There’s no holiday that stimulates the palate quite like Thanksgiving. Oh, I know food shouldn’t be our reason for looking forward to it. Despite the problems our citizens face we still have plenty to be thankful for, and I hope we never forget why we celebrate the holiday. It’s more than a time to stuff ourselves.
That said, it’s hard not to look forward to the food. It seems each region of the country has its own traditional staples. Turkey generally finds its way into most homes regardless of the locale, but the way we prepare it might vary a little.
Since deep fried turkey is largely cooked outside it stands to reason it is more popular in warmer regions. Louisiana and Kentucky were the first states to document the technique about 80 years ago. In California, grilled turkey is quite popular, and that tradition is spreading. It’s pretty common around here.
Collards are a major tradition in the south. It seems you can find them anywhere this time of year, but I never ate them growing up in Maine. We never had sweet potato biscuits or pecan pie either. Boiled onions and turnips were always on the table. I like both vegetables, but I never cared for either cooked that way. Raw or grilled suit my palate much better. We always had plenty of sweet apple cider, which I do relish.
Stuffed lobster is a Maine tradition, but it was too pricy for our Thanksgiving meal. Besides, we didn’t live on the coast where it was more prevalent and part of local culture. Mussels are popular holiday fare in many northern coastal places too.
For dessert, pumpkin and sweet potato pies are interchangeable. In fact, many can’t tell the difference, but pumpkin is more popular further north. We could grow pumpkins in Maine, but the season was too short for sweet potatoes. Whether used as a dessert, casserole or vegetable, sweet potatoes are as common on a southern Thanksgiving table as winter squash is on a New England one.
When I lived in West Virginia, mincemeat was a popular Thanksgiving treat. Pies were the usual use, but my mother-in-law made great mincemeat cookies. They were always loaded with freshly collected black walnuts and shagbark hickory nuts. Apple pie, green beans, deviled eggs, mashed potatoes and gravy always adorned her table too.
Stuffing seems to be a staple everywhere, but cornbread stuffing seems to be more popular here than wheat bread or rice-based types. Blue cornbread stuffing is popular in southwestern places. It’s usually spiced a little hotter too. We always stuffed our bird when I was young, but that is frowned upon now. The flavor and moistness were tough to beat though, and it’s funny how we never got sick. Maybe we had better immune systems back in the day.
In Texas and other border states Mexican-style cooking abounds. They sport a different pumpkin dish on the Thanksgiving table. Pumpkin empanadas are miniature pumpkin pie-like tarts. Corn pudding is a Midwestern tradition. When in Hawaii expect Thanksgiving dishes spiced with coconut, papaya, pineapple, macadamia nuts and other local staples. You might even find recipes incorporating spam.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.