Regional Thanksgiving foods of the US

High angle view of happy African American family toasting during Thanksgiving lunch at dining table.
Thanksgiving dinner is the perfect way to showcase regional fare © Skynesher /Getty Images

As Thanksgiving approaches, a low rumble of stomachs eagerly anticipating the treasured holiday foods can be heard across the country. Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest and gives thanks to the bounty of the land. But to most – if we're being honest – American history and hand-turkeys take a back seat to dreams of plump turkey, tasty pies, big family dinners and still more pie.

Every family interprets the Thanksgiving meal in their own way based on the foods of their region and their own ethnic background and traditions. A family with Mexican roots might adapt a Thanksgiving tradition and serve turkey tamales. In Hawaii, a turkey might get roasted in a traditional underground imu and pineapple could stand in for cranberries. Everyone has their own traditions and it's all fair game on Thanksgiving. 

Talking turkey

Turkey may be king on Thanksgiving, but ham, roast beef, goose and other roasts will show up on tables across America. Crab and lobster dinners aren't unheard of either (in fact, if you really want to replicate the first Thanksgiving, you should have a shellfish, eel and venison feast).

Even if you’re sticking with the classic turkey, preparation varies widely: brine or no brine; butter-basted or sweet glazed; hours in the oven, low and slow in a barbecue or a Southern USA delicacy.   

And then of course is the legendary three-meat monster – the turducken. Hailing from Louisana, this indulgent dish is duck stuffed in a chicken stuffed in a turkey, each layer with a different type of stuffing. This, my friends, is what the holiday is really all about. 

Thanksgiving stuffing in bowl
Whether it's stuffed in the turkey or in a fancy bowl stuffing or dressing is always a great Thanksgiving dish © Tetra images RF / Getty Images

Sides and sauces

Stuffing vs dressing

Stuffing or dressing? The simple distinction is that stuffing is cooked inside of a turkey, while dressing is cooked in a baking dish. But both terms are used no matter how or in what body cavity it gets cooked. In general “dressing” is more commonly used in the South, but it varies from family to family. Basic stuffings are a baked blend of bread, grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts.

Sausage stuffings are more common in the east, cornbread dressing is a southern specialty, and oyster stuffing shows up both in the Gulf states and in New England. Even though oysters abound along the West Coast, they rarely end up stuffed inside of a bird - more likely you'll find a sourdough and apple stuffing.

Gravy

Good gravy, there a lot of ideas about what makes a good gravy across the US: cream gravy, sage gravy, even a red chile gravy in New Mexico. Perhaps the most unusual regional variation is found in the South and involves the addition of sliced or crumbled hard-boiled eggs to a turkey gravy. Southerners accustomed to this might lick their chops, elsewhere even the staunchest egg fans might wince at the idea.

Cranberry sauce in pitcher on table
Cranberries take centerstage during Thanksgiving © Ray Kachatorian / Getty Images

Cranberries

Cranberries grow in boggy areas throughout the Northern Hemisphere, but the large-fruited North American species is the culinary cranberry of choice. No matter where you are in the US, something made of cranberry is more than likely to show up at Thanksgiving dinner.

If it’s coming from a can or you’re making your own, the jellied pure cranberry sauce leans toward the western US, while cranberry relish – typically with citrus peel – is more common in the northeast. And cranberry salad is a popular trend in the Midwest and South.

Sweet potatoes vs yams

In the US, “yam” and “sweet potato” are used interchangeably, with yam being more popular in the western states. So we're clear, the typically orange root vegetable that you see all over are sweet potatoes, though they're likely also labeled yam at American food markets. A yam, is more like a potato or yucca with rough brown, bark-like skin.  

Candied sweet potatoes are sometimes served with a coating of toasty marshmallows (though that's a controversial take) and are a side to savory mains or are the star of the show in a sweet potato pie in many Southern homes. Mashed yams are a Thanksgiving staple of the West. 

Corn, corn and more corn

The US is a nation that loves its corn, so it's not surprising that it shows up on the Thanksgiving dinner table from plain corn on the cob to complicated corn-based breads and casseroles. Just as cornbread stuffing is a common find in the South, cornbread itself (everyone's grandma has the absolute best recipe), along with its cousins the corn casserole and the souffle-like corn spoon bread are common Thanksgiving accompaniments throughout the South and Midwest.

