Every Thanksgiving, Americans engage in a time-honored ritual—overthinking how we cook in the most tedious, annoying ways. Over the past decade or so the trend has accelerated. A quick perusal of the news suggests most people have no idea what they’re doing in the kitchen. We’re cooking our turkeys wrong. We’re fucking up the mashed potatoes. We’re committing seven deadly pie-related sins.
Perhaps worst of all, some of us are cooking for nobody except ourselves.
Celebrating a solo Thanksgiving usually isn’t considered a character flaw in the same sense as, say, serving canned cranberry sauce. But spend a few minutes browsing any “Cooking for One” recipe site and you’ll catch an unmistakable whiff of condescension mixed with pity. As One Dish Kitchen puts it, “Whether by choice or by circumstance, enjoying a Thanksgiving meal without a crowd can indeed be a blessing…. No special Thanksgiving menu to think about, no spirited talk of politics, just a peaceful meal.”
Yes, that’s what Thanksgiving is all about: a chance to appreciate the subtle virtues of green bean casserole without all those obnoxious loved ones blabbering about their lives.
Even once the nation’s (mythical) tryptophan-induced comas have worn off and its refrigerators purged of leftovers, cooking for one still carries a peculiar stigma, if only because of all the energy spent to destigmatize it. If there was really nothing wrong with solo cooking, we wouldn’t be so quick to insist that it’s actually self-care or actually a joy. You rarely hear such arguments made about other individual-centric practices, like getting a massage. This is because it’s obvious that fun things are fun. In the case of cooking, however, the pundit class doth protest too much. And thus, it reinforces the very notions it claims to challenge.
The truth is that the debate over cooking for one isn’t really about cooking at all because the cooking part is easy. There’s nothing inherent to making a salad that says it must be done in a certain way for a family of four vs. a couple vs. a single person. If you want to make stuffing for yourself, you use X amount of breadcrumbs and whatnot. If you want to make it for a full house, you use X + Y. If you cook a pan of cornbread for one and wind up with leftovers, then congratulations—you have the world’s least pressing problem.
The hard part about cooking for yourself is being alone with your thoughts. Especially if you’ve been cooking for more than one until recently, there can be a sense of loss and diminishment when you know you’ll be the only one at the table. This is why so many articles about cooking for one refer to upticks in divorce rates, pandemic-related isolation, or the general atomization that plagues the U.S. and many Western societies. It’s news to nobody that loneliness has been on the rise for years, and this is a serious problem that touches almost every aspect of life a human can experience. It’s also not a problem that’s likely to be fixed with the right one-pot stew recipe, no matter how thoughtfully chosen the ingredients are.
Cooking for one can be a burden. It can be therapeutic, too. It can also be a thousand and one other things, many of which are as neutral as brushing your teeth. Food preparation is simply a thing that we human beings have to do to survive. We have to do it under capitalism, which often sucks, but we had to do it under feudalism too, and presumably that often sucked as well. Maybe one day we’ll be lucky enough to live in a world with Star Trek-style food replicators that can instantly create any meal on demand. But if the slow progress of flying cars is any indication, your correspondent advises against holding your breath.
Now, none of this cooking realpolitik makes it any easier to smile when your aunt gives you The Single Person’s Cookbook for your first birthday after a bad breakup. Nor will it magically erase your brain’s associations of certain foods with memories you’d rather not remember (for example, I will carry an irrational grudge against zucchini as long as I live). Sometimes life just sucks. There’s a reason Buddhists have been trying to get off the wheel of samsara for thousands of years.
Cooking is a part of life, so it makes sense that sometimes cooking just sucks too—whether you’re doing it for one person, four people, or four hundred. But dwelling on how much it sucks does not make it faster, and to the best of your correspondent’s knowledge, it doesn’t make the food taste better either. Cooking for one has no inherent quality of goodness or badness, and it doesn’t necessarily build one’s character or reflect poorly on it. It’s merely a thing we have to do sometimes, and maybe we’d be happier if we stopped thinking so much and just started chopping.