Thanksgiving

What the Food52 Staff *Really* Serves on Thanksgiving

November 18, 2015

Last week I stood in our test kitchen and tried to knot dough into rolls with nipples.

I also troubleshot a jello salad; I dipped my hand deep into a bowl of candied cranberries to find the perfect specimens to crown a second Christmas tree-shaped jello salad. I oversaw the cream cheese application on celery sticks: Just don’t make them look fancy. No swoops. They are not fancy.

When you put all those recipes together, this is what our Thanksgiving tables really look like.

Photo by Alpha Smoot

Right now, we are walking in a food media wonderland: Thanksgiving is our everything, it is the biggest game of the year. And we know well how to win it: we know the menus that will feed 30, the ones that are mindful of your vegetarian guests. We know the new classics and the old.

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But at home, our tables don’t always look like this. They’re crammed with 2 stuffings instead of one because we can never agree on the one we like best, or there’s a quivering, fruit-studded jello tower hovering in the corner of the dessert table. If there weren’t celery sticks with cream cheese and jellied cranberry sauce from the can and a great vat of previously-frozen pearl onions on my table growing up, it wasn’t Thanksgiving.

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Top Comment:
“Our Thanksgiving was extremely simple, almost to the point of being austere by today's standards: basic roast turkety with classic WASP stuffing made with Pepperidge Farm white bread + the usual aromatics; long grain white rice + simple gravy (I had no idea that many people eat mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving until I went away to college, well north of the Mason-Dixon line); peas made special with a few button mushrooms and a small knob of butter; cranberry sauce from a can; one pie, pumpkin, made using the recipe from the back of the can of Libby's pumpkin puree, served without whipped cream or ice cream. The most special treat of all was the fragrant pan of her "featherbeds" - light, luscious potato rolls. We all thought it was such a wonderful meal. I still do. I loved watching and learning from my mother as she effortlessly put that meal together. When we each tell the family what we're grateful for, I always mention how thankful I am for all that I learned from her. ;o)”
— AntoniaJames
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And if this article is any indication, this doesn’t fall on deaf ears: You sew drumsticks on your turkeys! You serve punch out of old battery acid containers! (John T.: There must be some kind of award for this.)

So we polled our team: What are the off-beat dishes your families serve every year? We banned anything that might sound as if it were plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting, and then we made a meal out of the rest. Here's the gloriously eccentric menu that resulted, with the backstory on each dish:

Photo by Alpha Smoot

Leslie’s mother on her lamb with mint sauce (pictured top table middle):

When your father and I first set up housekeeping, eager to establish our traditions, I did everything that I thought was expected of me for the holidays which, of course, meant food like home: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, creamed onions, every green veggie I could think of (but mostly green beans in several iterations).

Now when I say "home," I mean Guatemala, where the turkey came from our backyard and was butchered in the back open-air laundry area. I couldn't watch the actual act, but the results were amazing. Invariably cooked to perfection in a wood-burning oven first installed in the house in the 1800s, it had moist meat, crispy skin, and incredible flavor. The men of the house carved, and mayhem ensued.

The turkey I bought in those early days was all you could get in the States, before "free-range, organic, non-GMO" was ever dreamt of. For all my efforts, the flavor was always something akin to paper pulp. One Thanksgiving night, I put my fork down and announced, "I hate turkey." My husband looked up and announced, "I hate it, too." I proposed lamb, he agreed, and lamb it was from that holiday forward. And so, with our little revolution, we established our own tradition.

Kristen on her grandmother’s thrifty stuffing (stage center):

My grandmother's Thanksgiving is a beacon of thrift, an interdependent flowchart of a meal that proves how far you can stretch a few inexpensive ingredients to make a feast. Heaven help you if you throw away the potato cooking water.

My favorite part is and will always be the stuffing. The key to the flavor, twice over, is in the giblets, as suspicious as they might have made me as a child. First, they're boiled to make the stock that will go into both the gravy and the stuffing. Then, once the giblets are quite firm, you fish them out and make someone mince them, then delicately pick every scrap of meat from the neck. All these bonus bits get divided equally between the gravy and the stuffing, too. (That potato water, I'm pretty sure, is just for the gravy.)

