I used to cook the full meal, with a dozen or so classic dishes. It was full throttle and though I never fully screwed anything up, nothing was spectacular. Now, I specialize. I do four dishes and I nail them: potatoes au gratin, sage-sausage stuffing, homemade ice cream with sweet potato pie, and molasses corn bread. I’ll probably make a gravy too, because it’s important to me and who knows what the person assigned gravy will do.
In fact, all sides are pretty important to me. Turkey, I could take or leave, but a good cranberry sauce? That feels crucial. Which made me want to ask our writers how they felt about different Thanksgiving side dishes. Not surprisingly, they had strong opinions.
Vince Mancini: Screw turkey…AND mashed potatoes
My first food rant would be against turkey, which, even under ideal circumstances, carries with it a pound of dry, worthless breast meat (I wouldn’t even know where to begin this argument with anyone who liked white meat better than dark, sad bastards who’ve probably never orgasmed). I know, I know, brine it, fry it, drown it in gravy — I’ve heard all the arguments. Bottom line, turkey breast is always going to be something you have to prepare twice in order for it to be any good. A prime rib or any standing rib roast is just so much better. “But turkey is great!” Yeah, but would you choose it over prime rib? “Well no, but…”
Exactly. Turkey is great, as long as you don’t factor in opportunity costs. Anyway, I’m pretty sure 10 people have already written that rant, so I’m going to serve you up another magma hot holiday hot take instead: F*ck mashed potatoes. No, I know, much like turkey, mashed potatoes are sacrosanct on account of you eat them every year and they taste great as a vessel for butter and gravy. Look, you’re not wrong. But would you honestly rather have mashed potatoes than scalloped or au gratin? Mashed potatoes are baby food. Four bites and you’re tired of them. Cut ’em up. Add some sauce. Add some cheese. Throw them in the broiler and give them a nice crust. Give those things some texture and flavor, prove you don’t hate yourself. This isn’t Edwardian Ireland, you can do better than textureless potatoes boiled in water.
Ashley Burns: Down with fancy holiday cocktails
While everyone is arguing about sides and main courses – prime rib > turkey > ham – someone needs to crack down on our Thanksgiving thirst. This month brings us a lot of drink recipes we “have to try!” and types of booze under a certain price that we must own, but the key to making the perfect Thanksgiving cocktail should come down to this: Drink what you like. Drink what’s simple. Don’t fall asleep with your drink in your hand.
While something called a Rye Bandit might sound easy and terrific, you shouldn’t need to spend $35 on a hard-to-find liqueur to go with it. Instead, if you want a bourbon or rye drink, simply try sipping a nice bourbon or rye. The recipe is easy and finding your favorite is a rewarding, lifelong journey.
Zach Johnston: Black olives are the epitome of not trying
I had a girlfriend from New Hampshire when I was in college. So instead of sitting on plane for six hours to get back to Seattle, I’d hop up to New England for short holidays like Thanksgiving. One “classic” side dish they always had was black olives. Black-f*cking-olives. They were straight out of the can and pitted. And no one ever touched them. I couldn’t understand why they were there. Some say it was as a palate cleanser between courses, others for a garnish. But, come on, they aren’t green olives to pop into a nice Martini or Gibson. They’re tasteless black bits of mush that you’d think twice before putting on a perfectly good pepperoni pizza.
If you’re getting olives, at least have the decency to get some nice green olives so you can add them to your gin.
Mark Shrayber: Canned cranberry sauce is a sin against your table
There’s something unnerving about cranberry sauce that comes from a can. I can’t explain it, and I’ve eaten it when I’ve had to, but even after the sauce has been heated and stirred and had things added to it — dates, figs, an entire glass of orange juice in some godless households — it still makes me think of the can it came in, the way a congealed tube of ribbed purple goo just slid out of metal with a plop and now you’re expected to eat it, even though the words “not for human consumption” clearly belong stamped on the stuff.
Some people actually prefer the canned version to freshly made sauce and to them I say: What is wrong with you? The entire thing tastes like a can! I’m still afraid that I’m going to cut my lips on the jagged lid!
Why not just mash up some fresh cranberries? Or stick a bowl of dried ones on the table and say “here, just dump a handful of these in your gravy.” What’s even the point of cranberry sauce? WHY IS IT? Does everyone at the table have the beginnings of a UTI that only a blob of factory-made cranberry slime can fix? Nah, man. Don’t eat it.
