Which Boston Neighborhoods Are Worst at Holiday Cooking?

Fire department data shows unsuccessful dinners in this interactive visualization.

Fire departments are getting ready for their busiest day all year, as smoke detectors across America bear audible witness to our culinary failings this Thanksgiving.

Just how bad is Boston at cooking holiday dinners, and which neighborhoods are the worst? Restaurant reviewers are no help here, since they focus on the best restaurants. Since there’s no greater dinner disaster than huddling in a freezing circle while waiting for a fire engine, we can measure our collective ineptitude with data on cooking fires from the Boston and Cambridge Fire Departments.

In the three years from 2010 through 2012, area fire departments responded to 219 cooking fires on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the day before. The worst of these fires can hospitalize multiple people and destroy their homes. This terrifying lab test of deep fryer turkey conflagration shows the worst case scenario:

Thankfully, many of the alarms were probably stovetop fires and forgotten pumpkin pies—attempted masterpieces unsalvageable even by faux-intentional crumb topping.

Thanksgiving really is the worst day for cooking fires all year. In three years, fire departments responded to 11 cooking fires on an average day. Over Thanksgiving, the number ranged between 30 and 49.

Timeseries of 3 years of cooking fires, as reported by the Boston and Cambridge fire departments. Thanksgiving day is consistently the highest day for cooking fires across all three years.

The 10 Most Unsuccessful Boston & Cambridge Neighborhoods at Holiday Cooking

Combining fire alarm records with census data, it’s possible to rank the 38 Boston and Cambridge neighborhoods by how unsuccessful they are at holiday cooking. Since areas with more houses have more holiday fires, these rankings use a linear statistical model that predicts the number of holiday fire alarms based on the number of houses and apartments within a neighborhood. For example, while Dorchester had 34 fires surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas from 2010 through 2012, the count is lower than expected for its number of housing units. On the other hand, Mid-Cambridge, which includes Central Square and Harvard Yard, is high on the list with 10 fires, because that’s more than twice the expected number.

Here are the worst Boston and Cambridge neighborhoods at holiday cooking, according to the model:

  1. Roxbury: Expected fires: 14.6. Actual fires: 26
  2. Hyde Park: Expected fires: 9.1. Actual fires: 17
  3. Mission Hill: Expected fires: 4.4. Actual fires: 9
  4. Neighborhood Nine (near Harvard): Expected fires: 3.4. Actual fires: 8
  5. Area Four: Expected fires: 1.4. Actual fires: 6.
  6. Mid-Cambridge: Expected fires: 5.7. Actual fires: 10
  7. Brighton: Expected fires: 18.5. Actual fires: 22
  8. South End: Expected fires: 10.3. Actual fires: 13
  9. Allston: Expected fires: 5.3. Actual fires: 8

Sorry, not sorry: There is no list of best neighborhoods in this article. While staying safe is worth celebrating, this analysis focuses on how badly you cook—no one wins a prize for attempts at turkey glory that merely avoid complete disaster.

How Bad Is Your Neighborhood at Holiday Cooking?

Just how unsuccessful are you and your neighbors at holiday cooking? A second, negative binomial statistical model offers a more detailed picture of fire incidence rates, based on the 212 U.S. census tracts associated with Boston and Cambridge neighborhoods. Click on the image below to open an interactive map showing the actual and predicted number of holiday fire alarms for your area.

Red shaded regions have more holiday fires than expected on average, while blue regions have fewer fires than expected. White regions fare no better or worse than expected.

Can We Really Blame Amateur Cooks? What About Restaurants?

Statisticians reading this article—especially those at universities with high fire incidence rates in their surrounding area (*cough* Harvard)—might reasonably ask how restaurants contribute to these results. Using a dataset of Boston food establishments, I developed a further model that controlled for the number of restaurants in each of Boston’s census tracts. The result is surprising; neighborhoods with more restaurants have a lower incidence rate of holiday cooking fires, a relationship that is statistically significant. Holding housing constant, a census tract with 10 more restaurants has an incidence rate of holiday fires that is roughly 3/4 the incidence rate of a comparable area with fewer restaurants. Perhaps people in those areas aren’t bothering to cook at home over the holidays, or perhaps they might be migrating elsewhere for family celebrations. Whatever the reason, we can’t easily blame restaurants for our own failures at the stove.

Please Try Not to Burn Your Thanksgiving Dinner

While holiday fires offer an excellent measure of the worst kind of culinary failure, they are also a very real problem, leading to serious injury and damage every Thanksgiving. Cooking is the highest cause of home and fire injuries, and most non-fatal injuries happen when people try to fight the fire themselves, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, who publish resources on staying safe. Safety experts encourage home cooks to take care with deep fryers, keep an eye on the stove, and prevent children or pets from playing near the cooking area.

Or, if you prefer to have someone else do your holiday cooking, consider our list of 30+ Boston restaurants open for Thanksgiving dinner.