The rest of the stuffing is delicious filler: spongy white sandwich bread, Jiffy mix cornbread, onions, celery, poultry seasoning, all measured by feel, none of it sautéed in advance. I wish I'd learned how to chop onions like she always has, in one hand, with a paring knife. On photo shoot day, we had no giblets (I blame the lamb), so we made do with chicken livers and stock, and we fudged the poultry seasoning with assorted dried herbs from the pantry. It tasted almost right.

Photo by Alpha Smoot

Hannah on why her aunt’s rolls resemble anatomy (if you can’t find these on the table we can’t help you):

We spent every on of my childhood Thanksgivings trekking to my aunt Sarah B.'s house in Cambridge from Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The dinner was an all-day, thirty-person affair, with my aunt at the helm of the ship in her tiny Boston kitchen. Sarah B. idolized (and looked just like) Julia Child, so the entire event was a trip and a half. Her signature was simple, delicious yeast rolls that she would knot before popping them in the oven. See for yourself: The rolls have a similar resemblance to boobs (nipple and all) so my grandfather apply coined them "Sarah B.'s Booby Rolls." Obviously the name stuck.

My aunt passed, but we still make Booby Rolls every year to remember her by. This year, I think I'm going to take a stab at them myself.

Lauren on her corn pudding and why on earth her jello salad is shaped like a Christmas tree:

The green jello salad has been a staple on our table for decades. It's really a dessert, but we eat it alongside savory mains and its creamy texture is oddly good as part of a fork-bite including meat. According to family, this was the most sought-after dish at Great Aunt Ruth Ellen's table: "It heralded the beginning of the Christmas season because it was always made in a Christmas tree-shaped Jell-O mold,” they say.

The corn pudding (served in a silver chafing dish) defines “holiday” to me. My great grandfather grew up on a farm in upstate New York, and his people were strictly meat and potato eaters. As his granddaughter put it: "No mamby-pamby quiche or quinoa salads. Roast beef was the thing, and corn was also acceptable as long as you could have mashed potatoes, too. One can never have enough starch, apparently. But corn pudding—made with real butter and whole milk, browned slightly around the edges and served in a lovely silver casserole—was creamy and delicious. With a touch of sweetness, of course, which was the real reason it was a stalwart in our tradition."

Amanda on her mom's cranberry jello salad (stage left):

When I was 9 or 10, my mother started making this jello mold and it was a Thanksgiving miracle for me, because I hated canned cranberry sauce. This was fruity and sweet, and even a little crunchy from the fresh cranberries.

Photo by Alpha Smoot

We know you have dishes just like these—share yours with us in the comments!

54 Comments

Irenehope November 21, 2015
We always have a couple of Japanese dishes to honor that side of the family. The must have is onigiri. And always an apple pie, not pumpkin (isn't there anyone else who hates pumpkin everything this time of year?)
 
CFrance November 21, 2015
Yes! Moi.
 
CFrance November 20, 2015
My mother-in-law would always have a can of tomato-something (can't remember the name of the stuff) heated to use as gravy on dressing if one didn't want to use the turkey gravy. It was really quite good. Wish I could remember what it is called. Tomatoes and maybe green peppers and onions--came in a can, slightly sweet... Anybody?
 
Linda I. November 20, 2015
stewed tomatoes?
 
Kathy H. November 20, 2015
Rotel tomatoes?
 
CFrance November 20, 2015
Stewed tomatoes. Thank you!
 
Angie B. November 20, 2015
How or when the tradition started it was too long ago to remember, but don't even THINK about having Thanksgiving without tabouli on the table. Mom made it for many years, but about ten years ago passed the tabouli torch to me. Anywhere that family is gathered, Angie will be bringing the tabouli. And we're not even Lebanese.
 
Kim S. November 20, 2015
There are some fabulously wacky recipes here! I loved reading the stories behind them all. I was just wondering, where is the recipe link for the cranberry jello salad? I'd love to try making it.
 
