In 2012, Katharine Shilcutt, then our food critic, wrote a story about going to Costco to investigate its offer of Thanksgiving in a Box designed to feed eight to ten people. Her story, which we reproduce below, caught the imagination of thousands upon thousands of readers.
And still does to this day. Year round. And especially when the T-bird holiday approaches.
So the Houston Press thought, as a gift to its readers, it was about time to explain more behind the story that sent a journalist into a public setting where she, no offense intended Katharine, embarrassed herself when she couldn't even make it to the cashier's stand before dropping the dinner package on the floor.
So here goes.
Houston Press: What gave you the idea for doing the story?
Shilcutt: As a longtime Costco shopper, I'd seen Thanksgiving in a Box in years past and it always appealed to my morbid curiosity about pre-fabricated consumer items and how they stack up to "scratch-made" stuff.
Classic, old-school diners, which were among the original pre-fab creations, are an arguable improvement upon earlier restaurants that were less accessible to the general public in terms of both affordability and availability. Mass produced modular housing can also be pretty fabulous. Instant pudding is delicious. And those Blue Apron services sure seem to have struck a chord with the American cooking public.
So I wanted to see if a thing that we all agonize over—cooking a Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd, when many of us rarely make a meal like that on a regular basis—could be improved upon. Also, most everything I've ever bought from Costco has been pretty tasty, so I wasn't anticipating a total tragedy.
HP: Did a lot of people stare at you in the store while you were negotiating the package?
I was definitely the only one picking up a Thanksgiving in a Box that day. I got a lot of those embarrassing "bless her heart" looks when I dropped the box and spilled its contents everywhere, however, and several people in line at the check-out were as curious as I was about the whole boxed meal thing. I kept trying to reassure them that this was "for journalism" and they didn't seem like they believed me.
HP: What kind of reaction (other than immense) did you get to that post from readers??
I got a lot of responses from folks who didn't understand why I was "wasting my time" with something like this. That always annoys me; who else gets to determine what is or isn't a waste of my time other than me? You don't know me, man. This kind of stuff is a hobby for me. Stop wasting your time playing Call of Duty.
I just happened to have been lucky enough to get to write about my hobbies and interests as a job. Other people thought I was being too hard on the Thanksgiving in a Box, but wouldn't people prefer honest assessments and informed opinions over being misled by someone who decided to be polite instead of being realistic? There's too much flattery and falseness on the Internet these days as it is. Strangely, Costco never responded at all.
And now for the original story, a true tale of intrepid journalism. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
(Originally published November 16, 2012).
Even though it's just me and the mister at home, I still do enough shopping at Costco that I could be mistaken for a Mormon housewife. Why? I'm a sucker for a good deal. (Also, I go through a ridiculous amount of onions, peppers and tomatoes at home each week. Why not buy in bulk?)
And although Costco is well known for having excellent options for throwing parties or serving large dinners — the moist, delicious sheet cakes alone are a triumph of industrial-scale baking — I'd never seen a fully-cooked, ready-to-heave-at-your-guests box of Thanksgiving dinner before this past weekend. Yet there it was, squatting resolutely in frozen foods aisle 035.
The box promised to feed a group of eight to 10 people (sans desserts; what the hell — that's the best part!) for the low, low price of $79.95. And because the entire meal is pre-cooked, the box claims that it can all be ready in 90 minutes — after thawing. I couldn't resist and decided to test out the box on some unsuspecting friends and family members for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner.
Grabbing it out of the freezer was easier said than done, however, as the bottom of the box wasn't taped up and immediately spilled its entire contents across the concrete floor. Bags of frozen green beans and tubes of muddy-colored gravy scattered like buckshot in all directions as I stood petrified in shame. Now everyone in a 100-foot radius could see that I was the one sorry sap buying a frozen Thanksgiving box this year.
A managerial-looking fellow shuffled over to the scene of destruction and barely acknowledged me as he began to repack the contents into the box with a look of defeat on his face, before wordlessly hefting another [taped-up] box into my shopping cart. Happy Thanksgiving, dude.
Now properly in the spirit of the holiday, I grabbed a $5.99 Costco pumpkin pie to supplement the box, waited in the already-ridiculously-long lines (if you haven't already done your Thanksgiving shopping at Costco, you would appear to be screwed for now) and hauled my bounty to the car. Other shoppers stopped me along the way to ask about the boxed Thanksgiving dinner, but I sensed they were more interested in regarding the meal as a freak show than as a legitimate holiday option.
