The South's Most Storied Thanksgiving Side Dishes
The annual Thanksgiving parade of side dishes takes us on a familiar journey to places and people we know and love. Depending on what part of the South you're from or where you're gathering, that might mean a platter of Louisiana-style Shrimp-Stuffed Mirlitons, a skillet of Fried Arkansas Black Apples kissed with brown sugar and cinnamon, or a pan of spicy Texas cornbread dressing loaded with chorizo and peppers. We hope this collection will inspire you to add a new recipe to the sideboard this year, bring back an old-fashioned favorite, and—most of all—give thanks for the deliciously diverse dishes of the South.
Alabama: Collard Greens with Garlic and Sippets
Alabama was home to Eugene Walter, who spent his life observing Southern food and culture and wrote with passion about the cooks, recipes, and culinary traditions of his beloved region. A prolific artist, poet, novelist, editor, and bon vivant, he spent decades living in New York, Paris, and Rome before returning home to Mobile in 1979.
Walter's respect and affection for greens shines forth in his masterpiece, American Cooking: Southern Style, an essential volume in the Foods of the World series from Time-Life Books. In another classic cookbook, The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink, he offered two recipes: Wednesday Greens and Sunday Greens, one plain and the other fancy. He inspired our version with his mention of sippets, a British take on croutons. Sippets are tidbits of stale bread that are fried with cloves of garlic. Finish with a splash of red wine vinegar as well as Walter's beloved freshly ground pepper.
Arkansas: Fried Arkansas Black Apples
Recipe: Fried Arkansas Black Apples
Fried apples add a sweet presence to the Thanksgiving table, where cranberry sauce sometimes carries the fruit flag all alone. The state's namesake apple, the Arkansas Black, dates back to 1870, when a Benton County farmer encountered an impressive seedling in his orchard. A descendant of the Winesap, it earned national acclaim through the 1920s for its beautiful color, tart flavor, round shape, and extraordinary keeping qualities.
With refrigeration making root cellars obsolete, the Arkansas Black's national star dimmed, but it has remained a treasure in its home state. Elizabeth and John Aselage of A & A Orchard in Green Forest grow 50 different types of apples, taking them to grateful customers at farmers' markets in Fayetteville, Eureka Springs, and Bentonville.
Even after 40 years in the apple-growing business, they are partial to the Arkansas Black. "It's the last apple we pick each October, and it's gorgeous—that deep, dark red color close to black," says John. "It's tart and dense, becoming sweeter and a bit softer over time."
Modern fried apple recipes tend to call for "firm and tart" types, specifically Granny Smiths. But old-timers fried up what they had on hand—from their own trees, a neighbor's orchard, or the store. If Arkansas Black apples are available in your area, this recipe is a great way to enjoy them. Or you can use a firm red apple, such as Red Delicious or Honeycrisp.
Since the process of frying them and the addition of brown sugar enhances any apple's flavor, look for smaller ones, which are prettier when sliced. Those cranberries needn't claim all the visual glory on the holiday table.
Georgia: Sea Island Crab Fried Rice
Recipe: Sea Island Crab Fried Rice
Made with two Lowcountry staples—freshly caught blue crab and long-grain rice—crab rice is a signature Gullah Geechee dish. It graces both everyday and celebration tables throughout the Sea Islands, where palmettos and pine trees tower over waters teeming with fish, crabs, shrimp, and oysters.
James Beard Award-winning Savannah chef Mashama Bailey includes it on her menu at The Grey, saying, "The Gullah Geechee people have lived on the barrier islands and along the coast from North Carolina to Florida for generations. During my time in this region, I've discovered that many of the foods I thought were indigenous to Savannah can also be found in the Charleston, South Carolina, area."
When Bailey wanted to put crab rice on the menu, she reached out to "the realest chef in the region," Charleston's BJ Dennis, who shared his traditional recipe. Dennis says crab rice is basic home cooking. "I grew up helping pick the crabmeat and learned how to cook it, to caramelize it just right," he says.
Crab rice is also a staple dish for Gullah cookbook author Sallie Ann Robinson, who grew up catching crabs off the docks on Daufuskie Island, near Savannah. Robinson included her mom's crab fried rice on catering menus and featured it in her first cookbook, Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way. Her family recipe, adapted here, is easy to prepare and makes a wonderful counterpoint to the holiday classics.
Prepare the rice in advance, not only to save time on Thanksgiving morning but also because fried rice tastes best when made with cold cooked rice that's been broken up into individual grains.
Kentucky: Fluffy Corn Pudding
Recipe: Fluffy Corn Pudding
In the heart of the Bluegrass State, a beloved establishment prepares to welcome guests to its annual feast. The Beaumont Inn opened its doors 100 years ago, in Kentucky's oldest town of Harrodsburg, in what had been a college for women during the mid-1800s.