E.S. Huffman: Green bean casserole needs an update
I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that green bean casserole is not actually that good. Shocking opinion, I know. Here’s the thing: it’s mushy and tasteless, and the single thing that redeems it is the layer of French’s Fried Onions on the top. (And also sneaking said fried onions from the can while your aunt is trying to prepare the casserole.)
This year I’m going crazy and switching it up — the plan is to make boiled green beans with almonds and butter, but still top them with the onions. It’s going to be fantastic.
Dan Seitz: Sweet on sweet on sweet potatoes
Make no mistake. I love sweet potatoes. When I first met my stepmother’s family for the holidays, they served me a sweet potato and Swiss chard dish that I’ll defend to my grave as one of the greatest achievements in cooking vegetables. My stepmother taught me how to roast sweet potatoes with onions and cumin for a stunning dish.
But candied yams with even more candy on top and baked to form Satan’s brulee? What the hell? It’s not even any good as indulgent crap! It’s just squishy and sweet on squishy and sweet! Add some hot sauce! Some fried onions! Something with texture and a contrasting flavor!
Natalie Snyder: Enough with the sugar
Why does one holiday dictate that all savory side dishes become suddenly drenched in unbearable sweetness?
Since when does my corn need to be creamed, my carrots need to be candied and my sweet potatoes need to be topped with marshmallows or dished up in the form of a pie? Weren’t we all doing just fine before?
I don’t know where this tradition began, but I’m sure it’s based more around gluttony than any sort of gratitude for one another. Maybe it’s a “cheat day” tactic for all those holiday dieters out there – “Consume as much refined sugar in any form possible for one day and regret the sugar-crash-hangover tomorrow.”
Now, who wants pie?
Chris Zois: Stuffing is boring
Stuffing may be the most simple Thanksgiving dish to make — leave some bread out, tear it up, cook it, boom done — but it is also the worst. It is an amalgamation of boring ingredients smashed together to create a sopping pile of mush. Celery, bread, onions, these ingredients aren’t really the stars of a meal, but mostly good bench players used to highlight an all-star.
I can remember as a kid waking up early and helping my family on Thanksgiving morning rip up some crusty bread slices we left out overnight and thinking in that moment, “Wow I can’t wait to not eat this later.” People may try to spruce up their stuffing by putting bacon, mushrooms, fruit, chicken stock or quinoa in it, but at the end of the day, it’s just day old bread that ends up as a collection of slush.
Brian Grubb: Only stuffing matters
I have a plan of attack for Thanksgiving dinner. Step one, turkey, obviously. Step two is cranberry sauce, tucked into a little corner. And step three is to fill up the rest of my plate with stuffing. My reasoning is simple: I can eat mashed potatoes and vegetables any day of the year, for the most part. But stuffing — the good stuffing, the Thanksgiving special once-a-year kind — is a treat. And it should be treated as such.
It doesn’t even matter what kind of stuffing it is. Cornbread? Cool. Another kind? Also cool. My mom makes this raisin bread stuffing. She gets a loaf of raisin bread from the farmer’s market and then she… does some stuff to it. I’m just now realizing that I have no idea how she makes it or what else goes in it, despite the fact that I’ve been eating it for more than two decades. I guess the point I’m making is that it’s good. You should have your mom make some. She can probably figure it out.
Delenda Joseph: Hatian beet & potato salad
I have no issues with “regular” potato salad, but Haitian beet and potato salad is where it’s at for me. While others see gross pink/purple disgustingness, I see yum yum for my tum tum. Haitian potato salad is an über-delicious melange of chopped potatoes (duh!) and chopped beets, which helps give the salad its distinct color. Throw in globs of mayonnaise, finely diced carrots, onions, peppers and peeled hard-hard-boiled eggs (No yolk! I don’t care what the picture shows!) and I’m in food heaven.
This salad is just about the main side that I look forward to every Thanksgiving. The days after too, because everyone knows leftovers taste better the next day.
Ben Esch: The pre-meal bowl of mixed nuts
This year, as we celebrate Thanksgiving and the many all-stars — turkey, stuffing, gravy — that make this day so wonderful, let’s take a moment to recognize a dish that most do not even recognize as part of the meal, but still plays a vital role in the holiday: the bowl of mixed nuts. Because that bowl of mixed nuts is the Jack Haley of Thanksgiving.
