Thanksgiving is decked with tradition, unlike many other holidays. Traditions range from what to eat to what the table is decorated with to what family members argue about. Many Thanksgivings wouldn’t be complete without homicidal threats and near misses with domestic violence reports. That’s as American as cranberry sauce in my family.
Of all the traditions that I can focus on, I’d like to talk about food, because this is a food column, after all, and while my rants are entertaining, they’re not the subject. My November holidays have been hosted in only four states, and while that’s a slim fraction of the country, this diversity has taught me that Thanksgiving is celebrated differently all over the country. The patriotic celebration of the harvest is as diverse as the nation itself.
Let’s talk turkey:
The big bird is arguably the most controversial piece of the meal. Most Utahns are familiar with the golden-brown, oven-crisped turkey that predominates the state. While this is traditional, there are many variations of this customary entree. Californians prefer to grill their bird. With a mixture of brining and rubbing the turkey, it creates a savory delicacy that is slow-cooked over indirect heat on a grill, lending itself the smoky-savory flavor that excites the palate and crowds tables. In New England, a maple-glazed turkey baked to perfection is the name of the game. My favorite turkey I’ve ever had was the Southern custom of a brined and deep-fried turkey. The high heat of the fryer paired with the richness of the peanut oil is a truly wonderful combination.
When you hear turkey, most people automatically think stuffing, and just like the bird itself, it varies by region. The Southwest focuses on cornbread. Paired with cumin, cilantro and all kinds of chiles, this spicy stuffing offers variation, putting a modern Hispanic twist on a classic American dish. In the Northwest, freshness is a key ingredient within all cuisine, especially the stuffing. Mixed with walnuts, hazelnuts, pears, cranberries and apples, this stuffing is different than the sage-and-celery staple. Regardless of what you choose, try something different in your stuffing. Whether it be oysters or Cajun seasoning, branch out.
This is where we lose the consistency of the meal. Dixie claims that collard greens are the most traditional of all the dishes, whereas the Midwest would claim wild rice. A few through-lines are green bean casserole and sweet potato (insert dish here), all of which seem to transcend the regional differences. At my Thanksgiving, favorites include creamed corn (also called fried corn in Southern states) and creamed mushrooms and pearl onions. Sides are really whatever you make them. A new favorite is my wife’s artichoke dip, found in the esteemed and exclusive region of the Gerrish household.
Aside from turkey, pie tends to be the most controversial piece of the meal. What kind? How many? Some might even delve into what a pie says about the baker. I don’t care, as long as it tastes good. There is an underground debate over the supremacy of pumpkin or sweet potato pie. Having tried both, I would like weigh in for the sweet potato. I love pumpkin pie as much as the next guy, probably more, but when you get down to it, pumpkin is bland. Sweet potato pie has everything that you wish pumpkin pie had. Try it. I dare you not to like it. Aside from the rustic orange pies, fruits and nuts lay snug under lattice crusts. Cherry pie in Michigan is a second state flag, and Southerners will find any excuse to make pecan pie, so it graces many of our Appalachian neighbors.
Regardless of where you’re from, cultural sampling is fun, especially from within your own country. Give some of these ideas a try, and have a happy holiday. I’ll be bunkered down under the table with a leg of turkey, avoiding the passive-aggressive conversation that will lead to not-so-passive confrontation. Happy Thanksgiving.