Family owned and operated for five generations, it has grown from a small guesthouse for alumni of Beaumont College to an award-winning hotel. Its Thanksgiving menu draws return visitors along with new guests, not just for turkey with all the trimmings but also for corn pudding—which is one of the inn's signature dishes and most requested recipes.
Beaumont Inn's corn pudding was perfected in the 1960s and is served at lunch and dinner daily, earning generations of fans who've come to expect it on the menu. Their nontraditional recipe calls for white corn and involves three sessions of careful stirring with a fork during the baking process. The result is a dual-textured casserole with a delicate custard on top and the pleasing crunch of white corn beneath.
Our simplified recipe, which uses yellow corn for a pop of color (white corn will work just as well) and parsley and scallions for extra flavor, doesn't require nearly as much effort and has a light and fluffy texture that might just rival the original.
Louisiana: Shrimp-Stuffed Mirlitons
Recipe: Shrimp-Stuffed Mirlitons
Unless you grew up in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, or their environs, the word "mirliton" (often pronounced "mel-ee-TAWN") in this recipe's title might not catch your eye. Whether pickled; glazed; or stuffed with crabmeat, sausage, and shrimp, mirlitons are beloved in Louisiana.
The pale green, pear-shaped squash (also known as chayote) has roots in ancient Mayan and Aztec foodways. Mirlitons used their gourd-family DNA to spread swiftly on vines throughout the Caribbean. By the early 1800s, the plant could be found in New Orleans kitchens and backyard gardens. Then Hurricanes Katrina and Rita took their tolls, and the plump and curvaceous vegetable faced a crisis. But thanks to the dedication of home cooks, gardeners, and agricultural experts, it's making a comeback.
Case in point: About five years ago, New Orleans resident Renee Lapeyrolerie planted a mirliton sprout in her Tremé backyard. With lots of patience, as well as advice from family and friends, it is now flourishing. Mirliton.org, an organization committed to the survival and renaissance of this gourd, has named her plant the Lapeyrolerie mirliton in honor of her success with revitalizing this locally grown gem.
This is our version of a classic Creole dish, Shrimp-Stuffed Mirlitons, long a Thanksgiving standby in South Louisiana. Preparing the squash requires a little care, as you can easily cut through or tear the cooked halves, so take your time with this step. The rest of the recipe comes together effortlessly and makes a savory addition to your spread.
Mississippi: Grated Sweet Potato Pudding
Recipe: Grated Sweet Potato Pudding
Sweet potatoes grow well in many Southern states, but Mississippi takes particular pride in harvesting this crop. The North Mississippi town of Vardaman claims the title of Sweet Potato Capital of the World, and its regional agricultural tradition endures. The town will celebrate it at the 46th annual Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival this November.
We are saluting Mississippi's history with an old-school grated pudding, which is also known as a sweet potato pone. This near-forgotten classic calls for sweet potatoes, peeled and grated, sweetened with sugar (and sometimes molasses and spices), enriched with eggs, and baked into a rustic pudding.
The creamy dish is accented beautifully by a topping of crunchy chopped pecans, a reminder that wild pecan trees still thrive in the lower Mississippi Valley.
North Carolina: Simple Mashed Rutabagas and Potatoes
Rutabagas may not look like much, piled up in a heap at a farmers' market, but chef Vivian Howard knows they're worthy of a place on the Thanksgiving table. She includes this root vegetable among the two dozen Eastern North Carolina ingredients featured in her award-winning cookbook, Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South. It's an essential crop in Eastern North Carolina's coastal region for thriving in sandy soil, surviving freezing winters and sultry summers, and filling hungry stomachs during hard times.
Howard loves the flavor of "bagars," including their greens, but notes the challenge of preparing them—their tough, thick skin and dry texture can make them tricky to peel and chop. Inside, they're an autumnal yellow, but outside they range from various shades of purple to brown and may be coated in food-grade wax to protect them from their tendency to dry out during cold-weather storage.
We say it's worth the effort for their natural sweetness and the handsome color waiting inside. While Howard prefers rutabagas that are roughly mashed, in this version, we pair them with Yukon Gold potatoes for a creamier, smoother texture and spice things up with a little nutmeg.
South Carolina: Buttermilk Spoon Bread
Recipe: Buttermilk Spoon Bread
Spoon bread has been proudly present on our sideboards since the late 18th century. Composed of cornmeal, eggs, milk, and butter, it appears in early recipe books as "batter bread," "egg bread," and "cornmeal bread."
Spoon bread's appeal lies in its marriage of qualities found in three other favorite dishes: It's satisfying like cornbread, it's comforting like custard, and it creates anticipation and delight like an airy soufflé. Long enjoyed at celebrations throughout the region, it has a special resonance in South Carolina because of its signature ingredient, corn.
More than 20 years ago, Anson Mills opened its doors in Columbia under the direction of Glenn Roberts. Determined to recover and restore traditional cooking staples, Roberts and his team got to work bringing back heirloom grains and other ingredients that once flourished in the South—like Carolina Gold rice. They also tracked down nearly extinct types of corn, generating exceptional grits and cornmeal for today's kitchens.
