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Why ‘This Is Us’ Loves to Show Us Terrible Food (Of Course There’s a Heartwarming Reason)

published Feb 7, 2020
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This is Us is a show that might make you cry, or want to call your parents, or do some combination of the two. What it likely won’t make you, however, is hungry.

One of the clearest examples of a beloved Pearson-food based tradition that’s anything but appetizing is their Thanksgiving menu. Introduced in the season one episode “Pilgrim Rick,” Thanksgiving for the Pearsons since the 80s consists of hot dogs, Kraft singles, and Saltines. This rather shocking holiday menu was born out of necessity when a family road trip left them semi-stranded in a cabin without access to a proper supermarket.

The lack of appealing food at this and other major moments may come as a surprise considering that the show makes such a point to elevate the idea of family tradition. The parade of rituals sometimes seems almost comical. You might assume that family dinner was something Instagrammable, or that their breakfast was more than just a sad bowl of cereal. But just like the rest of This Is Us, the meals they eat are a little more real. Food does play a role on the show, but it’s not something that makes you want to get up and cook.

The holiday detour gave the Pearsons plenty of non-food related ways to remember what becomes a very happy holiday (including the titular Pilgrim Rick hat), but the adult siblings insist on breaking out the hot dogs well into their 30s. Later in the show, they happily add their long lost uncle’s not-entirely-unappetizing two pounds of cocktail shrimp. The shrimp in particular, a Thanksgiving tradition started by their uncle and their father as young men, is woven into the fabric of their holiday easily because the family seems to understand the way food can connect us to the past in a powerful way.

Another culinary misstep turned warm memory featured on the series is Rebecca’s birthday cupcake for her husband Jack. The treat is actually a Frankenstein-style hybrid made from a convenience store muffin frosted with filling squeezed from a Twinkie. Though MacGyver might be impressed, it’s unlikely Sandra Lee would dub the cursed cupcake even “semi-homemade,” and we never see Jack actually attempt to eat it.

Food does play a role on the show, but it’s not something that makes you want to get up and cook.

But what the seasonal hot dogs and cupffin (a cupcake muffin) have in common is the way the show paints them as some of the most meaningful, fondly-remembered meals the Pearsons eat. It’s not about thinking back to the most delicious meal they ever ate or getting excited to dig into their favorite seasonal dish. It’s about how strong, happy memories are often tied to food — regardless of whether that food would deeply upset Gordon Ramsay and every single person who’s ever watched The Great British Bake-Off.

Pinterest and Instagram notwithstanding, I think we all can relate to the fact that the most memorable food isn’t the most beautiful or even the most delicious.

Over the course of my childhood and adolescence, my mother always baked me a beautiful birthday cake. But it’s not this annual perfect yellow cake, frosted with chocolate icing, that I look back on with the most fondness. It’s the disastrous fifth birthday ice cream cake.

According to the story that’s often retold as I prepare to blow out my candles, when my mother asked what kind of cake I wanted that year, assuming I understood the choices to be chocolate or vanilla, I answered with all the confidence of a kid who didn’t even own an Easy-Bake Oven, “I’d like a heart-shaped ice cream cake.” My mother did not explain that was not one of the options on the table, nor did she go to the local Dairy Queen to see what they could do. She took a few cartoons of ice cream, attempted to hack them into two vaguely half-heart shaped pieces, then tried to magically stick them together to create an icy heart. Then she frosted it. Neither endeavor worked well. It was a partially melted mess that looked like a combination between a cartoon heart and an anatomical heart.

But it was a cooking adventure completely fueled by love, just like something you’d find on This Is Us. I will remember it forever.

So while I still wince at the perfectly appalling food that This Is Us often celebrates, it’s a reminder that sometimes it’s the one-star, Pinterest-fail dishes that make the most lasting impact. The ones that will clearly tell your friends, “I’m really, really trying. Because I love you.” And isn’t that the most important thing?