Arlene S. November 19, 2015
Love this post! Everyone finally admitted that don't like Turkey lol, so it's steak and lobster this year! haha
 
Ann L. November 19, 2015
Here's the recipe for Angel Salad. Ingredients: 2 packages lime Jello, 2 c. hot water, 2 3-oz. pkgs. cream cheese, 1 sm. can crushed pineapple (drained), 1 c. diced celery, 1 2-oz. jar chopped pimento (drained), 1 c. chopped pecans, 1 c. heavy cream. Method: Mix Jello and hot water, let cool. Mash cheese and mix in pineapple, celery, pimento and pecans. Fold into cooled Jello and refrigerate until thick, but not jelled. Whip cream and fold into Jello mixture. Pour into a mold rinsed in cold water, and chill until firm. Serves 12.
 
Katelinlee November 19, 2015
My grandfather's contribution to the meal was wild rice baked with sausage and cream of mushroom soup. I grew to love it, and so he started bringing huge double batches for a number of years! Now wild rice is non-negotiable, but I usually serve it as a salad with fruit and nuts.
 
Cynthia C. November 19, 2015
Loved this article and all the comments! Our Thanksgiving would not be complete without the Mac and cheese and greens! We also have another complete meal, baked ham, potato salad and green beans. We have a roasted turkey and a fried turkey. We normally have around 30 at our table so we need lots of turkey!<br />
 
Jenny S. November 18, 2015
Thanks for a really great article. I will try some of these things for sure.
 
Jenny S. November 18, 2015
Hannah, I almost cried. What a lovely memory! You make those Booby rolls honey!
 
Hannah W. November 18, 2015
My aunt would love that the tradition is spreading. Booby rolls for all!
 
CFrance November 18, 2015
There's this dish we have every year. I hate it. But my husband grew up with it, so I make it every year. The good thing, since he's the only one who eats it, is it lasts in the fridge forever without spoiling. It's like a fruitcake; I'm sure I could save it for next year and re-serve it. It's one apple, one orange, one bag of fresh cranberries, and sugar. His parents had a hand grinder, and I remember every TG the grinder being attached to the end of the formica kitchen table and my father-in-law patiently grinding everything--skin, pith, and all--together. Then the sugar was mixed in. Bleurgh. <br /><br />For years all we had was a Cuisinart, so I chopped it all up in that. Then last year I finally caved and bought a Kitchenaid mixer with grinder attachment. My first attempt went flying across the room, plastering a kitchen cabinet, but I finally figured it out.<br /><br />For me, there must be a can of jelled Ocean Spray. No cranberries in any way resembling cranberries for me, thankyouverymuch.<br /><br />
 
Toddie November 18, 2015
We have something similar, CFrance, but without the apple. I just throw an un-peeled orange, a bag of cranberries and sugar into the food processor. It is lovely on a tukey sandwich.
 
Ann L. November 18, 2015
My mother was--and is--a Southern lady. Ambrosia was only for Christmas, but at Thanksgiving and Christmas a must-have item on the table was Angel Salad, a sweet molded salad concocted of lime jello, cream cheese, celery, pimento and pecans. It was a lovely pale green, and was surprisingly good. The recipe, in my ancient black notebook, is in her handwriting.
 
Jane November 18, 2015
Please share the recipe!
 
AntoniaJames November 18, 2015
Alas, I was raised in the household of a patrician purist who also happened to be a great cook. Our Thanksgiving was extremely simple, almost to the point of being austere by today's standards: basic roast turkety with classic WASP stuffing made with Pepperidge Farm white bread + the usual aromatics; long grain white rice + simple gravy (I had no idea that many people eat mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving until I went away to college, well north of the Mason-Dixon line); peas made special with a few button mushrooms and a small knob of butter; cranberry sauce from a can; one pie, pumpkin, made using the recipe from the back of the can of Libby's pumpkin puree, served without whipped cream or ice cream. The most special treat of all was the fragrant pan of her "featherbeds" - light, luscious potato rolls. We all thought it was such a wonderful meal. I still do. <br /><br />I loved watching and learning from my mother as she effortlessly put that meal together. When we each tell the family what we're grateful for, I always mention how thankful I am for all that I learned from her. ;o)
 
scotrotsios November 18, 2015
At every holiday, including Thanksgiving, we had a fruit salad made with canned fruit cocktail, canned pineapple chunks, maraschino cherries, green grapes, sour cream and mini marshmallows. My kids hate it but I can't help but love it. Another item always on the table - the pickle and olive dish!
 
