At Thanksgiving we have to open ourselves up to new traditions and tastes, while being grateful. As we gather together, whether it is via Zoom or FaceTime, or if we are lucky enough to have a little family unit pod to call our own, or if we are stalwart singletons gamely firing up the oven for a modest roast chicken, we will all be considering the all-important side dishes.
My favorite dinner is a roasted chicken breast, with salt and pepper and some chopped onions nestled on top of the skin. And I like a side dish of rice and butter. It is the most comforting meal to me because it is what my mother prepared for my family birthday celebrations. With a little green salad, with a splash of a simple oil and vinegar homemade dressing. Modest and simple, and easy to put together.
Turkey isn’t all that different from chicken, except there is more of it, and it requires more ritual, ceremony, and expense. And people have so many opinions about how to cook it: brine it, roast it, deep fry it, inject it, wedge compound butter under the skin, coat with strips of bacon, smoke it, and spatchcock it. Mr. Friday spoke with some yearning about a new brining combo he’d love to try this year. The Tall One has enjoyed success smoking a few birds. I guess we will have to be open to the adventuresome cooks who are taking an interest in the assembly of Thanksgiving this year. They are also chatting, albeit casually, about stepping up our side dish repertoire. I find this more alarming. I like some traditions to be consistent and unvaried.
I read a listicle in Thrillist this week about the side dishes most preferred by each state. It was an eye-opener. I had never considered macaroni and cheese as a viable Thanksgiving side dish before. https://www.thrillist.com/news/nation/most-popular-thanksgiving-sides-list-2020-zippia
Maryland, according to Thrillist, is a mac and cheese state. So is my adopted home, North Carolina. But Connecticut, where I grew up, is a mashed potato state. Bland and starchy Connecticut? It could well be, but add some good quality butter and a pinch of Maldon salt, I think you will find mashed potatoes the perfect accompaniment to roast turkey. And as divine as mac and cheese may well be, can you hollow it out to create a little gravy reservoir? Doubtful.
I suppose it could be worse, Indiana likes deviled eggs. At Thanksgiving? That strikes me as both odd and wrong. But I also believe that the only sort of hors d’oeuvres you should consume at Thanksgiving are the cashews you pick very carefully out of a silver bowl of mixed nuts, and a very 1950s-feeling relish platter, with celery, carrot sticks, radishes and gherkin pickles. You should get to the table with an empty belly. That is the best way to appreciate and consume your fair share of Parker House rolls.
We have a family debate every year whether we should have Parker House rolls or Pillsbury crescent rolls, not being very talented yeast roll bakers. We rely on Pepperidge Farm and Pillsbury every holiday season, but we forget from year to year which we prefer. Annual group amnesia is our most unfailing family characteristic. And if we ever move to West Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri, or Utah we will fit right in, as they prefer rolls, which I assume means generic dinner rolls. South Dakota will clinch the argument for crescent rolls.
We lived in Florida for more than 20 years, and I can safely say that never once did we have sweet potato casserole. Lucky me. I’ve never lived in Kentucky, where broccoli casserole is a favorite side dish. It must be grim living in Kentucky.
Green bean casserole is the favorite in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. I like green beans as much as the next, but I draw the line at anything that uses a can of mushroom soup. Over the years I have politely moved green bean casserole around on my plate, or hidden it under a crescent roll. I find that cranberry relish is a wonderful agent for disguising discards.
I think stuffing and dressing are a personal decision – like religion or political party. I will not question you openly about your choice. That said, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and New Jersey like stuffing, whereas Louisiana and Alabama prefer dressing.
We always mash potatoes. Some years we peel a bag o’russets (usually when we are testing out a new boyfriend or girlfriend), or we go wild and boil up some new, pink-skinned potatoes. We might need to try Alaska’s preferred side: hash brown casserole. That seems worth edging warily out of our stodgy comfort zone.
We are prepared to be a little adventurous with our side selections this year. I don’t think we will try the white gravy that is the fave in Arkansas, but maybe we will go out on a limb and have some Iowa corn with our dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, cranberry relish, and turkey. We will leave the mac and cheese, broccoli casserole, and white gravy for the devotees of regional cuisine.
Be careful out there. Here is a link to CDC guidelines for our COVID Thanksgiving: https://www.thrillist.com/news/nation/cdc-recommendations-for-thanksgiving-2020-guidelines
“What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”
― A.A. Milne