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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Rack of Lamb with Parmesan-Herb Crust
- 2 prepared racks of lamb, with ends of the bones scraped clean, or “Frenched”
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, plus some to grease pan
- 1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary (or 2 teaspoons dried)
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme (or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme)
- 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- 3/8 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
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.
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.
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter
- 2/3 cup honey, divided
- 2 1/4 teaspoons dry active yeast (about 1 packet)
- 2 large eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
- 4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
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."
- 1 pint frozen corn
- 3 eggs, beaten thick
- 1 cup milk
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 tablespoon melted butter
- 1/2 tablespoon sugar
- Salt and pepper
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.
We know you have dishes just like these—share yours with us in the comments!