A look at popular traditions from coast to coast
Gathering friends, family and those you hold dear to celebrate and break bread is at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday. Over the years, Thanksgiving celebrations have led to traditions that have been molded by regional tastes, the availability of local produce and the subcultures within cities. It’s given the United States a singular holiday that’s been defined individually to families, cities, states and regions. This year, welcome a new tradition to your Thanksgiving table and discover what may be a dish you’ll cherish for years to come.
In the South
The south is known for its decadent cuisine and Thanksgiving does not disappoint. You’ll find an abundance of pies that appear from state to state. You’ll find that Floridian’s serve their favorite tart and sweet Key Lime pies. Kentucky natives have what’s known as Derby Pie, named after the famous annual horse race in Louisville, which is a cousin to the traditional Thanksgiving pecan pie. It has a sweet and gooey center but is loaded with chocolate and walnuts instead of pecans. And last but not least, synonymous with the south is sweet potato pie, which trumps pumpkin pie in all the deep South states.
Other accompaniments that may adorn Southern tables are butter flecked biscuits and cornbread instead of yeast rolls. If you’re going to rep Southern cornbread on your table for Thanksgiving, be sure to leave out the sugar, lest you be left with a Yankee Cornbread.
In the Midwest
In the heartland, tables are laden with delicious dishes that will delight any palate. You’re sure to find at least one casserole on a Midwestern Thanksgiving feast. A nationwide favorite that is always on the menu is green bean casserole. Even though canned foods have waned as a recipe staple, traditional green bean casserole still satisfies the nostalgia and comfort of Thanksgiving with its creamy, salty, crispy layers. If you’re looking to try a new holiday casserole, look no further than Minnesota. Minnesota is known for its wild rice casserole, also known as wild rice hotdish. Wild rice grows in abundance in the Great Lakes and is a local staple. This hotdish doesn’t stray too far from tradition, as it’s complete with a can of cream of soup to round out the holiday flavor.
Let’s not forget the fact that the Midwest is home to over 7,000 dairy farms. Give a nod to Wisconsin by putting out some beer cheese dip or a cheeseball on your appetizer spread. Or add some variety to your dessert table with Saint Louis, Missouri’s Gooey Butter Cake. It’s filled with cream cheese, butter and enough confectioner’s sugar to make you question your better judgment. Cut it into small squares, it’s decadent, and you’ll have a handheld delight that is sure to make you go back for seconds.
In the Northeast
While some may bicker between whether white bread dressing or cornbread dressing is better, New England avoids both entirely with its oyster dressing. Very few ingredients make up this signature dish, with the most important ingredient being saltine crackers. They’re crushed into small pieces, bound together with butter and heavy cream and then oysters are scattered throughout like little buried treasures.
Other Northeastern fall delights include mulled apple cider picked up from a local roadside farm stand, studded with cloves and warm spices, or Vermont maple syrup being used to sweeten the cranberry sauce. A little less conventional, but delicious nonetheless, is the manicotti that New Jersey natives include in their holiday feast. This saucy red baked pasta is an Italian-American gem that can incorporate fall flavors like pumpkin or ham, or traditional ingredients like ricotta, parmesan and basil. And if that wasn’t enough newness, venture out a little further and use paper thin crepes instead of pasta.
If you’re looking to pay homage to the first Thanksgiving, serve your guest bowls of Sobaheg, the Wampanoag word for stew. It’s an adaptable recipe thought to originally be made with beans, squash and meat. Or if you’re looking to retire turkey from the table, try serving venison as your main dish. The surviving documents that reference the first Thanksgiving confirm that deer was on the menu for the original harvest feast.
In the Southwest
While traditional Thanksgiving herbs like sage, rosemary and thyme are delicious, sometimes you’re just in the mood for a little spice. If you’re looking for smoky, bright and spicy flavors, look no further than the Southwest. Chiles are prevalent in New Mexico and Texas cuisine. Transform a traditional corn pudding with poblano peppers, or make turkey gravy with the heat cranked up with the addition of hatch green chiles. If you’re not looking to hit the Scoville scale, try adding milder fragrant spices like cumin and ancho chile powder. And brighten all the traditionally heavy flavors with a little acid by adding a nice big squeeze of lime for a Southwestern flair.
Mexican cuisine has been a huge influence and has become a staple of the Southwest. So it’s no surprise that Mexican recipes often make an appearance on Thanksgiving tables. Instead of pies, you may see sweet empanadas with pumpkin or apple filling. Or stuffing made with vibrant red chorizo instead of sage breakfast sausage. If you have a lot of helping hands and want to embrace Mexican culture during the holidays, gather everyone together to make tamales. Traditionally made at Christmas, but are always welcome at any holiday table. Tamales are little labors of love that require multiple steps, advanced preparation, an assembly line for construction and a nice long steam bath.
In the West
Travel deep into the Pacific and you’ll find that our island state of Hawaii has a few unique Thanksgiving traditions. Instead of roasting, frying or smoking your turkey, consider the Kalua turkey. Typically seen using a whole pig, this method is a labor of love typically reserved for holidays and special occasions. The meat is cooked in an underground oven with stones, coals, hardwood, and banana leaves. If that seems like a little too much work, bring a little aloha to your table by making poke, a marinated cubed raw fish dish that can be served as an appetizer or a main dish.
If you’re not looking for island flavors on your Thanksgiving table, consider incorporating one of Washington state’s favorite traditions: mushrooms. You’ll find them used across an array of dishes like wild mushroom stuffing, cremini mushroom gravy or sauteed chanterelle mushrooms. They’re a local necessity for all Thanksgiving meals. If you’re not a fan of fungus, give Utah’s favorite potatoes a shot. Funeral potatoes are a creamy hashbrown casserole filled with cheese and topped with either crushed potato chips or cornflakes. Even though they may not overtake mashed potatoes, you may find that they’re a divine addition.