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What foods are a MUST for Thanksgiving?

In talking with a lot of friends, I've determined that Thanksgiving, of all of the traditional holidays, seems to demand the most "set" menu. For instance, my family will welcome unusual foods for virually any other holday dinner, but Thanksgiving MUST be pretty much what it always has been.

Believe me, I cook a lot, and cook a lot of different things from many different cultures, but the menu for Thanksgiving has to be:

Turkey (roasted, but I have also done an additional smoked breast or two). One year my chef nephew did a turduckinish (cornish hen inside a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey). That ain't happinin' again unless he's here to do it.

Stuffing (bread/cornbread stuffing, with onions & celery -- maybe apples or dried cranberries)

Mashed white potatoes, with gravy

That disgustingly sweet concoction made with mashed sweet potatoes, pineapple and melted crusty marshmallows on the top. Other than the turkey, this is probably the least negotiable menu item. My kids are grown, but they'd kill me if I didn't make it. Gag.

The ever-popular green bean and fried onion casserole. I play around with the basic recipe, but it is what it is.

Creamed onions (they were my Dad's specialty, so they stay)

My brother-in-law's brussel sprout thing that uses onion, bacon and (because the sprouts are cut apart into separate leaves) dosen't remotely look like it contains brussel sprouts.

Cranberry relish made with raw cranberries and oranges. The other acceptable option is a cranberry jello mold.

Canned whole cranberry jelly. No substitutions.

Pumpkin pie, or something else with pumpkin (pumkin cheesecake, for instance)

The apps are very free-form, as are the rest of the desserts.

What, besides the turkey and stuffing, are your families "must have" Thanksgiving menu items? Am I the only one with a rigid Thanksgiving audience?

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  1. turkey(oven roasted, smoked, deep fried)
    mashed potatoes
    turkey gravy with giblets
    pumpkin pie
    green bean caserole
    cranberry jelly
    suasage/sage/breadcrumb stuffing

    my relatives need the above as offerings, or they get upset. One year I did a fruit and rice stuffing, and they were upset. So now I stick to the time tested favorites.

    8 Replies
    1. re: swsidejim

      this year I am throwing the family a curveball. I am not going to prepare a traditional turkey, but ordered a 20+ lb. Turducken from Cajun Connection in Utica, IL.

      I cant wait..

      1. re: swsidejim

        I have always wanted to try one of those... My family won't switch it up for Thanksgiving though.

        1. re: MattInNJ

          this our our 1st year to try it. My sister and her family are going to a second Thanksgiving later in the day for dinner, so I figured I could give it a shot this year without catching too much grief.

        2. re: swsidejim

          Meathenge's blog describes receiving a 'test copy' turducken and cooking it in the smoker. It looked really good.

          1. re: Louise

            I bet its great. I am going to do mine in the oven this year and see how it goes.

            Also my smoker is covered, and probably wont get used again until the Super Bowl, or spring.. too cold here in the upper mid-west. Those long smokes just arn't as much fun as they are when the wather is hot.

            1. re: swsidejim

              Funny you should mention that, Grandpa in Ohio loved to cook the Christmas pork roast in the weber. He'd huddle on a lawn chair in his parka, snow flurrying down, and periodically shift the cover over to prod the roast and examine the meat thermometer. But when you're 85 it's odd if you *don't* have some funny habits.

              1. re: Louise

                I wish I had his dedication. Last year I did smoke some ribs in January, it was a relatively mild day.

                a turkey, or tuducken in the smoker is on my list of things to do.

                1. re: swsidejim

                  The year I smoked 5 turkey breasts for my husband's annual November fishing trip to Hatteras -actually 2 for him, 2 for Thanksgiving & 1 for the freezer -- was the worst. Bone-chilling cold, the week before Thanksgiving, and a driving rain. I pulled the picnic table, with the big picnic umbrella, up close to the upright smoker & hunkered down. Didn't have to wet the apple wood because it was already soaked.

                  On the other hand, there was the mild Thanksgiving when we fired up the smoker after dinner. We opened up the door, stuck a bunch of logs inside, lit a nice fire, and the men folk gathered around in a circle to smoke their stogies & shoot the bull, while we women folk cleaned up. Yowzer. A good time was had by all.

      2. In our very large extended family dinner

        Turkey of course, and stuffing - it has to be sausage stuffing. No one will accept any substitutions.