Unpacking the feast at home, I wasn't terribly surprised to see that it more or less resembled a frozen version of an MRE. The mashed potatoes and cornbread stuffing came out of the box in IKEA-style flat-pack sheaths, the ultimate in space-saving food engineering. Only the turkey, vacuum-sealed and surprisingly pert, looked appetizing. However, despite being pre-cooked, the nine-pound turkey requires three days of thawing in the refrigerator — so don't buy this the day before and think you're set. Rookie.
On the other hand, the three-pound-each pre-cooked sides only require a day's thawing in the fridge. And if you forget, don't sweat it. They're all relatively easy to heat up with an extra 20 to 30 minutes on the stovetop (or an extra 10 minutes in the microwave). That's the good news.
Also good news: Quite surprisingly, the box can totally feed eight to 10 people — ten if they're average eaters, eight if they're really hungry. Which leads us to the bad news.
Your guests are probably not going to be super hungry for most of the stuff that comes in the Thanksgiving box (which my own guests quickly christened "Fakesgiving"). Although none of it is terribly bad for you — even the butter-saturated green beans and "garlic confit" mashed potatoes — the sheer amount of sodium contained in an average plate will quickly make you bloat and tire.
Here's a quick run-down of how the individual items shook out:
Good: Pre-cooked, so you won't kill anyone if it's still a bit frozen inside. Dark meat surprisingly juicy and moist, especially if you follow the instructions and baste the turkey every 15 minutes. Bad: Way too heavy on the sage rub, which tastes like dumping a jar of dried spices into your mouth. White meat dry. Skin mostly tough.
Good: Nice, fluffy texture that was a shock considering the amount of ice crystals in the plastic bag and the fact that we took the easy route and ran the stuffing through the microwave instead of putting it in the oven for 45 minutes. Bad: Like the turkey, way too heavy on the sage. Also, super salty.
Garlic Confit Mashed Potatoes
Good: Everyone agreed these were the best item of the night, with a creamy texture and strong roasted garlic flavor. They looked the scariest of all the dishes when warming on the stovetop, but ended up looking the nicest on the table. Perfect amount of salt. Bad: If you're not a garlic fan, you may find the flavor and scent overwhelming. And if you're a chunky mashed potato fan (or hate mashed potatoes that have been put through a ricer), you may find the texture off-putting.
Good: They were green? Bad: Antithetically, these were by far the worst of the box. "They squeak when you bite into them," my mother said with a sad look on her face. The green beans did not remotely resemble the long, elegant haricot verts on the box but rather the dull green beans that are dumped from a 10-pound can into a steam table tray at your local high school cafeteria. (If your high school still even serves vegetables to its kids anymore). The sheer amount of butter, onions and garlic in the beans were overwhelming as well.
Good: These were the runner-up to the mashed potatoes, especially in terms of appearances. They genuinely resembled something you could have made yourself at home, cubed and roasted in the oven. Bad: The flavor was too clove-heavy for most people, and even I could only eat a few bites before the sweetness became too cloying.
Good: It was gravy. Bad: It was gravy. There's not much to say here. I think it was mostly cornstarch and brown food coloring, but it was inoffensive and tempered the salt in the cornbread stuffing.
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If you are the type of person who desperately wants to host Thanksgiving in your own home but doesn't want to/doesn't know how to cook and also somewhat dislikes the people you're inviting over, this box is for you. It definitely cooks up in the promised 90-minute timespan, although that time could be better spent eating out at a restaurant that's open on Thanksgiving Day.
My friend Gardy was smiling silently towards the end of the meal, and simply said: "I've been eating nothing but salads for the past 20 days, so this was all great." The rest of us were mostly put off by Fakesgiving.
I can absolutely see how every item in this box could be passed off as something you made yourself — especially if you discard all the cardboard and plastic evidence — because it has those same ups and downs found in a Thanksgiving meal made by someone who only halfway knows what they're doing. And for only $80, it's a helluva lot less than you'd spend actually fucking up a raw, unseasoned turkey or mashing your own potatoes. The Costco-made pumpkin pie — again, not included — was the best part of the overall meal, with a buttery crust and deftly spiced pumpkin puree.
However, if you're just lazy and looking for a cheap Thanksgiving dinner option, do what every lonely college kid does at the holidays: Invite yourself to someone else's home, then fall asleep on his or her couch afterward in the pleasant haze of tryptophan and the knowledge that you didn't spend a dime.