Thanksgiving: A Family-First Day With Memory-Making Food

When we think of the fourth Thursday in November, our thoughts almost immediately go to the brands who’ve brought us the food on the table. Yeah, not at my house either. I was a guest on the Shaping Opinion podcast which aired November 18 where Tim O’Brien wanted to talk about the brands who built the holiday. But we quickly veered from there to the stories we all have about why we eat what we eat. The common thread is definitely foods that tug at our emotions…

  • My grandmother’s 

  • My great aunt’s 

  • My dad’s 

  • My mom’s 

There are even dishes we don’t really like that still have a place of honor because they have always been there. Take the beet salad that a friend reports she’s never seen anyone eat but is always part of Thanksgiving because it reminds her family of her great aunt. The connection is so strong the salad is part of her table even when she’s attending a Friendsgiving and not with her family.


So, to support the podcast, I want to share some of the “must haves” my friends enjoy at Thanksgiving. It’s the holiday when our memories and connection to family are definitely more important than healthy eating; where traditional activities outweigh the exercise that’s part of your daily routine.


Let’s assume there’s turkey and take a look at what else is on Thanksgiving tables across America. There will also be stuffing (or dressing), cranberries and pies but what those mean varies drastically.

Stuffing…or Dressing

At my home, stuffing goes in the turkey and is made from stale white bread, onions, celery, poultry seasoning and butter. But if you live in the South, you’re definitely making it with cornbread. From these two mainstays, discussion evolved to recipes including sausage, oysters or Northeasterners who always use Bell’s seasoning. Then there is a myriad of additions from raisins, apples, artichoke hearts, red bell pepper, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese to diced olives, cranberries and pine nuts. Whatever you use in your stuffing, it’s a reminder of childhood, family and warm memories.



Always part of the Thanksgiving table, and often featured in multiple ways, cranberries symbolize the holiday. We should give a thanks to Marcus Urann who put the delicate berries into the can more than 100 years ago creating that sauce we all still enjoy slicing along its lines. Today, we consume more than 5 million gallons of “jellied cranberry sauce” each year but many of us also serve cranberries a bit differently too.

  • We go for the fresh effect and put a bag of cranberries, two tangerines and a little sugar in the food processor. Chop and voila! 

  • Many in the Northeast enjoy Paradise jelly, a jellied mix of apples, quince and cranberries. 

  • Surprising her family with a new recipe each year is the goal of my over-achieving friend Abbigail. She’s tried recipes with jalapenos, port, Malbec and blueberries. She’s loved them all and so has her family. 

  • My favorite story is from my cousin Kathy who says her sister’s cranberry chutney is something of an honesty test for new and unsuspecting guests. That’s because people either love or hate the chutney but only those who are honest in their opinion are invited back. 


What’s for Dessert? Pie, of course

It’s no surprise that pie is always dessert on Thanksgiving. But the types seem to vary by region of the country which is interesting. While pumpkin pie seems to dominate most parts of the country, southerners swear by their pecan pies, the Pennsylvania Dutch and many Northwesterners always have apple pies while the Northwest folks also enjoy different berry pies.

 In my house growing up there was mincemeat pie because the church ladies made the mincemeat for a fundraiser…and because of the hard sauce. You had to have a piece of pie if you wanted hard sauce. That was the rule so we all still enjoy our hard sauce with a side of mincemeat.


Pumpkin pie seems to be the sweet treat with the most variation so if you’re tired of the recipe on the Libby’s pumpkin can, consider topping your pie with some candied pecans for a pumpkin/pecan combo, or make a streusel topping for the traditional pie. My sister-in-law started bringing a pumpkin cheesecake last year that was a true hit. Maybe not technically a pie, but very tasty. If you, like most of America, still use the recipe on the can, take note that it has changed this year for the first time in 69 years.


Sides, Sides and More Sides

The Thanksgiving meal seems to center around the turkey, stuffing and cranberries but is also based on side dishes. And that’s where there’s a tremendous amount of variation combined with a lot of tradition.


