The lore of American Thanksgiving suggests that everyone gathers around a table laden with the same iconic dishes from coast to coast, encircling a bronzed turkey worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting. In practice, that’s not the full picture. When it comes to the Turkey Day table in many Southern homes, most of us serve up a combination of predictable standards and local specialties that might perplex folks from another part of the country, or even county.
A key to a successful Thanksgiving feast is to plan a reasonable, doable menu with lots of make-ahead items. Write out a timeline and to-do list for each dish. Delegate the parts you hate to do. Be honest with yourself about time constraints, culinary prowess, refrigerator and oven space, the number of cooks who want to stir the pot, and most importantly, your habits, expectations, and traditions, plus those of your guests.
Family rituals are nice, but there’s a fine line between staying the course and getting stuck in a rut. Most guests would welcome a modest shake-up, just a few new flavors to grace the table and sit alongside the must-haves. 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 lifestyle choice or grudge match.
No matter the menu, the goal of Thanksgiving cooks should be to make each guest feel comforted by at least one dish on the table, especially if it’s something that person has looked forward to for the past 364 days. Put it on the table without commentary, pass the gravy, and don’t give it a second thought. Everyone will feel thankful.
This is a simple, straightforward turkey recipe. The process must be launched 3 days before the bird goes in the oven, but most of the time is hands-off. Dry-brining the bird with kosher salt yields juicy, seasoned meat and crisp skin.
Country ham is the South’s masterful contribution to the world’s best hams, but it isn’t always easy to find a place that will slice it paper-thin to order. In those cases, turn to Italian speck or prosciutto. This dish delivers the flavors of the familiar green bean casserole, right down to the crunchy onion topping, but feels fresh and inventive.
Like barbecue, dressing—or stuffing— reveals wide regional differences. We can’t even agree on what to call it, much less how to make it. If you want to make an informed guess on where people grew up, ask them what they call it and then ask them to describe their favorite style. There is little agreement from region to community to family on what people will recognize, much less accept, as Thanksgiving dressing. Or stuffing…
There are pie people and cake people, but on Thanksgiving, most cake people are willing to take a walk on the pie side. Pecan pie is classic, but this one is different enough to pique interest without leaving purists feeling swindled. Black walnuts are a fall and winter treat in the mountain South, but not everyone likes their distinctive flavor, so feel free to replace them with English walnuts or more pecans.