The lore of American Thanksgiving feasts suggests that everyone from coast to coast gathers around a table laden with the same iconic dishes– a turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie. In practice, that’s not the full picture. When it comes to a Southern family’s T-Day table, most of us serve up a combination of familiar standards that everyone would expect to see sitting alongside local specialties that might perplex folks from another part of the country, or county. Family dinner table loyalties and habits hold true any old Thursday, but come Thanksgiving, we double down. The only consistency is that each of us is certain our version is the best.
Turkey? Probably, although some brine and baste and others deep-fry. Some take advantage of the frozen bird that comes free with a grocery purchase. Others consider only heirloom and pedigreed birds that were raised at retreat centers where they nibbled on organic acorns and sipped LeCroix. Cooks shouldn’t be scared of a turkey. Granted, it’s the largest object that many cooks tackle all year, but they aren’t difficult and the live ones aren’t all that smart.
Consider dressing. In the bird or a buttered baking dish? Some people will stir up their Stove Top, but others will crumble cornbread and stir in sage and sausage or things unimaginable to other communities. There are towns where it’s unconscionable to omit oysters from the dressing, which is baffling to landlubber families that cannot fathom wanting warm, grey, briny lumps in their dressing, or in anything for that matter.
Pumpkin pie might prance across the national stage, but in the South, we turn to sweet potato, pecan, and chess, knowing full well they are superior. And that’s just the pies. We assemble enough desserts to warrant their own zone on the buffet, if not their own zip code. These are sinful, sublime desserts that render us speechless with the first bite each and every year.
For the requisite cranberries some of us accept nothing less than fresh berries lovingly tossed with juicy citrus, sprightly herbs, and a touch of organic sweetener. For others, the sound of the holiday season isn’t a particular song or carol; it’s the sucking, slurping sound that a cylinder of crimson cranberry gelatin makes as slips out of a can.
Congealed salad? Some of us have special molds and serving trays on which to display our jiggling jewel-toned creations. Others pretend they’d never deign to let such a thing cross their pursed lips. But you know what? We buy millions of boxes of Jell-O each year, so we might as well fess up and whip up some poppy seed mayonnaise.
Gravy ranges from bottled to reconstituted to fussed over as though the gravy boat were a holy font. Great gravy can cover shortcomings in other dishes on the table, both literally and figuratively, so it’s prudent to make sure there’s plenty to go around.
Some families (and you know who you are) chuck the whole classic menu and eat what they and theirs crave most, such as lasagna or a fish fry. We must let them. Telling Southerners what they should have for Thanksgiving and how they ought to cook those dishes, especially those they grew up eating, is perilous if not ill-advised. It’s like telling someone how to pick out a husband or wife: There are too many variables and there’s no accounting for taste.
Any choice we make is the best choice when it’s what a person has looked forward to for the past 364 days since the last Thanksgiving feast, from butterball to oddball. Sometimes we gaze at the brimming table with comfort and joy, and sometimes we’re only staring to try to figure out what on earth could be in that bowl.
The goal of Southern Thanksgiving menus everywhere should be to make each guest feel comforted by at least one thing on the table. If there is a specific recipe or dish that embodies the essence of Thanksgiving for someone you love, make it for them (even if it's some cockamamie thing from that side of the family). Thanksgiving is a single day, not a lifestyle choice or grudge match. Put it on the table without commentary, pass the gravy, and don’t give it a second thought.
Everyone will feel thankful, and it’ll make a great story after enough time passes. Our food stories are the stories of us.