Congrats! You are probably about to eat the very best Thanksgiving meal of your life.
Maybe your turkey is drier than a World Cup fan in Qatar, or maybe you overcommitted and nothing is ready by 8 p.m. Maybe you’re making the same exact menu as last year. But if you round up every single Thanksgiving dinner in the United States—all the birds and pies and mac and cheeses and green-bean casseroles—on average, the meal will be just marginally, imperceptibly tastier than last year. On average, it will be noticeably better than a decade ago, substantially better than two decades ago, and night-and-day better than 40 years ago. Expand that out until, let’s say, the ’50s, and the average Thanksgiving dinner then versus now is like comparing Little Caesars to Eleven Madison Park. If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, the arc of home cooking bends toward yumminess.
In the simplest sense, the modern Thanksgiving dinner is just far less defined by the “traditional” foods—and for the better. There are now endless recipes for vegan Thanksgiving, keto Thanksgiving, Peking-duck Thanksgiving, and (regrettably) turducken Thanksgiving. This year, I’m making roasted honeynut squash with homemade mole and mango pie for dessert—a menu that I would not have been able to whip up several decades ago. Americans have changed what Thanksgiving looks like, and in turn the modern grocery store has made it easier for Americans to change what Thanksgiving looks like: In the early 20th century, the average store stocked about 500 items. Now it’s 40,000 to 50,000 items. Or let’s just focus on produce: In 1975, the average grocery stocked 65 kinds of fruits and veggies. By 1998, that number had reached 345.
All of these changes make the most difference for people who deviate from the Thanksgiving staples, but it also seems clear that the average holiday meal has gotten inexorably better even for the less experimentally inclined. Let’s say you’re making apple pie and brussels sprouts. Remember when the only apples you could get were Red Delicious and Granny Smith? Now perfectly tart Pink Lady and Honeycrisp apples are recipe staples. I just checked, and my own grocery store has 20 kinds of apples in stock! And remember when brussels sprouts were America’s most hated vegetable? Well, in the ’90s, breeders eliminated the compound that made sprouts bitter, and chefs simultaneously figured out that blasting them in the oven was far superior to boiling them to death. Cooking techniques, abetted by a bonanza of appliances, have just drastically improved over the years. People: Salt, fat, acid, heat!
Go look at old recipes, and things get dark fast. In the 1900s, people were eating Jell-O salad with grated onion and seafood. A pre-1980 Bon Appétit turkey recipe suggested that people cook the bird for nine hours (?) without adding any salt (???). Do you really think that’s as good as what you’ll eat tonight?
I know not everyone will agree with me on this. Even my own colleagues have been, shall we say, roasting me. So I invited two of those colleagues, Daniel Engber and Amanda Mull, to debate the premise over Slack. Our exchange follows and has been edited for length and clarity. — Saahil Desai
Daniel Engber: Wait, let’s be clear about what we’re saying here. If all the elements of cooking really are improving over time—if we have better recipes than we did before, and we’re preparing them with more diverse ingredients via more enlightened methods—then the effects wouldn’t be limited to holiday meals. Saahil, you’re not just saying Thanksgiving is getting more delicious. You’re saying Food is better than it’s ever been before. You’re claiming that the average dinner that we eat in 2022 is of higher quality, and confers more gustatory pleasure, than the average dinner that one might have eaten in 1992, or that one’s parents might have eaten in 1972, or 1952. You’re at least implying that the way we eat has been evolving toward perfection.
This all reminds me of my grandpa, who had a habit of insisting (over decades and at every single family event) that whatever food was served to him must be the best he’d ever eaten. He’d take a bite of stuffing, and astonishment would spread across his face. “You’ll never believe this …” he’d say. Or: “I know this seems improbable …”
Of course this was just my grandpa’s schtick: We’d put out the food, he’d come out with the baloney. Yet here we are debating whether Murray had it right. Are we really living in the best of times for eating?
It doesn’t really feel that way to me. I don’t recall having been any less satisfied by food 10 or 20 years ago than I am today. (If, when I was 20, a time-traveling chef from 2022 had appeared in my kitchen with a satchel full of cotton-candy grapes and other groceries of the future, the food would not have been the thing that changed my life.) It also seems a little odd to claim that something artful—as cooking surely is—could or would become more perfect over time. A chef’s tools and raw materials have improved, but so have those of painters, writers, and musicians. We don’t say that painting is better than it’s ever been before, just because we have better pigments and a more diverse array of brushes. We don’t argue that we’re reading better novels, just because they can be written and edited more easily than they were before computers. Why do we revere pictures drawn 100 years ago as at least the equal of today’s, and yet we laugh at “Jell-O salad with grated onion and seafood”? Serious question!
