A favorite Thanksgiving memory might come down to beloved traditions, whether it be serving up a tried-and-true menu of turkey and mashed potatoes or always making room on the table for a family favorite pie. But sometimes, breaking away from the classics or embracing an element of surprise makes a particular celebration stand out for years to come, as we’ve learned from some of our favorite chefs, writers and food personalities. From an unexpected discovery of marshmallow-studded sweet potatoes, to fulfilling a dream of encasing every Thanksgiving food in pastry, our friends and Milk Street Radio guests shared stories of food, friends and family that exemplify what this holiday means to them.
Chef and TV personality
One of my favorite Thanksgiving memories is when my mom finally allowed me to actually cut the turkey. For many years, I was relegated to vegetables and side dishes. Being allowed to slice the turkey was a glorifying and very fulfilling moment.
My parents emigrated to the U.S. from Argentina in the 1960s. My nonna joined them in the mid-70s. I remember my mom and nonna working for days to replicate the classic American Thanksgiving roast turkey with stuffing, a beaker of brown gravy, cranberry sauce from a can, that kind of thing. Nothing like what they usually cooked, but a meal that resembled the images of traditional Thanksgiving dinner shown in glossy magazines and TV shows—with one exception. There was no pumpkin or sweet potato pie. Instead, nonna made her specialty flan. It was the smoothest flan imaginable, a ring of silky custard sluiced with faintly bitter caramel sauce.
I will never forget when Serious Eats made my lifelong dream of an all pie Thanksgiving a reality in 2011. J. Kenji López-Alt made a turkey pot pie with a layer of cranberry sauce, a green bean casserole pie enlivened by fried shallots, a stuffing and sausage pie, and a mashed potato pie baked with little wells of gravy. For dessert, we had pie shipped from my favorite pie bakers around the country. It was even better than I imagined it could be.
Our Thanksgiving table is always a hybrid of Greek and American specialties, and at least one stuffing from our mom Zoe, who wasn't a great cook, but could make a few really delicious things. Her ground meat stuffing studded with chestnuts, pine nuts and raisins was the highlight of Thanksgiving.
When I was little, growing up vegan, there was no turkey for us on Thanksgiving. My mom went out of her way to make the absolute best Thanksgiving dinners for us. When I opened up the restaurant, I decided that everyone that was vegan should have Thanksgiving because it’s just not fair to not have it. So I started hosting a vegan Thanksgiving and it’s been 15 years now.
Baker and TV personality
I grew up in Sandwich, Massachusetts, which is the town next to Plymouth. You'd think there would be some deep, deep Thanksgiving traditions, but no, my mom just got those weird paper turkeys that come flat and then you fold it out and turkey body becomes a ball. That was it. That was our Thanksgiving decoration. P.S. If you've ever been to Plymouth Rock, it's very disappointing.
Thanksgiving might be all about the turkey, but in my family, we ate capon growing up. I'm an only child, so Thanksgivings were smaller affairs. A 16 pound bird was just too much. We happily made the switch to capon, a smaller bird that's much more flavorful. I wholeheartedly endorse capon as a turkey alternative, but still with plenty of stuffing, potatoes, Brussels sprouts and pumpkin pie.
I love spending Thanksgiving with my wonderful son and our chosen family. Our friends will decorate a long table with winter camellias and the last the persimmons off my tree and sit down to our feast made with everyone's love and creativity.
My childhood Thanksgivings were always hosted by my Aunt Sandy in Marinette, Wisconsin. Sandy was a great cook and the meal was bountiful and traditional with all the classic sides. My Uncle Ed, meanwhile, stayed busy at the bar fixing drinks for everyone all day. There were at least three pies on offer––apple, pecan and pumpkin––and there was always snow on the ground, if you can believe it. I miss the snow.
My favorite thing on the table aside from talking and laughing is my mom’s potato salad. Normally I put some gravy on it, and I love the green beans that goes on top of it. It's kind of crazy looking, but it's delicious and everybody loves it.
Our Iranian Thanksgiving usually involved Persian rice with barberries and stuffing a turkey with tons of dried fruits, nuts and yes, pomegranate molasses, an Iranian specialty. But I'll never forget how flabbergasted my aunt was when I first introduced her to sweet potato casserole. Baking the potatoes with cinnamon and allspice was fine, but then topping it with this corn syrupy, gelatinous, white, goopy camping food? And then singeing it in the oven? Bizarre. The younger folks liked it, but I wasn't sure about my aunt. As luck would have it, I ended up back at her place for Thanksgiving years later and, to my surprise, there it was on the table: sweet potato casserole with singed marshmallows.
My favorite Thanksgiving memory is having Thanksgiving with Salma Hayek after we did “Desperado.“
These excerpts have been edited for clarity.