Fourth-string power forward Jack Haley (RIP) only played one game and only scored five points for the record-setting 1996 Chicago Bulls, but was still a valuable member of that team. And just like the pre-meal bowl of mixed nuts, his contributions are also overlooked. When that team (and this meal) are discussed, the stars always dominate the conversation, the Michael Jordan (turkey), the Scottie Pippen (stuffing), the Toni Kukoc (marshmallow yams), the Dennis Rodman (palpable political and family tension), and even the Bill Wennington (dinner rolls). But that Jack Haley, and that bowl of mixed nuts still provide the foundation of success for the team/holiday. Because before the starters can be brought on the floor, while the marshmallows are melting over the yams, while phones are searching Google for the safe internal temperature for turkey, while those Google searches are ignored and turkeys are cooked an extra twenty degrees “just to be safe,” while other, hungrier people wait for that food, and drink their third glass of 11:30 AM merlot, while that hunger and that mid-morning alcohol threaten to turn the unspoken tension and resentment that mark every family gathering into spoken tension and resentment, the bowl of mixed nuts is there.
And just like Jack Haley’s steadying presence could calm even the un-calmable Dennis Rodman, that bowl of mixed nuts provides just enough sustenance and soothing, salty goodness to see your Thanksgiving through its hungriest and most precarious moments, because a mouth that is full of Brazil nuts and cashews is a mouth that cannot discuss the presidential election.
Jack Haley and that bowl of mixed nuts will never be remembered as stars…but they will always be remembered as champions.
Jason Tabrys: #PotatoLove
Let me throw on my T-Giving sweater and rap at you for a moment. I’ve fallen prey to the easy deceit of powdered or flaked mashed potatoes too many times to not develop an appreciation for the majesty of the real thing and the people who are willing to put in the work to peel, boil, mash, and season that most vital of Thanksgiving side dishes. The right amount of butter, cream, salt, and broth is not some scientific formula. It’s a well-honed secret that is sometimes passed down from generation to generation.
In truth, mashed potatoes might be the most important dish on the table because of their power to salvage a meal and satiate someone. The turkey can be dry and the stuffing can be soggy, but you can always fill up with a substantial pile of mashed potatoes that will keep you centered in the warm embrace of hearth and home… so long as they’re smooth as a country preacher.
Andrew Husband: King’s Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Rolls
What Thanksgiving meal would be complete without a healthy (or, most likely, unhealthy) portion of bread? Besides, the traditional holiday sweet roll is the best way to mop up all of the leftover gravy and turkey juices from one’s plate. Then again, not all sweet rolls are created equal. Most often all others pale in comparison to one of the greatest culinary creations humanity has ever gifted this planet with: King’s Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Rolls. Even if you’ve never eaten one (or 10) of these delightful contraptions, you’ve probably seen rows upon rows of their 12-count packages at your local chain supermarket.
And you know what? They’re horribly unhealthy, chock full of more unpronounceable ingredients than a morbidly obese American riding atop a motorized scooter can shake a Billy Mays’ Gopher grabber at, and totally amazing. Also, I miss them dearly. Seeing as how I live in a gluten-free household (for serious health reasons I won’t argue with naysayers about in the comments section), I haven’t consumed one of these delicious bastards in years. Surely it’s for the better, but seeing as how my mouth’s watering while I type this, I know I have a problem.
E.S. Huffman: I got it from Ruth’s Chris
The dish I always, always, always have to have on my Thanksgiving table is Ruth’s Chris sweet potato casserole. Yes, Ruth’s Chris specifically. It’s a huge change from the past: growing up, I would skip the sweet potato casserole with the gross marshmallow topping, because ew. But then I was introduced to Ruth’s Chris’ version, which is essentially just mashed sweet potatoes with a lot of sugar, butter, and eggs, and topped with a pecan streusel. It’s basically just dessert — very uncomplicated, flavor-wise — but it’s heavenly. Aaaand it might lead to diabeetus, but doesn’t everything these days?
Christian Long: Gravy goes with everything
You know what’s good? Gravy. It doesn’t discriminate. It goes with everything, and it’s one of the few foods (side dish or otherwise) that has a utensil named after it. Sure, there are others, like pizza cutter, cheese grater, lemon zester, but gravy gets its own boat. It’s like a tiny pitcher all to itself, complete with a lipped spout so you’re free to drench your plate with it. It’s like the gravy boat is saying “go ahead, let all your other side dishes be showered in my savory glory.”
The point is: gravy wants you to be happy, and that’s why it’s the best.