Homemade macaroni and cheese on a plate
Macaroni and cheese is the perfect complement to turkey © Mona Makela / Getty Images

Macaroni and cheese

Macaroni and cheese is a year-round food, or at least it should be. If it’s not present year-round where you live, you should look into making that happen. But particularly in the South, mac and cheese sidles up next to turkey as naturally as the mashed potatoes and broccoli casserole. And why not?

Jello salad

With more variations than you can jiggle a stick at, the definitive Jello salad recipe is impossible to pin down. It usually starts with lime Jello with the addition of ingredients in an attempt to turn a sugary gelatin dessert into something resembling a salad. But let’s be honest: they all end up looking like whipped alien guts. Common additions for the popular Utah treat include cottage cheese, pineapple, celery, carrot, walnuts, canned mandarin oranges and maraschino cherries.

A plate with winter wild rice with yams and fresh herbs
Wild rice is the official grain of Minnesota © Anna Hoychuk / Shutterstock

Wild rice

One of North America’s great native crops, wild rice (a cousin to Asian rice) gets unjustly ignored much of the year and then shows up in abundance on Thanksgiving in the form of pilafs, salads, and as an ingredient in stuffings. Wild rice is the official state grain of Minnesota and is most popular in the northern Midwest along the Canada border, where the grain is native.

Creamed onions

In New England, it's common to find a bowl of creamed onions on table. Elsewhere around the country diners would wonder what to do with a stand-alone bowl of pearl onions in a rich cream sauce. Do you put them on something? Nope. One of the few times you'll see onions as the featured ingredient in American cuisine, creamed onions are eaten as-is as a side to the main course.

Desserts

Pumpkin pie vs sweet potato pie

Nothing says Thanksgiving like pumpkin pie – unless you live in the South, where sweet potato pie reigns supreme. One is a gourd, the other is a tuber, but the preparation of the two pies is quite similar, the spicing is the same, the color is comparable, and, apart from a slight texture difference, a casual pie eater might not know the difference (nor care).

Concord Grape Pie with rye crust is topped with vanilla ice cream
Making a Concord grape pie is a definite labor of love © Deb Lindsey /The Washington Post / Getty Images

Concord grape pie

Outside of New York state and surrounding regions where the inky purple Concord grape is a hallmark of harvest time, the idea of a grape pie sounds mighty odd. Baking? With fresh grapes? Making a Concord grape pie is a labor of love (emphasis on “labor”), involving removing the thick skins and seeding the grapes before cooking the mixture down and thickening the filling.

Indian pudding

A staple of New England Thanksgiving dinners, Indian pudding is a thick, long-cooked cornmeal porridge sweetened with molasses and spiced with cinnamon and ginger. Sometimes raisins or other fruits and nuts join the party. It’s an undeniably ugly thing and looks every bit the over 200- year-old dessert that it is, but one spoonful on a cold Thanksgiving evening could easily make you bypass the prettier pies and settle down with a nice bowl of sweet mush.

Pecan pie, chess pie, Derby pie, Jeff Davis pie, sugar cream pie

The pecan, North America’s finest nut-based contribution to the culinary world, is the star of the show in this custard pie specialty of the South. To many families, pecan pie trumps all other desserts. Endless variations can be found, ranging from very custardy pies to almost pure nut and corn syrup pies. Sometimes a raisin shows up for a visit.

Add chocolate and bourbon, and you get a Derby pie, a Kentucky specialty. Remove the pecans entirely, top it with meringue or dollop of whipped cream and you'd end up with a Jeff Davis pie. Add cornmeal and you're in chess pie territory, an old New England recipe that settled in Tennessee and surrounding states. In Indiana you'll find the sugar cream pie, a white flour and cream pie that's another variation of the pecan-free pecan pie.

Persimmon pudding

Thanksgiving is late for a harvest festival, but it's perfect timing for persimmons. Persimmon pudding, a particular specialty of Indiana, is America's homegrown version of a steamed pudding, similar to an English Christmas pudding, using the ripe fruits of the American persimmon, native to the Midwest and South. In California, Japanese immigrants brought the Asian persimmon to the state, and the mushy-when-ripe hachiya variety is commonly used for making persimmon puddings.

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Do you have a favorite regional Thanksgiving food? Did your family invent their own tradition?

This article was originally published in November 2012 and updated in November 2020.

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