Amanda Mull: There has probably never been a better time in American history to be a home cook. Saahil is correct that the number and variety of ingredients available at the average grocery store have expanded mightily over the past several decades, as have sources of inspiration and instruction on how to use flavors that are novel to you. Food media online and on TV are as vast and robust as they have ever been, and restaurants serving Thai or Indian or Greek food are now a common part of the culinary landscape in much of the country. Immigration patterns, technological advances in food manufacturing, and a globalized supply chain have changed the American palate over the past 50 years or so, and largely for the better. To use Dan’s metaphor of food as a creative pursuit akin to art: Painting did get better—more vivid, more evocative, more affecting—when more and better hues became available for use by painters in the first half of the 18th century.
Whether all of that means this year’s Thanksgiving dinner is likely to be the best you’ve ever had is a little less obvious to me. As important as population-level changes are, home cooking is still personal and idiosyncratic, and that’s even more true when you’re contending with the deep nostalgia of something like Thanksgiving, where certain recipes remain sacrosanct within families far beyond any objective capacity they might have to delight the palate. An objective third party might pick Bon Appétit’s green-bean casserole, which includes fresh mushrooms and a béchamel base, over your grandmother’s version, which uses canned cream-of-mushroom soup, but you might prefer Grandma’s because it reminds you of childhood. You might even find the implication that Thanksgiving needs to be gussied up kind of annoying, and you’d be well within your rights.
Dan begins to get at something that I think is true: Our enjoyment of food is highly predicated on our expectations of what we’re about to eat. That means people 50 years ago probably didn’t enjoy their Thanksgiving meals any less than you will enjoy yours, but it also means your judging criteria for maximum Thanksgiving enjoyment are probably different from those you’d use to judge a trendy new restaurant.
That Thanksgiving is a family holiday is central to how difficult it is to divine its overall trajectory. Trends are largely the province of the young, and Thanksgiving authority tends to pass generationally—if your family celebration is still ruled by the same people who were in charge of the meal in the 1980s, then it might not look a whole lot different today than it did then, even if most members of the family don’t really love what’s on the table. The Coca-Cola–sweetened Jell-O salad did not exit my own family Thanksgiving, for example, until the grandmother who made it every year died.
The opposite can also be true: American food culture rests on numerous regional and ethnic food subcultures, and some of them have never had any issue creating food that would pass muster with today’s omnivores. If you come from a family where previous generations really knew what they were doing in the kitchen—and whose food culture is itself partly responsible for the overall improvement of American food—then your own attempts at Grandma’s collards or lasagna might not be up to snuff.
Saahil Desai: Okay, Dan, so if food and art are one and the same, I’ll be coming over to your place tonight for liver-sausage pineapple and ham-and-bananas hollandaise. Of course these foods are exactly and undoubtedly the same as a Mark Rothko print you might have hanging in your home. I have no doubt that Americans in the ’50s genuinely and earnestly enjoyed their time of Jell-O everything, but can’t we acknowledge that while also saying food as a whole is just better now? Grandpa Murray was right!
Food to me seems to exist in some weird purgatory between art and technology: Trends are real, but the ingredient boom and rise of food science really have changed things, especially for people who don’t have ties to “traditional” Thanksgiving food. Take my parents, who immigrated from India in the ’80s, and have no nostalgic lust for sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows. Now that there is a bounty of Indian grocery stores in Ohio, where they live, they’re able to make what, for them, is a tastier Thanksgiving meal than 40 years ago.
Even if some people are still eating antiquated recipes like Coca-Cola–sweetened Jell-O salad, the meal still does change over the years—just as it has in your family, Amanda. And I don’t think we can underrate how median cooking techniques have improved. The whole reason turkey has a reputation as dry is because people have been cooking it wrong. Let’s say in 1950 you gave a group of 100 Americans a Kenji López-Alt recipe for perfectly cooked, succulent turkey. I have a very hard time not believing that, conservatively, at least 75 percent of people would prefer it to the rubbery nonsense that dominated then.
Engber: Okay, let’s really talk about Jell-O for a moment—the jiggly elephant in the room. Everyone has mentioned Jell-O, and for good reason: It’s the emblem of the midcentury “bad food” baseline from which we’ve allegedly diverged. (It sounds like in Amanda’s family, the Jell-O–based Thanksgiving dish amounted to an exercise of cruel, gerontocratic power.) But Jell-O was itself a product of progressive and enlightened thinking about food, a tool of “scientific cookery” as the practice was understood by the early 20th century’s version of the Cook’s Illustrated crowd. We love to pat ourselves on the back for roasting our brussels sprouts instead of boiling them; we sing the praises of the Maillard reaction. (Side point, but is there any scientist in history more overrated than Louis Maillard?) Yet a different era had a different set of values, and Jell-O satisfied them.
