united by their labor. Also, notice how quickly this frees up everyone’s time to hang out together. This is efficient labor. After all, when a family works in unison, things get done.