Thanksgiving Culinary Traditions

What you consider “traditional” Thanksgiving dishes may depend upon where you live.

Story by Ginger Warder

Dressing or stuffing? Pumpkin or sweet potato pie? Brine, baste, roast or deep-fry the bird? What you consider to be the “correct” answer to these and other culinary questions about our nation’s annual Thanksgiving feast depend largely on where you live.

Legend has it that the Pilgrims hosted the first Thanksgiving in America in 1622 with a huge feast they shared with their Native American neighbors. It’s a nice image. It’s easy to imagine the celebration went so well it’s been repeated year after year ever since that day, creating our annual holiday with rich culinary traditions. Unfortunately, none of that is completely true.

Virginians claim that the first Thanksgiving was actually held in 1619 at Berkeley Plantation on the James River in Charles City—near Richmond—although the occasion was more of a solemn religious ceremony than a gastronomical event. Historians have documented that the English settlers who landed at Berkeley in 1619 were, in fact, instructed by the London Company to give thanks upon landing safely on American soil.

To top it off, it was President Abraham Lincoln who—in the middle of the Civil War in 1863—actually issued a Thanksgiving proclamation setting aside the last Thursday of November as a national “day of thanksgiving and praise.”

Even if you’ve long misunderstood the history of our national feast, one thing is certain: there is still a regional food fight about what to serve on the holiday table. Every region has its own tasty answers. (Of course, people move and distinctions blur, but some broad generalizations still apply.)

The Yankee Way vs. The Southern Way

North of the Mason-Dixon line, a typical Thanksgiving menu likely includes bread stuffing—some with sausage or chestnuts—with quintessentially northern side dishes like creamed onions and parsnips. Yankees also like cranberry relish, while some Southerners may think cranberry sauce comes out of can.

In the South, forget the stuffing and make room for cornbread dressing—often with oysters in the coastal regions—and side dishes like mac and cheese, collard greens, and sweet potatoes topped with gooey marshmallows. Speaking of marshmallows, a Southern feast often includes marshmallow-laden ambrosia fruit salad and don’t forget the ubiquitous neon-colored, undulating Jello salad that Aunt Sadie makes every year.

The differences continue through dessert: you can generally expect pumpkin, mince or apple pie in the northern states and pecan or sweet potato pie in the south.

Regional Twists

In other regions of the country, you’ll find a local slant on traditional dishes, from cranberry sauce and turkey seasoned with chiles and stuffed into corn tamales to a West Coast preference for sourdough stuffing and mashed yams. Wild rice—the state grain of Minnesota—shows up in casserole dishes in states along the Canadian border, while in New York and New Jersey, you’ll see Italian fare from antipasto to lasagna sitting side-by-side with the turkey.

Texas has a penchant for deep-frying its turkeys (with leftovers showing up in Tex-Mex dishes like the aforementioned turkey tamales), while in Baltimore, you might find a side of sauerkraut on the table, a nod to the large population of German-Americans in the area. Other parts of Maryland’s Eastern Shore are sure to serve crab cakes and, perhaps, oyster stuffing or dressing.

In the West and Southwest, the distinctive Frog Eye salad—a concoction of ancini di pepe pasta, mandarin oranges, Cool Whip and marshmallow topping—is the cowboy take on the South’s ambrosia salad. Look for pumpkin empanadas on the dessert table and spicy chiles in just about every dish. In Hawaii, native purple yams replace the traditional orange sweet potatoes and poke or sashimi are standard starters or sides.

Two Virginia Chefs’ Take On Turkey Day

Spruced Up Turkey

-Recipe courtesy Chef Patrick O’Connell, Inn at Little Washington

Patrick O’Connell, the chef and proprietor of the five-star, five-diamond Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, is often called the “Pope of American cuisine.” Recently awarded its third Michelin star, the Inn’s restaurant helped pioneer the farm-to-table movement and is a foodie mecca that often appears on lists of the best restaurants in the world.

