We like to keep things light-hearted over the holidays especially on days like Thanksgiving, when issues like traffic and in-laws and everything being closed have strong potential to throw a monkeywrench in your whole day. Ultimately, the success or failure of your day is going to come down to how good the Thanksgiving meal is. Or if the the Cowboys lose, too… but mostly the meal.
If you want your meal to reach its full potential, the choice of dishes you stock the table with is very important. We’ve all got opinions about this, and this year RVA Mag’s gonna share ours. It’s fun to talk about food — it’s totally subjective and low-stakes that the whole family can argue about without it turning into a full-on domestic dispute. Who’s got the energy for anything more serious? Not us, that’s for sure.
So, without further ado, we present our guide to the many Thanksgiving dishes that will grace our dinner tables this year, ranked from worst to first. Because that’s how these kind of articles go, right?
Let’s start here, with a dish my mother has been trying to get me to like for over four decades, without success. I just don’t understand this, y’all. We put a loose conglomeration of bread, celery, onions, nuts, and spices inside the turkey to sit there while it cooks? OK, but why though? The result is always too dry and tastes weird. And if you cook it outside the bird, you just completely lose me, because at that point you could have saved a lot of time by just not making it. And don’t even get me started on the sausage-based kind of stuffing. You’d have been better off just making sausage at that point.
12. Sweet potatoes
I know, I know, these are real trendy these days, especially as french fries (thus the above picture, the best free one I could find of prepared yams). But if you ask me, eating a thick and starchy food is the whole point of potatoes. Once you start giving me sweet ones, I just get confused. It’s starchy… but also sugary? And I’m supposed to eat this with a turkey? Guess what, I already have a sweet thing to eat with my turkey, it’s called cranberry sauce (see below). Get these orange things outta here.
Ever since I was a child, ham has been my least favorite meat. It’s highly salty but also kind of bitter, and the texture is weird. Especially if it’s got those little veins of fat running through every slice. But look, I can forgive ham, as long as you serve turkey too, and don’t get upset when I don’t take any ham. If you’re doing Thanksgiving with ham instead of turkey, well, now I’m just upset. In fact, my wife and I are probably texting each other under the table about where we can go after this to get some actual honest-to-god turkey. Do they have it at Wawa?
I like bread, and cornbread is OK in the right circumstance. I used to get these Amy’s Organic Meals back in the day that had vegetarian chili and a piece of cornbread, and I loved the cornbread in those things. It mixed perfectly with the chili, because chili’s sloppy and drippy and cornbread’s dry as a bone. Also, the flavors of cornbread and chili go together. The same cannot be said about the flavors of cornbread and turkey gravy. And if I try to eat cornbread straight up, with nothing to dip it in, I know it’s gonna be too dry and get my mouth all stuck together. If I wanted that effect, I’d eat a peanut butter sandwich. No thank you.
9. Green bean casserole
Did something happen to the tastebuds of Americans born after a certain year? Because this weird conglomeration of food (which the above picture doesn’t accurately depict – I have no idea what kind of casserole that is, but hey, the pic was free) has never appealed to me or really any of my cousins. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become the sort of person who will humor the person who made the green bean casserole and put three or four bites of it on my plate. But as soon as I’ve finished it, I’m glad as heck, and I’m certainly not getting any more. Because green bean casserole is weird. It reminds me of those post-WWII American suburb cookbooks from magazines like Family Circle and Ladies Home Journal, with all those molds and layers and recipes involving canned cream of mushroom soup. I bet green bean casserole has canned cream of mushroom soup in it. Nope, I was born after the cutoff for that one. Sorry mom.
8. Pecan pie
I’ve never been one for nutty desserts. I order my sundaes with no nuts, I avoid coconut candy bars, I’ve never even tried a Payday bar… It’s just not my thing. But you know, as a kid, we had a pecan tree in my family’s backyard, and I had a fair few pecans from that tree over the years. They weren’t my favorite, but they’re very evocative of a time in my life. And when you mix that flavor with some sticky sugary stuff and put it all on top of a pie crust, I can enjoy the results. It’s half nostalgia, and god knows the entire millennial generation has overdosed on nostalgia to the point where I’m sick to death of it. But at the end of the day, I’m a simple girl, and pecan pie kinda reminds me of a simpler time. Well, I was in multiple closets at once, so I guess it wasn’t THAT simple. Whatever.
