20 Years On, “What’s Cooking?” is the Greatest Thanksgiving Movie Ever Made

I remember seeing What’s Cooking in the cinema on its release in December, 2000. It is now nostalgic. Shot in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, the movie takes place in an America before September 11; before George W. Bush, the War in Afghanistan, Donald Trump or January 6.

The movie is dated. Only one character has a cellular phone, and he works in politics. Another owns a video store, where they rent VHS tapes to Angelenos.

And, the movie is eerie in its timeliness. Watching it, I wonder if the writers gazed into the 2020s through a crystal ball. The political conversations surrounding the dinner table involve racist, homophobic politicians who “say what they mean,” immigration, LGBT normalcy, and issues of Black equity and equality. The issues feel urgent.

Most striking is how diverse What’s Cooking is by design — virtually everyone can see themselves represented in at least one character — but also how loving it is in its portrayals.

Conservatives in my life always speak of forced diversity in the media. They bemoan the fact there must be a black person, or an interracial couple, or gay people, or whites only in ensemble or supporting roles in every show or any commercial all the time. They feel a studio can make no program or advertisement without slamming representation down viewer’s gullets.

This movie isn’t forced diversity. It’s about diversity and how different people who live in Los Angeles celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. There are differences, but everyone is being different together in a common neighborhood. Everybody has a turkey, but prepares it differently. It’s lovely.

There are four families:

The Nguyens, who immigrated from Vietnam, struggle with the cultural gap of parents who are Vietnamese and kids who are culturally American. The younger brother a shit-magnet, the sister is mature but always in trouble with the parents, and the older brother who can help explain the divide doesn’t want to come home for Thanksgiving.

The Avilas are Latino. The matriarch has left her husband after he cheated; he now returns to the Thanksgiving table. The daughter is dating the oldest Nguyen son.

The Williams family is upper-class Black. The father is conservative; the son wants to drop out of UC and go to Howard. The mother is a perfectionist; the mother-in-law visits and wants to make mac and cheese instead of oyster shitake stuffing.

The Seeligs are Jewish. Their daughter flies in for Thanksgiving with her partner, and the Seeligs are having difficulty with her being gay. There’s even more to this story, but I’ll leave this to the viewer to discover.

The Nguyens make a turkey spiced with sriracha (their daughter asks, in one of my favorite exchanges, “why do you have to make all our food taste like everything else we eat?” to which the grandmother replies “why does all your food have to taste like McDonalds?”). Their thanksgiving table includes pho and spring rolls.

The Avilas have tamales and fresh fruits; the Williams have boogie gourmet side dishes; the Seeligs have sweet potatoes with marshmallows prepared from a can in a Correll dish. In one montage scene, they all mash their potatoes: one with a food processor, one with a hand mixer, one with a spoon in a bowl, and one by hand.

You get the picture.

What’s Cooking shows us America “isn’t today,” but “always was.”

I seldom cry at things that are horrible, but because I’m Italian, I’m unusually sensitive about things that are beautiful. The older I become, and the more polarized America is, the more emotional I am watching “What’s Cooking.”

It’s embarrassing. It isn’t a movie that makes people cry. My husband gives me absolute hell about tears rolling off my face every year when we watch it at Thanksgiving.

Maybe it’s because he’s Indonesian and I could imagine him mashing his potatoes by hand, while I’m apt to use the hand mixer.

It conjures a deep sense of nostalgia in me for a diverse America that celebrates together. It’s America as I grew up to imagine it could be, and as I always wanted it to be — before we were asked to naval-gaze at our privilege and our differences and see only cultural injustice at every turn.

The film doesn’t shy away from hard issues. The men of the Avila family are constantly making Bruce Lee comments to the kid from the Nguyen family. The Jewish family is homophobic. The Black family is having difficult discussions about Black rights, while family struggles lurk beneath the surface. The Nguyens don’t understand why their daughter’s school has passed out condoms, while not knowing their son possesses a loaded gun. The mother grieves because she no longer knows her own children.

The tense, uncomfortable conversations at the dinner table could as easily be the same ones held today. This really grabs me. Is it possible that the writers did not, indeed, have a crystal ball, but that all the issues we think of as immediate were every bit as extant 25 or even 50 years ago?

And then there’s the cast and the acting…

I can’t close out my thoughts on What’s Cooking without mentioning it’s filled with a tremendous ensemble cast. So magnificent, in fact, I don’t understand how it flew under the radar.

The cast includes Alfre Woodard and “are you in good hands” Dennis Haysbert; Joan Chen, Julianna Margulies, and Mercedes Ruehl. All of them are superb. Woodard, especially, is magnificent. The scene with the pie floors me every time.

Add What’s Cooking to your pantheon of great holiday movies, along with Christmas Vacation. I like it every bit as much. It’s fabulous and funny and tense and charming year after year.

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