The culinary values of that time weren’t necessarily worse than ours, nor were they more abstemious. They were simply different, in a way that optimized a different set of pleasures. Jell-O is, if nothing else, a source of fun. Where is the fun, the whimsy, the jiggly delight in our menus for Thanksgiving 2022? We’ve abolished it in favor of more modern (and dispiriting) food idols: authenticity and healthfulness. What a drag.
Mull: I think that what you two are arguing isn’t mutually exclusive. To me, it’s pretty inarguable that greater ingredient availability and food variety is a rising tide that lifts most boats and makes it easier for people from many different backgrounds to riff on Thanksgiving with foods and flavors that are as nostalgic in their families as stuffing and cranberry sauce are for many white Americans. And for younger Americans, white and non-, who have grown up eating pho and vindaloo and barbacoa, their opportunity to take the reins on Thanksgiving means that the holiday’s average menu is likely to improve—to become more delicious and exciting and flavorful—over time.
I disagree with Dan’s notion that Thanksgiving fun has been replaced by the false idols of authenticity and healthfulness. The food seems as rich and decadent as ever to me (I say that as the person in charge of the baked mac and cheese at my Thanksgiving, and as someone who lived through the low-fat nonsense of the ’80s and ’90s). If anything, our newly fecund grocery stores hold the possibility of not taking capital-T Thanksgiving Traditions so seriously. Why not brine the turkey in soy, ginger, and garlic? Why not get some crunch into the meal with turmeric-roasted chickpeas?
But the argument that different eras had different values and different expectations is, I think, a reasonable one! People cook and eat to suit their palates, and Americans of the 1950s grew up developing different palates from most people today. The variety and flavorfulness that Americans embrace today would be overwhelming, probably to the point of disgust, for people who have completely different expectations of food.
Desai: So here’s the thing: It’s really easy to lose sight of just how much food has changed in the past decade, let alone the past 40 or 50 years. Perhaps I sound like a freshman econ major who just read The World Is Flat, but consider this: Even in the late 1940s, most Americans had not tried pizza. Pizza!!! The honeynut squash I’m roasting tonight is basically like an adorable shrunken butternut with a sweeter, more concentrated flavor. Even five years ago, it was next to impossible to find outside of farmers’ markets in the Northeast. I just got mine from a Whole Foods in suburban Ohio. Again, averages, averages, averages. I have no doubt that some people cook the same Thanksgiving meal and derive the same pleasure from it year after year, and good for them. But what matters here is the country en masse. For people who want to experiment, who for whatever reason can’t or don’t want to eat the same old Thanksgiving staples, how can we deny that the holiday has gotten way tastier? A dry turkey with jiggly cranberry sauce is hardly peak home-cooking performance. Americans can avoid it now, and avoid it I shall.
Engber: Ah, the blessed honeynut: There’s truly never been a better time to be alive! The strength of your argument, as of Amanda’s, is that it’s thoughtful and nuanced. The weakness of your argument, as of Amanda’s, is that it’s wrong.
So now we can buy more kinds of squash. Great. That’s clearly better than not being able to buy more kinds of squash. But another evolutionary pathway has pushed us in just the opposite direction, away from the buy-anything-at-any-time mentality that you’ve both touted as an objective boon for modern cooking. In 1994, Florence Fabricant wrote about the trend among chefs of using only fresh and local ingredients, in place of making, say, tomato salads through the winter. “It’s a very old idea that suddenly seems radically new,” she claimed.
So did the radical ascendance of seasonal dishes 30 years ago make food “better” than it was before? Did cooking get better when we got more ingredient diversity, or did it improve when we started using less of it? Maybe—just maybe—it’s not so much the quality of our food that changes over time, but its fashions.
Mull: The important factor here is not just that America’s grocery stores have more foods and ingredients in absolute numbers, but that much of what we have is also better than it would have been 30 or 40 years ago. From 1994 to 2019, for example, the number of American farmers’ markets almost quintupled. These gains—plus the increased availability of high-quality pantry staples and international foods, and better information about how to use ingredients—are not enough to improve every individual Thanksgiving. Good food tends to be expensive, and millions of Americans lack reliable access to any fresh food. But on average, they seem like enough to say that the American diet has become more delicious.
Few meals in the country’s food culture are as heavily predicated on nostalgia as Thanksgiving. It makes sense that the menu would change more slowly than the rest of our national eating habits, but also that younger people with different palates will grow up to create their own familial expectations in their kids, and eventually their grandkids. Are those meals better, from a strictly food-centric standpoint? Probably, but not uniformly. And your grandkids, too, might eventually find Grandma’s gochujang-glazed carrots a little old-fashioned, or abandon the age-old green-bean casserole that you cherish.
There’s only one Thanksgiving tradition that I feel sure will remain in perpetuity: No future generation will find a better way to cook a turkey than to deep-fry it in a vat of peanut oil in the driveway, and no matter how many times they’re warned, every year, a couple of dads will chuck a frozen turkey into that oil and make the local news by burning the house down. Things change, but not everything.