By Katharine Swindells
BU News Service
Although 92% of Americans celebrate Thanksgiving at home or at a family member’s home, according to a 2019 survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the several past years have seen a rise in an offer of “takeout Thanksgiving,” where restaurants will prepare the classic meal for you to collect and eat at home.
Speaking to restaurants who offer this option, their key insight into the popularity is that people no longer want to put in the time and effort of making a huge meal.
Summer Shack, a restaurant with locations in Boston and Cambridge, has been offering a full turkey meal for over 10 years, which is already sold out for this Thanksgiving. Their team of chefs will be working through the night, said Summer Shack events coordinator Cindy Battersby, to prepare 125 turkeys for pick up on Thursday.
Battersby said part of their appeal is that they offer the Southern-style fried turkey, for people who want to have the dish they grew up with, but can’t make it home for the holiday. She also said that being based in a city contributes to their popularity, as people tend to have smaller homes, smaller kitchens and probably don’t have a car.
“So you’re lugging home a turkey and potatoes and all that stuff, and then there’s storage and then finding a way to cook it all and then clean up after,” Battersby said. “It’s definitely easier to have a restaurant that has the knowledge and has the capability to do that for you.”
Davio’s Steakhouse, said that the main demographic of people buying their Thanksgiving take-out is smaller groups, suggesting that more people are choosing to spend the holiday with immediate family or a partner, rather than traveling to celebrate with extended family.
“People just don’t cook as much,” a spokesperson from Davio’s said. “With Grubhub and everything else, that’s the way this industry is going.”
The five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel has also seen an increase in sales of their “Gobble and Go” offer and are expecting as many as 70 orders this year, Sophie Dier, director of marketing communications, said. They also think time is a big factor.
“Because people have less free time during the holiday season than in the past, [they] want to spend the time they do have enjoying their loved ones, as opposed to cooking,” Dier said.
The Mandarin Oriental’s meal costs $298 for four to six people and a similar offering from Davio’s Steakhouse’s costs $55 per person. Summer Shack, who Battersby said is “at the lower end of pricing” costs $135 for a meal for four.
In comparison, the American Farm Bureau Federation calculates the average cost of a full home-cooked Thanksgiving meal for 10 as $48.91, less than $5 per person.
So why are people so willing to spend big for a pre-prepared option? Megan Elias, a food historian and director of the Gastronomy program at Boston University, said that she thinks part of the popularity of these services can be attributed to guilt.
Many people don’t spend the holiday with their immediate family, perhaps due to living far away from where they grew up, not being able to take time off work or having strained relationships with parents. But Elias said there’s still a sense of shame about not taking part in the tradition.
“There’s the feeling that if you don’t have the big family meal, you don’t have the connections,” Elias said. “Maybe we don’t want to be with family or they’re too far away, but the feeling that you’re not with somebody else, eating a lot of food on Thanksgiving, for Americans [it] feels like you’ve failed in some way, you’re not connected.”
Moreover, many feel there’s an expectation to create the perfect meal. Especially now that women are less likely to stay at home to cook and clean, Elias said, they may not be able to cook the demanding feast, but still feel pressured to. The Mandarin Oriental, said this is their perception too.
“We think that many people prefer to have these types of meals prepared by a professional to make certain everything comes out perfectly,” Dier said, “Particularly if they are entertaining a large group.”
However, Elias pointed out the irony of the typical pictures of Thanksgiving meals, with the huge, overloaded table of decadent dishes, would likely not have been prepared by the family themselves, but by paid staff.
“It was invented in the mid-19th century by a person who would certainly have had family servants,” Elias said. “So the amount of food expected to be on the table is not something that any housewife really prepared.”
The Thanksgiving meal is constantly changing, as preferences change, and people move across the country, according to Elias. People of different regional, cultural and ethnic backgrounds combine their heritage and traditions with the holiday and changes in tastes and choice, such as the rise of vegetarianism and veganism, keep the traditional meal in transformation.
One concern might be that restaurant take-out Thanksgiving meals will halt the evolution of Thanksgiving, as restaurants cater to the most mainstream choices. But Elias said, especially as people think more critically about the pilgrims and the founding of America, perhaps take-out is just another step in the adaptation of a centuries-old tradition.
“Even [in] my own lifetime I’ve seen the disappearance of particular dishes, things like pearled onions, which you just never see anymore,” Elias said. “So the menu itself has been evolving over time, and who you’re eating with and why, is evolving. American food traditions are always evolving. Thanksgiving will be part of that.”