Spirit Of The Holidays

Caroline Wurtzel/Romper; Shutterstock

Store-Bought Meals Didn’t Ruin Our Holidays. They Made Them.

Slice-and-bake is code for sit-and-relax.

It’s a quintessential ‘90s Christmas scene: My mom hoists me onto the kitchen counter, where I sit, in my Lion King nightgown, watching her slice Pillsbury holiday cookies and place them on a baking sheet. I like them best before she ever slides them into the oven, so I pilfer a bite of dough before she shoos me out, probably to go play with a Lite Brite. I don’t care that the cookies came from a cardboard tube; I’m 5, and a cookie’s a cookie, precious manna from Heaven. I make a new design on my Lite Brite to show Mom when she comes back. We make these cookies every year.

Then it’s 2014, and I’m sitting in my college elective, Classic Rock & American History. That’s when I hear it: Engelbert Humperdinck. My grandma always served Sister Schubert’s frozen rolls with family meals, and Mom always forgot the name when we look for them in the freezer aisle of the grocery store. Ever the rock ‘n’ roll fan, she somehow kept ol’ one-hit-wonder Humperdinck top-of-mind, so Humperdinck rolls they became. I called her after class to share. I always thought she’d just made that up.

For so many families, holiday dinners are a massive culinary undertaking. Elaborate seasonal sides and homemade pies surround a turkey or brisket or ham someone’s enthusiastic dad spent hours (sometimes days) preparing. I have one close friend whose family made an entire Feast of the Seven Fishes each year from scratch. It sounds divine, and like a lot of dirty dishes.

Where I’m from, we just want to load up a paper plate with something reliably tasty, and take a load off.

In my family, holiday meals came from boxes, cans, and freezer bags. Even when my grandmother still made homemade mashed potatoes, we’d joke about how lumpy they turned out every time. The microwave kind from Bob Evans aren’t like this, she finally said. From then on, we got those. I’m sure her arthritic joints appreciated it.

It never occurred to me that our food was inferior until I was older, interning at a small magazine, sourcing long, tedious recipes for our November food issue. Do people really like cooking this much? When comes the part where you actually have time to sit with your family? If you buy this many ingredients for every side dish, how expensive is this meal going to get? I wondered if The New York Times knew pie crusts come pre-made.

My whole life, I’ve looked forward to big meals at my grandparents’ house, where Mimi put a little sugar in the canned corn to cut the salt while it heats on the stove. I’ve gotten care packages from my mom filled with Pillsbury cookies and squirreled them away before my roommates noticed, because I wasn’t planning to share.

For some, cooking is a ritual, a meaningful and visceral way to show love. That is the activity to do together on Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or Christmas. Where I’m from, we just want to load up a paper plate with something reliably tasty, and take a load off.

I wondered if The New York Times knew pie crusts come pre-made.

My family didn’t have to labor over food to make it special. They just did what tasted good, what we could afford, what was easy, and it became what we loved. They cooked quickly and cleaned up even faster, wanting to get out of the kitchen and rest for a change. We took our time eating, we played dominoes with Papa. We never missed a Macy’s parade or Cowboys game.

Now that I’m a mom, I’ve debated whether to suffer through making homemade macaroni and cheese this year. It’s delicious. It takes forever. I have lower back pain and hard kitchen floors. And I know my toddler won’t eat it. In fact, his plate will probably be a very un-Instagram-able mosaic of chicken fries, strawberry yogurt, and a Humperdinck roll torn into small bits. My husband loves Velveeta shells anyway, so this year, I’m going store-bought on that too.

I recently checked my grocery delivery app, and there was no Pillsbury’s holiday cookie dough available. So, I think my son and I will make a special trip to the store just for them. They still taste just like they used to, tube or no tube.