This Kentucky Family's Thanksgiving Traditions Include a Trash Can Turkey

The Latham family celebrates with the usual trimmings and the main course cooked in a trash can.

Latham's Midway, Kentucky Farm
Photo: Peter Frank Edwards; Stylist: Dakota Willimon

The Lathams' Midway, Kentucky, farm is idyllic on all counts. Their home, located in textbook horse country, is in rolling green hills dotted with mature trees and crisscrossed by a spindly web of black wooden fences. The 1850s farmhouse, with wide porches and steep gables piped with gingerbread trim, feels right at home in the bucolic landscape. It's a friendly-looking house that seems like it's seen a fair share of celebrations, and it has. Since they moved in six years ago, Shannon Latham and her husband, Davant, have hosted some 20 family members for Thanksgiving nearly every year.

Paper Turkey Thanks
The youngest children make paper turkeys, and then everyone writes down what they're thankful for. Peter Frank Edwards; Styling: Dakota Willimon

"It's almost like being at camp," says Shannon of the five-day celebration that brings together relatives of all ages. "We're singing songs that you sing when you're five because we have a five-year-old here. And then the children get to hear the grandparents' favorites from their day, so it's all just very endearing and heartwarming."

Latham Family Thanksgiving Table
he dining room table is dressed to the nines with an eclectic mix of formal heirlooms and newer, more casual pieces. Peter Frank Edwards; Styling: Dakota Willimon

The other traditions passed down over the years are more treasured than the old campfire tunes. "We're trying to preserve the Southern tradition of using our cherished heirlooms and teaching the next generation to do the same," says Shannon, who owns and runs the children's clothier Little English with her daughter, Dunn. "Creating those memories is so important, and for me, it starts with the Thanksgiving table. I usually set it two days ahead but always leave several things to be done so that all the girls in the family can help finish it. My mother-in-law gave me her mother's linens, and we use them every year. To see her lay her hands on those pieces that were given to her—and that she gave to me—is just really special."

Yes, they polish the silver and set the table with china. Still, the Lathams' holiday festivities are far from stuffy, thanks partly to an unconventional turkey-cooking method inspired by family travels.

"One year, my parents were bringing their boat up the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and stopped in Columbus, Mississippi," says Shannon. "When they got off, they saw a bunch of trash cans sitting out in a big, open field. They thought, 'What in the world?' And someone told them, 'Oh, you've docked just in time! We're having a trash can-turkey cook-off.' My father loved it, so he came back and told everybody all about it."

Turkey on Trash Can Grill
The turkey is cooked on a stake under a 20-gallon metal trash can. Peter Frank Edwards; Styling: Dakota Willimon

The following November, Davant smoked a turkey in an overturned metal trash can warmed by a heaping pile of hot coals. It was a hit: His humbly cooked bird earned a prized place on the buffet, right next to Shannon's more conventional oven-roasted turkey.

"It's become kind of a competition between his trash can turkey and my oven-roasted version to see whose is the best," she adds with a laugh. "The cook-off is spectacular fun and sets the scene. It's sort of like tailgating. We're waiting on it all day, watching it, stoking the coals, and then the big reveal is really exciting too."

Latham Family Praying and Serving Dinner
The family says the blessing before filling their plates with old family recipes, including everything from rice consommé to green-tomato pickle. Peter Frank Edwards; Styling: Dakota Willimon

Of course, the trash can method has its drawbacks, says Shannon. The makeshift 20-gallon metal smoker is more open to the elements and uses a wooden stake to hold the bird. "One year, Davant's turkey was so perfectly cooked and tender that when he lifted the trash can to do the reveal, we realized the turkey had fallen completely off the stake. It was good to eat but not anything to look at. It was in bits and pieces for sure!" she recalls.

Latham Family Bloody Mary Bar
A Bloody Mary bar stocked with Zing Zang mix (the Lathams' favorite!) and an array of toppings invites guests to help themselves and stay out of the kitchen. Peter Frank Edwards; Styling: Dakota Willimon

But that's just part of the fun, she says. For Shannon and her family, Thanksgiving is about keeping cherished traditions alive. Trash can turkey and all.

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