The early Thanksgivings were focused on root vegetables, likely because that’s what was available. Today, preservation techniques mean we more variety, but the root vegetables still take center stage. Some sides you may always have but others you may not have considered:


Creamed onions are a perennial favored at our house but also with others. Smother the cooked onions in a white sauce flavored with nutmeg, sherry or mushrooms, or skip the sauce and simply glaze the onions with maple sugar. We used to try to not be the first to arrive home from college to avoid peeling the boiling onions. Today’s pearl onions that get boiled and then peeled are much simpler.

Brussels sprouts are especially popular in the Northwest where they might be roasted with bacon, or broiled with butter, onion and garlic.

Cabbage is a favorite in the Northeast and Midwest where it can be made ahead, creamed and tossed in a casserole dish for easy transportation.


Green bean casserole -- Who can forget the ever-present and oft-maligned green bean casserole created by Campbell’s Soup Company in the ‘50s. It’s amazing how many people comment about how “awful” this dish is, but how many of you don’t consider it Thanksgiving without it on the table. Bon Appetit has a fresh version if you think your family is willing to try that. And, if you must have it, but diners have dairy allergies, consider this dairy-free recipe from Kitchen Gone Rogue.


Mashed potatoes are a staple on many tables, especially as a vessel for homemade gravy. There really aren’t a lot of variations on this theme, except a few folks are adding cheeses…gorgonzola or gouda are popular.


Sweet potatoes are important to many of us as we prepare some sort of sweet potato or yam and season it with a variety of sweeteners and flavors. Most include orange, a few various alcohols and almost all are topped with some sort of toasted marshmallows. I doubt it’s even close to what the pilgrims and Indians ate in the 1600s.

Corn casserole was a new dish to me but seems to be really prevalent in the Northeast and Pennsylvania. There’s even a Facebook page aimed at making the corn casserole from the JIFFY cornbread package, “America’s casserole.” But those in Pennsylvania have an affinity for John Copes Dried Sweet Corn. “The classic Pennsylvania Dutch side dish, Cope's Dried Sweet Corn is a Thanksgiving favorite. For many of us, this dried sweet corn is a more flavorful, intensely sweet product than its frozen and canned relatives.” Friends who live in Texas and far from there enjoy a creamed corn dish from Rudy’s BBQ that may or may not be modified with bacon for the holiday since everything is even better with bacon.


Is Anything Unadulterated?

As the hosts we spend hours (or days) in the kitchen cooking the perfect meal. Yet I find guests always crave something fresh, unprepared and unmixed. So, we should consider the simpler dishes as part of our table too.


The closest thing to that on every table is probably the rolls. Fresh, a little squishy and most likely white they are often homemade by a family member. One friend remembers her dad always making (or bringing) them and making small sandwiches with them using leftovers. My friend Barb’s pumpkin rolls were a favorite of Alaskan Thanksgiving while last year enjoyed some stuffing-type rolls that are fairly easy to make and good for leftovers.


Two southern friends report their family always has fresh tomatoes on the table, sliced with freshly ground pepper.


We also had a fresh veggie tray on the table although I don’t remember it being terribly well eaten -- except for the olives. My cousin Joe taught us early on to put the extra-large black olives on our fingers and then eat them off. One of those incredibly silly things that make you smile!


A green, tossed salad is also a way to interject some freshness. This year we’re going to try this amazing arugula, orange salad with pomegranates.


Salad, Anyone?

Speaking of salads, we can’t finish without addressing the other elephant in the room…Jell-O salads. Whether your great aunt made one with ambrosia of oranges, pineapples, marshmallows, cool whip or the Boule family’s “plop” (a blend of lime Jell-O with whipped cream, canned pineapple chunks and marshmallows) many tables are not complete without this reminder of our past. My friend Joann still makes her grandmother’s carrot salad. “She would soak the raisins overnight in rum and the dish became a family favorite. Rum and chunks of fresh pineapple are delicious at Thanksgiving.”


And Finally…

Go ahead and get out your grandmother’s linens and china; dust off the recipe cards and get cooking. Enjoy your meal and those around you. Then take a walk and play a game of hearts. That’s what happens at our house!


And, don’t forget about those folks whose favorite part of Thanksgiving is an invitation. Seriously, folks, make sure those in your circles have somewhere to go. Family means lots of different things at the holidays and make sure you include those who might otherwise not have anywhere to go. The bigger the table the more the laughs and memories in my book.


Happy Thanksgiving!

Kids' table, circa 1958

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