Linda T. November 18, 2015
Haha! We called that ambrosia. ;) I live overseas & have made this at the holidays to the horror of my foreign relatives & children. Once I even brought back mini-marshmallows so I could make it. Ours had shredded coconut in it too.
 
scotrotsios November 18, 2015
Yes! Our fruit salad had coconut too!!! Possibly either a 1960's thing or a Southern thing or both? Oh, and I almost forgot the original Chex Mix. Last year, I located the original recipe from the 1960's online and it was awesome!
 
Jessica W. November 20, 2015
We do Watergate salad, but it's sweet. Pistachio Jello, chopped walnuts or pecans, crushed pineapple, Cool Whip (defrosted), and mini marshmallows. Seems and looks horrible, until you taste it. While most of my table is full of organic and vegetarian dishes, this one is from my grandmother.
 
Linda T. November 21, 2015
Yes & I've had that with pound cake & heath bars mixed into it, served in a glass trifle dish,if you can believe it... ; ) (my brothers mother & law makes it) & it is a lovely mint green color to boot! :) LOVE it!
 
Lorrie H. November 18, 2015
We always make the same thing every year because if I try something new on Thanksgiving it would cause a riot! But it is all delicious so there's that. Brined turkey, apple cider gravy, fresh simple cranberry sauce, Waldorf salad, fresh boiled green beans with bacon, stuffing, and potato rolls. And a Pumpkin and Apple pie of course!
 
Kay R. November 18, 2015
I'm from the West Indies and every family gathering, including Thanksgiving, sees a large macaroni and cheese casserole on the table. We would all complain loudly if it wasn't there. Interestingly, I've come across many southern black families who have the same tradition.
 
Becky November 18, 2015
Lauren, where's the recipe for the green jello Christmas tree dish? Thanks.
 
laurenlocally November 18, 2015
Hi Becky! Here you go: Let me know if you make it :-) https://food52.com/recipes/39356-pear-green-jello-salad
 
Pisanella November 18, 2015
But why would anyone think of it? babyfork? From where does it originate?
 
babyfork November 18, 2015
I found this very interesting history of sweet potatoes from the Library of Congress. Scroll down and you'll get your answer. http://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2010/11/a-sweet-potato-history/
 
L. W. November 18, 2015
Holiday meals now include what my niece dubbed "yummy jello" about twenty-five years ago. Lime or lemon jello, cool whip, crushed pineapple - and softened cream cheese if anyone remembers it! Christmastime Yummy Jello gets maraschino cherries sprinkled on top - it's not Christmas without something bright red, eh?!
 
laurenlocally November 18, 2015
Very similar, we just use pears. https://food52.com/recipes/39356-pear-green-jello-salad
 
babyfork November 18, 2015
Oh, now I remember! I think there was a canned pear slice served with the Jell-O salad my grandmother made. Funny, looking at the recipe I feel like she was serving a deconstructed Jell-O salad. Individual molds with a pear slice and a chunk of cream cheese on the side. Does anyone else remember the cream cheese being served separately and not mixed into the Jell-O itself? I wonder if she misread the recipe many years ago!
 
babyfork November 18, 2015
For Thanksgiving my grandmother used to make individual green jello fruit salads. She served them on a lettuce leaf accompanied by a chunk of cream cheese. As a child I always found them odd, but liked them anyway. I haven't had one in over 25 years. I wish I could find her recipe!
 
laurenlocally November 18, 2015
I remember the lettuce/jello combo fondly.