Let’s face it, no matter how much channels like the Food Network would like us to believe that no holiday is special without the latest “twist” on a classic recipe (Turkey roulade! Cranberry mousse!), there are certain dishes that Americans have been enjoying for Thanksgiving for decades, and are must-haves at any table. No holiday has so many traditions tied to food that everyone seems to agree on, so in the spirit of this gut-busting Thursday in November, here’s my countdown of the top 10 Thanksgiving foods everyone needs to have to make their Thanksgiving dinner tables complete.
This side dish isn’t inspired or exciting, but it must make an appearance on every Thanksgiving table. There’s no secret recipe to this traditional dish; most heat it from a can or frozen bag, and yet it was a staple of the pilgrim’s diet that has maintained its presence on our current Thanksgiving menus. Some may try to doctor it up in a creamed or casserole form, but even a pitiful little vegetable bowl with the yellow kernels will suffice (butter sauce optional), as long as it’s there.
Current TV commercials would have you believe that everyone devours crescent-shaped rolls around the Thanksgiving dinner table, but many still prefer the old-school brown-and-serve round rolls, or even pre-baked rolls from a bag in the bakery aisle. No matter which form of personal bread you serve, rolls are a dietary staple on any Thanksgiving menu, as they serve the dual purpose of mopping up the leftover gravy on your plate, as well as making the perfect little sandwiches with all of the leftover turkey you’re bound to have.
8. Mashed Potatoes
Whether we like it or not, America has been branded as a “meat-and-potatoes” culture, and no turkey can debut on a plate without a dollop of those fluffy, white, spuds by its side. They’re not fancy, but where else are you going to hold a ladle-full of gravy on your plate? Without those potatoes, the rest of your side dishes just turn into a soggy mess.
Stuffing, otherwise known as dressing when cooked outside the turkey (or in the South), is yet another starch that cannot be omitted from any self-respecting Thanksgiving dinner menu. Whether you slave over a homemade version with sautéed onions and celery, spice it up with some walnuts and cranberries, or just make it right out of a box or bag, those little cubes of herbed bread are one of the Thanksgiving recipes you must serve. It’s great wedged on the plate right in between the turkey and mashed potatoes and can serve as an additional gravy sponge if the potatoes spring a leak.
6. Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows
While this side dish may sound more like a dessert, this creamy, sweet casserole serves an important role in the decadent Thanksgiving dinner menu. Candied yams topped with melting, browned mini marshmallows have been delighting adults and children at Thanksgiving tables for decades. Very rarely do you see words like “candied” or “marshmallow” included in the description of a savory meal, but on Thanksgiving, certain foods are mandatory, and this is one of them.
5. Green Bean Casserole
Unless you grew up in a cave, you’ve probably seen the commercials for this famous recipe hundreds of times. No, it’s not healthy, despite the inclusion of a green vegetable, but any Thanksgiving menu that doesn’t include this dietary staple is just not complete. Thanksgiving recipes are not for dieters (it’s only one day, after all), and green bean casserole is no exception. Canned or frozen green beans are cooked limp, mixed with cream of mushroom soup, and topped with those crunchy, amazing, French-fried onions that seem to have been mysteriously created for this one dish alone (have you ever used them in anything else?). It may not count as a vegetable any other day of the week, but on Thanksgiving, this is how you must get your greens.
4. Cranberry Sauce
And now we’ve come to what again sounds like the healthy portion of our Thanksgiving menu, the indispensable cranberry sauce. Yes, some make it from scratch with plump cranberries bathed in a juicy sauce with a hint of sugar and citrus, but Americans’ true love comes in a red jelly out of a can. I’m all for home cooking, but on my Thanksgiving table, there must be a cylinder of jellied cranberry with perfect rings indented down its side. My mom used to always serve it on its side in an old glass banana split dish from her grandparents’ ice cream shop, and it’s the only way I serve it now. One sliver goes right next to my turkey, completing my plate with fruity, colorful goodness eaten this one day a year.
3. Pumpkin Pie
You’d think with a Thanksgiving menu so jam-packed it’s tough to fit everything on the plate that we’d give up on dessert, but no! As any Thanksgiving-celebrating American will tell you, Thanksgiving dinner is not complete without a wedge of pumpkin pie. Forget variations like cheesecake or custard, we like a crust (frozen, premade, or homemade) filled with a smooth, sugary, canned pumpkin concoction and topped with a dollop of whipped cream. Even if you have to wait an hour or two between the meal and this treat, everyone must have at least one bite of this pumpkin-y goodness to top off their Thanksgiving food list for the day.
If there’s not a turkey on your Thanksgiving table, then it’s just not Thanksgiving dinner, as anyone will tell you. This one dish is the centerpiece of Thanksgiving itself, so much so that many call Thanksgiving “Turkey Day.” Whether you like white or dark meat, wing or leg, stuffed or hollow, this large bird must be present in some form on every Thanksgiving menu. There are as many Thanksgiving recipes for turkey as there are cooks, but everyone agrees that a golden, juicy turkey that takes forever to cook, smells up the house for days, and then haunts you with its presence in your fridge and freezer for weeks to come, is a must-have, essential ingredient to any Thanksgiving meal. Whether you pop it in at 4am for a noon gathering or let it cook all through the parades and football games for a later meal, this fickle, tricky bird must be present or it’s not really Thanksgiving, but just a random holiday with an insane amount of food.
Thanksgiving leftovers are as American as Thanksgiving itself, and can come in all sorts of forms. First, they take up your entire fridge, shoved into reusable containers and stacked under pieces of aluminum foil, taunting you to take another bite. And whether you simply microwave them for another meal, assemble a classic sandwich (turkey, cranberry sauce, and mayo on a roll is my personal favorite), or get creative with soups and casseroles, Thanksgiving leftovers are the gift that keeps on giving. You may get sick of turkey and its sides after a few days, but nothing marks the beginning of the true holiday season as dish after dish with poultry and its friends as the stars.