Britta Gustafson: Pressure cooking |

Britta Gustafson: Pressure cooking

Rising pressures can take place inside — and outside — the oven around the holidays

Britta Gustafson
Then Again
Britta Gustafson for the Snowmass Sun

Cooking generally involves the manipulation of food until chemical reactions take place. Similarly, rising pressures can take place inside — and outside — the oven around the holidays.

In the oven those reactions happen faster at higher temperatures, and the added pressures we often put on ourselves during the holidays can act in much the same manner.

It seems that life is better paced at a slow simmer than in a pressure cooker, but as the world around continues to create increasingly higher levels of force encroaching on our smaller spheres, the pressure is mounting. And without a release valve, the pressure point can be hard to gauge.

We are often reminded that Thanksgiving is centered on gratitude (it’s in the name lest we forget), but that can easily slip the mind when juggling the multitude of extra tasks required to put together a festive holiday meal for family.

Between cleaning and preparation for visitors, running around to collect and purchase food and scrambling about the kitchen all day while half-heartedly wishing for a vacation from the Thanksgiving break, there is no doubt that the holiday can feel hectic. On top of trying to put together an elaborate, time-sensitive meal, there is the added element of entertaining guests while everyone waits for the food you’re scrambling to present, and the kids are certainly no exception. Add a glass or two-ish of wine and the unrequited desire to fully enjoy the day yourself (because everyone else on Instagram looks like they are loving every batter-licked spoon and picture-perfect place setting), and it’s easy to feel a rising sense of self-induced pressure. It also makes it easy to lose perspective.

Enter a cast of characters with backstories, their own heightened expectations, libation-induced conversations around politics or ideological disagreements, various misunderstandings and unresolved tensions, and the temperatures can rapidly increase within minutes.

Plan ahead, or wing it? Doesn’t matter. The unexpected keeps you on your toes. As Paul Theroux put it, “Cooking requires confident guesswork and improvisation — experimentation and substitution, dealing with failure and uncertainty in a creative way.” Idealistically yes, but can you perform this with ease in front of an audience while keeping the stairs shoveled and the bathroom clean — and of course presenting a Pinterest-worthy set table?

In my house we usually cook with our hands and make a huge mess. We often can’t sit around the kitchen table after it has been piled with measuring bowls, cutting boards, scraps and dishes used in our experimenting, so we regularly eat at a makeshift table elsewhere. But that isn’t the traditional fThanksgiving of my extended family, so the meal is outside of my comfort zone from the get-go. And regardless of my level of hosting, it’s always a day full of anticipation and heightened energy.

All that aside, perhaps the biggest mistake one could make in the kitchen or around the Thanksgiving table would be to leave out the gratitude.

I like to remind myself, as often as I attempt to write something modestly inspiring this time of year, of the challenges I’m not contending with. Providing food to share can itself be a hardship for so many, and this year there are also many who are missing relatives, or can’t travel to be with those they love. Taking stock of the blessings is always worth the pause.

But it’s hard for me to fully forget how this day of gratitude can highlight ineptitudes. There was the year (age 3) I drew on my Aunt’s canvas-esqe white pants, the year (age 6) I re-cut my friend’s hair, the year we played under the table and caused a festive food cascade.

Years when buying extra food to share was a demoralizing financial struggle for me. The excessive mashed potato fiasco, botched recipes, burned pies, missing ingredients. The year I cooked the turkey, tripped on the doorstep and threw the beautifully basted beast at the front door, smashing the meal’s highlight to pieces on the welcome mat. The year of vino-fueled frustrations exchanged in the pantry. And at least two trips to the ER after major kitchen muck ups.

Over the years there have been plenty of hysterical tears, fits of laughter, hot debates and cold meat served up. There have been spills and broken dishes — both intentional and unintentional — fire alarms, whipped cream fights, burns and vomiting.

But last year, the year of Zoom-Thanksgiving 2020, the most uneventful and anticlimactic of them all, was also perhaps the most poignant reminder of why we endure the family focused fétes. For although last year may have seemed less stressful, there was a missing ingredient. That spicy family flavor that makes the meal a memory.

At some point in life the pressures of high expectations cook up the perfect blend of chaos, and the beauty in that becomes enough to make it worthwhile. Perhaps that outlook, with a dash of gratitude, might just be the pressure valve.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at


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