These days, commercial turkeys and chickens too often lack flavor and succulence. Here is a way to make your Thanksgiving turkey or a simple roast chicken taste like what your grandmother might have raised on the farm. The spruce branches (taken from an ornamental blue spruce or Norway spruce) impart a delightfully wild and woodsy taste. Soaking the turkey overnight in a brine solution infuses the meat with exotic, fragrant flavors and plumps the bird. Don’t feel obligated to include every single one of the ingredients for the brine if any are difficult to obtain. Rather, use the list of ingredients as a guideline and improvise as you wish.

Serves 12-24

For the Brine…
1 ¼ cups kosher salt
3 ¼ cups sugar
2 cups honey
2 lemons, cut in half
6 sprigs fresh parsley
6 sprigs fresh dill
6 sprigs fresh thyme
6 sprigs fresh tarragon
6 sprigs fresh sage
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 Tbsp. mustard seeds
2 Tbsp. fennel seeds
2 whole cinnamon sticks
5 whole bay leaves
8 whole cloves
1 Tbsp. juniper berries
1 Tbsp. whole cardamom pods
2 Tbsp. whole black peppercorns
5 whole star anise
1 Tbsp. whole allspice
1 two-foot long spruce branch, washed and cut into small pieces
1 one-foot long piece of sassafras root, washed and cut into small pieces (3 to 4 ounces of loose sassafras tea can be substituted)
2 gallons boiling water

Combine all ingredients except the boiling water in a 5-gallon heat-proof container large enough to hold the turkey. Pour the boiling water over the brine ingredients and let the mixture cool to room temperature. Submerge the turkey in the brine, cover and refrigerate for 3-5 days prior to cooking.

For the Turkey…
1 fresh turkey, 18 to 20 pounds
1 foot square of cheesecloth 2-feet by 2-feet
2 pounds (8 sticks) butter, melted and kept warm
Spruce limbs for garnish

Preheat the oven to 325⁰F. Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse under cold water. Place the turkey in a roasting pan. Carefully dip the cheesecloth into the melted butter and lay it on top of the turkey. Place the roasting pan with the cheesecloth-covered turkey into the preheated oven and roast for 3 to 4 hours, basting the cheesecloth with melted butter about every 30 minutes. The turkey is done when a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 160⁰F. Once the turkey is done, remove it from the oven and allow it to rest for 30 minutes. Carefully remove the cheesecloth and place the turkey on a serving platter. Surround the platter with the spruce branches.

Pecan Pie

Severin Nunn, executive chef and food and beverage director of the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, says, “Pecan pie just speaks Southern hospitality…nothing beats it!”

Photo Credit: Omni Homestead

Nunn joined the resort from Las Vegas, Nevada, where he worked for a decade with stints at Caesars Palace, Bellagio Resort & Casino, Alain Ducasse’s miX at Delano Las Vegas, and Restaurant Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace. Nunn launched his culinary career at The Trellis in Williamsburg, Va., and also worked as chef de rotisseurs at Restaurant Daniel in New York. Among his many professional accomplishments, he was a feature chef for Vegas Uncorked 2016 and winner of the 10th Back of the House BRAWL Food Truck Cook Off with acclaimed Chef Jason Johnston in 2012.

3 eggs
1 cup white sugar
1 cup corn syrup
2 Tbsp. butter, melted
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups pecan halves
1 recipe pastry for a 9-inch single crust pie

Preheat oven to 390⁰F. Beat eggs slightly in medium bowl. Beat in sugar, and then blend in syrup, butter, vanilla, salt, and pecans. Pour filling into unbaked pie shell. Bake in preheated oven for 12 minutes. Reduce heat to 350⁰F and continue baking 38 to 45 minutes; the pie will be brown and slightly puffed.

Plan A Trip… Special Turkey Day Celebrations

The Inn at Little Washington
Middle and Main Streets
Washington, Virginia 22747

The Omni Homestead Resort
Sam Snead Highway
Hot Springs, Virginia 24445

Berkeley Plantation Thanksgiving Festival (Nov. 4)
Harrison Landing Road
Charles City, Virginia 23030

Enjoy Thanksgiving dinner and a re-enactment of the landing of Captain Woodlief and his men at Berkeley for the first Thanksgiving in the New World. Activities include plantation tours, music and Native American tribal dancers.