Last year, tired and a bit overwhelmed after starting a new job (hi, Slate!), I did something I hadn’t done since grad school: I took the family to Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. It was not like I remembered. In the early 1990s, it seemed, the only places open were afflicted by harsh overhead lighting, dry turkey, and lots of lonely-looking people. This time it was a well-regarded restaurant, and I was far from the only person surrounded by loved ones.
Dining out on Thanksgiving is, of course, a thing. Demand for reservations is so high that earlier this week, Grub Street saw fit to run the post “The Poor Planner’s Guide to Last-Minute Thanksgiving Reservations.” And so is bringing in: Industry surveys reveal that more than half of us will cater at least some portion of the meal at home, whether via restaurants or the prepared-food sections of place like Whole Foods.
Yet you won’t see much love for the non–home-cooked Thanksgiving—and to many, the idea still seems downright heretical:
Little wonder. Aren’t restaurants where you go when home simply isn’t an option?
But that’s not true, and it hasn’t been for a long time. In fact, Thanksgiving is a bigger day for restaurants than Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, and Easter, according to the National Restaurant Association. (Only Mother’s Day has it beat.) According to the same trade group, about 1 in 10 people will order a turkey off a menu this year. Their surveys turned up the same figure in 1990.
What’s begun to change is our willingness to embrace dining out on the big day—not to mention the related practice of bringing prepared food in, either as a supplement or as the entire meal. No doubt this relates to the overall growth in dining out, but it may also say something about our acceptance—and remaining discomfort with—women’s roles as both family members and workers. The reason I ended up in a restaurant on Thanksgiving may well be the most common one.
Looking back at the media coverage over the decades, I found few mentions of dining out or catering in for Thanksgiving before the mid-1990s. Once the articles appeared, they almost always identified women as the culprit. “The timing of Thanksgiving might have worked nicely for the Pilgrims, but they certainly weren’t thinking of working women when they penciled it in for the last Thursday of November,” wrote the Chicago Tribune in 1994. When USA Today decided to look at “America’s new Thanksgiving tradition” of “take-out turkey” from the supermarket in 1998, it reached a similar conclusion: “This is what happens when millions of American women enter the work force.”
But if USA Today was attempting to drum up some controversy, the article’s famed experts didn’t bite. Martha Stewart said she was fine with it. So did Julia Child. “The important thing is spending time with the family and eating together,” the doyenne of cooking pronounced.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that women—even women famously cooked on TV—would defend the refusal to prepare one’s own Thanksgiving meal. A 2006 study by the American Psychological Association found the ladies experienced significantly more stress than men over the holidays. While almost half of men report watching football on the big day, women are significantly more likely to say they cook, shop for food, or clean dirty dishes. And a meal out is a win for whoever doesn’t have to cook it.
But then, of course, there are the people who do have to cook it. After years of bad press for forcing retail clerks to work on the holiday, a number of malls and national chains are pulling back on Thanksgiving shopping. But most food and dining industry analysts agree that more restaurants than ever are opening on Thanksgiving every year. Which means more and more hospitality workers don’t get to choose whether their own meals should take place in a restaurant or at home.
There’s a reason why restaurants don’t want to close up but stores do. Retailers have realized that Thanksgiving shopping eats into their Black Friday sales, but when the San Francisco Chronicle looked in 2012 at receipts from five local eateries, it determined that the Friday after Thanksgiving was among the slowest days of the year for the eateries. For restaurants, it’s Thanksgiving or bust.
This doesn’t exactly make restaurant workers happy. Daniel Gritzer, now the culinary director at Serious Eats, wrote last year about his own experience working on the holiday: “Nothing drove home that feeling of missing out on life more than Thanksgiving, a day when family members are supposed to gather together.” Darron Cardosa, who blogs at the Bitchy Waiter, is more condemning. “Twenty-five years ago, nothing was open on Thanksgiving, not even grocery stores,” he wrote in 2014. “Close down the stores! Close ’em all down! And make sure all the restaurants are closed too so those workers can be home that day as well!!”
As Cardosa pointed out, efforts to give restaurant workers a break on Thanksgiving gain significantly less traction than ones to help retail employees. (In 2013, Pittsburgh United, which works with the Fight for $15 movement, circulated an online petition on behalf of workers at the Capital Grille, part of the Darden family of restaurants. Thirty-one people signed it.) No one, especially in the days of online shopping, needs to hit the mall on Thanksgiving Day. But many of us find ourselves not wanting to host on Thanksgiving Day. Just because we don’t want to perform the labor of Thanksgiving—both physical and emotional—doesn’t mean we don’t think anyone should do it. We’re outsourcing it.
So how should this moral calculus compute? How can we feel OK about taking a break when someone else has to work?
How about this: There’s nothing wrong with dining out on the holiday. It’s OK if you don’t want to host, toil over a turkey, or scrub the kitchen clean. What you can do is try to ensure that the people doing those things for you get more than fairly compensated for it.
While many restaurants automatically add a gratuity to the Thanksgiving Day check, that doesn’t mean waiters actually earn any more money than they would waiting tables any other day.
So I turn again to the Bitchy Waiter. “Tip extra,” he writes. “Is it going to kill you if you throw in five extra dollars?” No, it won’t. And you should add more than that.