7. Pumpkin pie
This though… if you’re making dessert for Thanksgiving dinner, and this is the dessert your making, it doesn’t matter what else you’ve got. I’ll have a slice of the pumpkin pie, please. With some whipped cream, if you’ve got it. Oh, you do? Thank you so much! Mmm…
Of course, you’re thinking, “Drew, if you like pumpkin pie that much, why’d you rank it all the way down at #7?” Well, I guess the best answer I can give you is that, at my advanced age, I’m less of a dessert person than I am a main course person (foreshadowing). If the choice is between getting another plate and moving on to dessert, I’m pretty much always going to go with another plate. Call me crazy if you must, but you know what? This is my list, not yours. 😉
Gotta have a big basket of these, wrapped in a towel so they don’t get too cold before I go back for seconds, and thirds… and maybe fourths. Rolls, it seems to me, are an essential part of the meal. They’re not just a butter delivery system (though they do a pretty good job at that), they’re also the perfect way to sop up the leftover gravy and clean your plate to create the ideal surface for heaping seconds upon it. Plus, I don’t know, I just like bread. It’s an essential element of pretty much every meal. What can I say? That’s how I was raised.
5. Cranberry sauce
I’ve just explained in multiple ways that I’m not really a “sweets” person. And yet, I can’t deny it, I love to have a bit of cranberry sauce with my turkey. I don’t need a lot, no big piles of berries on my plate (though if that’s how you roll, hey, be my guest). I just want to dip the meat in a little of that lovely red sauce. And by the way, in my family there’s a big divide over whether the canned stuff is better than the homemade stuff. My mom’s on the homemade end of the scale, all day every day. Meanwhile, my brother is all about the stuff from the can. I don’t take cranberry sauce seriously enough to really care either way, but I will say I’m aware that the debate exists. If there’s some form of cranberry sauce on the table, though, I’m totally having a spoonful.
4. Macaroni & cheese
This wasn’t traditionally a part of my Thanksgiving dinners when I was young. And when it was made around my family, there were always chopped onions in it. I was a full-on adult before I figured out that I did NOT actually hate macaroni and cheese – just the kind with onions in it. The South usually knows what’s up with culinary decisions, but that one’s just wrong. Fortunately, my wife’s grandmother’s recipe was introduced to my life after I got married, and it proves to me beyond all doubt that I had no idea what I was missing. The cheesy gooey pasta deliciousness of a good homemade mac and cheese, served in a casserole dish, is just beyond compare (the pic above once again does not illustrate exactly the kind of mac and cheese I want. But, again, it was free. What do you think we are, made of money over here?). Now that I’ve had it as part of Thanksgiving dinner, I’ll never go back.
3. Mashed potatoes
OK, now we’re right down at the pointy end, as the British say. You could have the most minimalist Thanksgiving spread laid out ever, but if you have my top 3, I’m still gonna have a good meal. The first totally essential ingredient of that meal is gonna be mashed potatoes. And if you’re asking me, you should be making them as smooth as possible. No chunks of onions or garlic or whatever. Like, I get it, and you can mix a bit of those flavors in there, but the actual pieces will just screw up the texture. Let’s get some smooth, creamy mashed potatoes in a big pile on the plate, and make sure to leave a big hollow lake in the middle of the pile, because here comes…
Oh yeah, gravy. It’s the spice that the mashed potatoes need. It’s even more essential than the potatoes, though, because it does just as good a job making the turkey taste amazing as it does making the potatoes taste amazing. And when it gets smeared all around the plate, well, that just gives your roll a chance to get in on the action. After which you get another roll. And dip it in the gravy too. Damn, is dinner ready yet? This is making me hungry. But before we eat, let’s get to the one we’ve all been waiting for.
That’s right, it’s the turkey. Was there ever any doubt? It’s the reason for the season, y’all. I’m certainly not mad if you’re a Tofurkey/Unturkey type, but back when I was an idealistic young hardcore kid, vegetarian Thanksgiving dinners were just never the same. I’m pretty sure turkey at Thanksgiving was one of the first meats I ate after bailing on vegetarianism in my late 20s, and it reminded me just how great Thanksgiving meals can be. The turkey ties the whole meal together. Especially if you get the juiciness right, and it isn’t too dry. Though, honestly, it’d have to be Christmas Vacation-level dry for me to really be bummed. I just love turkey. It’s what Thanksgiving is all about.
You probably have your quibbles with this list. Maybe one of the things I hate the most is actually your favorite. That’s fine – it’s really just here to spark conversation while we wait for the bird to come out of the oven. Speaking of which, is it time to eat yet?
Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.