        Mashed potatoes with gravy

        Canned yams, I always offer to make real sweet potato casserole with roasted potatoes mashed with a pecan streussel topping, but everyone says they like canned yams better.

        My sisters mini-marshmellow, heavy cream, fruit cocktail salad. I can't stand it, but everyone else loves it.

        Green been casserole,

        Canned cranberry sauce, nothing else

        Shrimp cocktail for an appetizer, with my grama's old fashioned relish tray with black olives from the can, mini gerkins, bread and butter pickes and dill spears.

        For desert, chocolate cream pie made with instant chocolate pudding in a grahm cracker crust. I told my grandmother I'd be in charge of pies this year, so maybe I'll sneak in a real one and see if people know the difference. Although we go through about 3 of them each holiday.

        13 Replies
        1. re: adventuresinbaking

          Why is it that Thanksgiving dinner seems to be so set in stone? Is it that one constant that we can always count on? Is it that we are perpetuating our idea of the Thanksgiving Day Feast? I wish I knew. It's like we have to bring out all of the food cliche's and gorge ourselves with them. It's also the one holiday when the whole family tries to be together -- even more so than Christmas. Maybe the food is what unites us in the sameness of it? We can count on it being the same, and when it IS the same, all is right with the world?

          So much for the philosophy. Don't forget the onion soup dip.

          1. re: PattiCakes

            Don't discount the philosophy! It truly is affirming to have a meal set in stone! And that's definitely the case in my house - I would risk a riot if I changed a thing. But no worries - it means I could cook this meal in my sleep:

            Roast turkey (with sage leaves and butter under the skin), 55 gallon drum (kidding...don't they wish?) of giblet gravy, mashed potatoes with buttermilk, roast sweet potatoes with maple syrup, green salad with vinaigrette, scalloped corn, canned jellied cranberries, Finnish vispipuuro (cranberry/farina porridge) and pumpkin pie.

            My only complaint is the sheer volume. All the giant pans come out. But even that's tradition.

            I sometimes wonder if, when it's time to pass the baton for hosting, my kids will prepare the same dishes they've insisted on all these years. Perhaps they will, as the meal is really a celebration of our indigenous American foodstuffs, and this just doesn't seem to go out of style. At least in November.

            Cay

            1. re: cayjohan

              Hah! Clearly I can do it in my sleep but not while awake - forgot the all important gigantic pan of onion/celery/sage dressing. No substitutes or additions allowed! CAy

              1. re: cayjohan

                The Finnish vispipuuro sounds very intriguing! How do you make it? Is it like a pudding?

                1. re: poptart

                  Same here! I would love to see a recipe for the Finnish vispipuuro!

                  1. re: mollyomormon

                    Can I do this here? Oh well...

                    For every two cups of whole cranberries, use 3 cups of water. Cook until the berries all pop and the juice is a rich red color. Strain. NB: You want to retain the juice, not the berries. Boil juice and add about 1/3 c. farina (for every 2c. crans and 3 c. water)...still, this is a fluid measurement - add *enough* farina to get a nice thick porridge as it cooks. Add sugar to taste: for this amount, I have seen anywhere from 1/2 c. to 1 1/2 c. We like the tart side and lean toward 3/4 cup; again, taste. Chill the heck out of the resulting porridge (even a bit of freezer time - 30 minutes before whipping). Then, whip. The pale burgundy porridge will turn pink and fluffy after about 10 minutes of whipping. Serve with a drizzle of heavy cram. This is a heavy, hearty dish, so plan on small servings. It's also wonderful for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving, so I make a lot and plan on cranberry porridge in the morning (re-whipping might be necessary)

                    Enjoy.

                    Cay

              2. re: PattiCakes

                I think it's those constants that we count on. Every year I find new Thanksgiving menus that look great, but my DH always says, "we need to try those, but not on Thanksgiving." He wants it to be the exact same every year and I have to admit I agree with him on this. I may add a different side here and there, but our dinner mostly remains the same year after year. I think that constant reaffirms how good our home and lives really are in this country.

              3. re: adventuresinbaking

                >>My sisters mini-marshmellow, heavy cream, fruit cocktail salad. I can't stand it, but everyone else loves it.

                That sounds delish, adventuresinbaking, how is it constructed?