Our spoon bread recipe calls for beating the egg whites and yolks separately and gently folding the puffy whites into the batter just before baking. This traditional method adds height and a little glamour to the dish.
Tennessee: Baked Mac and Cheese with Bacon
Recipe: Baked Mac and Cheese with Bacon
Stove-top macaroni and cheese is an everyday pleasure, but at Southern Thanksgivings, we long for a big pan of the comforting baked version. This creamy casserole connects us to cooks and kitchens of the early 19th century. Their "macaroni pie" is a clear ancestor of the dish we love today.
Cheese, noodles, butter, and milk are musts, of course, but we wanted a little sizzle to make it a recipe to remember. "Sizzle" led to "bacon," and that one word turned our eyes toward Tennessee, home to Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams. At this legendary smokehouse in East Tennessee, Allan Benton and his team produce gloriously smoky bacon that they ship all over the country to chefs as well as home cooks. To pay even more homage to the state, we added a tangy splash of buttermilk to the cheese sauce in honor of Knoxville's Cruze Farm, a family dairy that makes some of the best around.
Our take on this classic is familiar enough for the traditionalists but revved up just enough to please those eager for something unexpected.
Texas: Spicy Cornbread Dressing with Chorizo
Of all the side dishes to include on your Thanksgiving menu, everyone can agree that dressing is essential. What goes into it—crawfish, pecans, sausage, oysters, cream of chicken soup—is another story. If you're a Texan, dressing probably starts with cornbread, and if you're Hugo Ortega, the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Houston's H Town Restaurant Group, it includes chorizo. Ortega says the spicy pork sausage, which he makes at his restaurants, is a must.
In addition to the widely known dark red chorizo, he makes two other varieties: green (which gets its signature color from leafy greens; serrano chile peppers; and bouquets of cilantro, epazote, and parsley) and Chorizo Istmeño (a specialty of his home region of Oaxaca in Mexico, which uses chintextle, a seasoning paste made of chiles, spices, and dried shrimp).
Like many families, Ortega and his wife, Tracy (who co-owns H Town), celebrate Thanksgiving twice. First, they join her relatives for a traditional feast with cornbread dressing (studded with bacon or chorizo), giblet gravy, pickled peaches, and beets. Then, they head to his mother's home where his seven siblings enjoy tamales, posole, turkey in adobo, and a spread of desserts made by his brother Ruben, H Town's pastry chef.
Our hearty dressing takes its cues from Ortega and the state of Texas. We added plenty of fresh Mexican chorizo and chopped jalapeño for extra heat, plus green bell pepper and cilantro.
Virginia: Scalloped Oysters
Recipe: Scalloped Oysters
Bernie Herman, renowned folklorist and esteemed professor of Southern studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, knows more than most people do about oysters. That's because he grew up in a community on Virginia's Eastern Shore, accessible to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. In 2002, he bought land in the area, where he now tends his own small oyster-restoration project and supports efforts to rebuild and nourish the farming and seafood-harvesting communities, which have suffered great economic declines in recent decades.
For Herman, Thanksgiving means fresh oysters, roasted outdoors in the morning sunlight while the turkey (stuffed with the family's traditional dressing made with sausage, oysters, and hominy) cooks in the oven. He notes that today's scalloped oysters are likely descendants of oyster pie, a traditional Virginia dish that dates back to the 1700s. It's double crusted and features fresh oysters in an herbed cream sauce.
The modern culinary term "scalloped" denotes an ingredient—which could be anything from tomatoes to potatoes to oysters—layered in a casserole dish with breadcrumbs or cracker crumbs; enriched with cream and butter; and baked into a rich, satisfying side. Herman thinks the commercial production of saltines in the late 1800s may have led to the rise of scalloped oysters, the simpler—though no less delicious—dish we share here.
West Virginia: Candy Roaster Squash with Sorghum, Black Walnuts, and Cranberries
West Virginia is the only state located entirely within the Appalachian Mountains. With the brief May-to-September growing season there, sturdy crops are welcomed and cherished by cooks and gardeners, particularly produce selections that stand up to frost and keep well into the colder months.
In her award-winning book, Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes, Ronni Lundy celebrates the foodways of the Mountain South, writing: "In the mountains, affection is keen for winter squash varieties not commonly found elsewhere." One particular kind worth seeking out is the orange-skinned Candy Roaster. Lundy describes its marvelous sweet taste and "creamy textured flesh that is more akin to a sweet potato than a pumpkin."
A simple stunner for your spread, this roasted squash is topped with two West Virginia staples: black walnuts and sorghum syrup. (The cranberries aren't native, but given the occasion, they add a vibrant and festive note.) Butternut squash makes an excellent substitute in this dish if the lovely Candy Roaster isn't an option.