Each year in the US as Thanksgiving approaches, a low rumble of stomachs eagerly anticipating treasured Thanksgiving foods can be heard across the country. The holiday celebrates the harvest and gives thanks to the bounty of the land, and every child learns about the first Thanksgiving meal, a multi-day feast where Pilgrim settlers shared a table with Native Americans. But to most - if we're being honest - American history and hand-turkeys take a back seat to dreams of roasts, pie, 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. Or you might have food traditions that emerged inexplicably from the thin autumn air. Does your family serve Concord grape sherbet during dinner (not as dessert)? Mine does. It’s all fair game on Thanksgiving.
If you travel around the US on Thanksgiving and are lucky enough to get invited to dinner, you’ll find shifting terminology, playful squabbles over the most authentic ingredients, and a number of unique regional foods:
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 fast and dangerous deep fry. If you find yourself among fans of culinary overkill, you might encounter the festive abomination of nature originating from Louisiana called the 'turducken': a duck stuffed in a chicken stuffed in a turkey, each layer with a different type of stuffing, all of which ends up stuffed in a human.
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.
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.
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, it’s nearly always called ‘cranberry sauce’ (even though it’s a jelly) and it emerges shaped exactly like the can. If 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 trends towards 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. Many remain convinced that orange sweet potatoes are called yams, and white variety are true sweet potatoes - never mind the fact that they're all the same species and have no relation to what the rest of the world knows as a yam. Candied sweet potatoes, often served with a coating of toasty marshmallows as a side to savory mains, are a Southern favorite that has spread fairly widely across the US; 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.
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 include cottage cheese, pineapple, celery, carrot, walnuts, canned mandarin oranges and maraschino cherries. Somebody somewhere outside of Utah must like Jello salad, but a lot of us suspect they’re time travelers from the 1950s. (A Google search for 'I love Jello salad' comes back with 8000 results, which in Google-speak is roughly equal to zero - and yet the tradition lives on.)
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?
One of North America’s great native crops, wild rice (not closely related 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.
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 feature ingredient in American cuisine, creamed onions are eaten as-is as a side to the main course.
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). And with that, I just managed to anger partisan pie lovers across the States.
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.
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 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.
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.
Do you have a favorite regional Thanksgiving food? Did your family invent their own tradition?
Andy Murdock is Lonely Planet's US Digital Editor and recently spent many hours turning himself purple baking a Concord grape pie.