                Turkey is negligible, while the stuffing (with chestnuts and onions and sausage and apples) is the main item, for me.

                Wine, cranberry sauce, ambrosia is fun, Silver Palate's sweet potatoes, mashed white potatoes, biscuits, pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake, apple pie -- that about does it. Keep the veggies and salad. Same thing, different meat, small variation on dessert and a must-have of cookies, and call it Christmas.

                Although I do like the idea of a lobster dinner!

                1. re: dolores

                  "My sisters mini-marshmellow, heavy cream, fruit cocktail salad. I can't stand it, but everyone else loves it.

                  That sounds delish, adventuresinbaking, how is it constructed?"

                  If this is anything like my mother's fruitcocktail salad, it is whipped cream with a drained can of fruit cocktail and mini-marshmellows folded it. I absolutely hated it as a kid, and it never makes it to my table. But oddly, my mother still thinks I like it and I have to correct her to this day.

                  1. re: FoodChic

                    That's one of the "sweet dessert things masquerading as a main dish salad"! Do you remember the old "Watergate Salad", that consisted of pineapple, pistacio pudding, cool whip & some other stuff? Very popular at picnics. Because we are having little kids at the table for the first time in many years, my sister is making something with cranberry, sour cream and broken up pretzels???

                    1. re: PattiCakes

                      Yes, I remember that well. I have to admit the texture of those salads always freaked me out. You're eating something smooth and creamy and it's suddenly interrupted by this slimmy and often stringy mess.

                      I think the issue is that they are all made from canned fruit, and there is nothing I hate more than canned canned fruit. My mother always served it and I blame that for the fruit issues I had growing up. It took me many years to overcome my hatred of fruit.

                  2. re: dolores

                    I'm not sure of the exact proportions, but you let the mini marshmellows soak in heavy cream for about 24 hours or so. Then, when they start to break down, you whip it up until it forms like a foam. Next you mix in fruit cocktail (drained), mandrin oranges, and seedless grapes. Viola!

                    It is to sweet for me. I've never liked it, even as a kid.

                2. Turkey with stuffing
                  Mashed Potatoes w/ homemade noodles on top instead of gravy
                  Cranberry Salad w/ walnuts and oranges- my mom's recipe
                  Sweet potatoe casserole
                  Sweet corn
                  Hot Rolls
                  Pumpkin Pie, Brownies, Buckeyes, and PB Fudge

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: six dower

                    six dower, where is your family from? I've never met anyone else who ate mashed potatoes and noodles! In my family they are a must at all major holidays. They live in northern Indiana.

                    1. re: butterfat

                      With the buckeyes, I was going to guess Ohio, but six has a lot of posts on the Pennsylvania board.

                      1. re: Louise

                        I used to live in PA and that is the only place I ever had noodles over mashed potatoes, the family loved it. Here in CA not so much

                      2. re: butterfat

                        I am from southeastern Ohio and live in Pittsburgh.
                        Noodles and mashed potatoes are a must for every holiday, family gathering, celebrations, etc. It would be a SIN not to have this dish for Thanksgiving...and do not even think about putting gravy on your potatoes!!!! Gravy is for french fries :)

                        1. re: six dower

                          Geez, you ARE from Pittsburgh, what with the gravy on the fries and all that. Do you dip things in ranch dressing as well? My kids went to IUP and were amazed when the local pizza places delivered their pizza with tubs of ranch dressing, so you could dunk your crust in it when you got to the end of the slice. My son'd in laws are from Pittsburgh. I'll have to ask them about the mashed potato noodle thing.

                          1. re: PattiCakes

                            No ranch for me, yuk!...now I am a bit of a health nut. I think the mashed potatoes w/noodles and french fries w/gravy dishes are from my Ohio roots. I do not see that here in Pburgh. I have lived in Pburgh for 18 months and I love the area. Great food and awesome people!!

                    2. Turkey, brined over night and stuffed with my husband's grandmother's sage sausage stuffing. Homemade all the way. Homemade cranberry sauce. Butternut squash soup. My mother's cranberry ambrosia salad. Steamed green beans. Mashed potatoes with parsley and romano cheese.

                      And a couple antacids :)

                      1. Same as above mentioned and...
                        Deviled Eggs
                        Twiced Baked Potatoes..

                        ooooh Happy Holidays :)