Thanksgiving is a time to reflect and express gratitude while gathering around good food. Menus and traditions vary from home to home, but what unites us are the little moments that make up the big holiday, and the memories that ultimately shape who we become.

From Kenji López-Alt and Ashley Christensen sharing their family jam sessions and game night competitions to Pierre Thiam and Marcus Samuelsson blending cultures to make an American holiday all their own, here are 22 chefs and food writers on their favorite Thanksgiving moments and memories, and what they’re grateful for this year.

Read excerpts from our annual Thanksgiving special on Milk Street Radio below, and listen to the full episode here.

The Best Moments of Thanksgiving

Alex Prud'homme
Author, “Dinner with the President
Our family takes Thanksgiving seriously. We like to compete over the most interesting side dishes. But one thing we can agree on is we like to start with a reverse martini, also known as the upside down or wet martini. The recipe reverses the standard ratios by combining one part gin to five parts extra dry or white vermouth. And it's garnished with a twist of lemon. That's a smooth, sophisticated and only vaguely alcoholic drink. So the purists would disapprove, and James Bond would probably take a pass. But Franklin D. Roosevelt loved it. And so did Paul and Julia Child. They would serve it as an aperitif with goldfish crackers. And Julia would always say the best thing about a reverse Martini is you can have two of them.

Sam Fore
Chef, Tuk Tuk Snack Shop
One of my favorite moments at Thanksgiving is when we all get together and after we've eaten everyone's a little bit full. About an hour and a half later there's a little trickle to the kitchen for just a little bit more.

Nik Sharma
Author, “VEG-TABLE"
My favorite Thanksgiving moment is when we sit down to eat dessert. And here's how I like to make my pie special and fuss-free. I've tweaked a classic Goan recipe from India called Bebinca that includes pumpkin or sweet potatoes. It's still got the delicious custardy texture of a pie filling that's enjoyable on its own. And there's no crust drama.

Kenji López-Alt
Co-host, “The Recipe with Kenji and Deb"
My favorite part of Thanksgiving actually comes after the meal in the evening when we all sit around and play music together and sing songs. It's a big family singalong. My dad plays the banjo, I play the guitar. Both of my sisters play the fiddle. And in fact, my kids now play music as well. So it's a big family jam session, and I really can't think of anything I love doing more than playing music with loved ones.

Jonathan Adams

Chef, Rival Bros Coffee
The best side dish on the Thanksgiving table is mashed potatoes. Coming up through fine dining, it was always potato purée or pommes purée. And that's exactly how we make it in our house. And my favorite part is when you've riced the potatoes and they're drying and steaming, and you have warm cream infused with butter and garlic and rosemary and salt on the side. As you start to pour that milk and whip it into the potatoes, you're so close to having everything ready and everything be perfection. That's the signal to me to call the kids to the table because here we go. Happy Thanksgiving. Eat your potatoes.

Adam Gopnik

Author, “The Real Work"
The moment that I relish most of all in Thanksgiving Day is actually the night before Thanksgiving, right around midnight, because that's the moment when I've got everything, I think, ready to go. I've got one turkey brining. I've got another turkey, the second turkey, in the fridge. I've got all of my ingredients organized. The cornbread for the cornbread stuffing. The baguette bread for the chestnut stuffing.

And there's this moment of pure bliss when you look into the back fridge and you say, “This is going to be a piece of cake.” There are the string beans. There are the shallots that go with them. There are the potatoes, there's the rosemary. And for one brief, completely illusory moment you think, this is so well organized that it's going to be easy. Even though your experience of 40 or so Thanksgivings tells you that chaos will descend shortly tomorrow morning.

Duff Goldman
Chef, Charm City Cakes
My favorite moment of Thanksgiving Day is really early in the morning, going down in the kitchen and cleaning it really, really good. And kind of getting ready to start cooking. So you clean the kitchen and then you turn the oven on, and it's gonna be on all day long. You know, just kind of getting your meals in place, like having a cup of coffee, making the list of everything I'm going to be doing that day. getting all my dishes out; just setting up for the whirlwind of Thanksgiving. And then really like, not sitting down until about 11 o'clock at night and I've done like 40,000 steps. I made a ton of food. Everybody's really full and happy and we had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Dorie Greenspan
Author, “Baking with Dorie
I love the holiday. I love everything about it. But I think my favorite part of the meal is the end of the meal. By that time, you know that the soup, that would be chestnut soup in our house, was hot, that the turkey wasn’t dry, that the cranberry sauce was tart. I love tart cranberry sauce. And that dessert – well, my husband’s favorite dessert, the pecan pie – you know that the pecan pie was delicious. The meal’s over, but no one leaves the table. That’s my favorite part, where we all sit around the table, completely relaxed and happy and just having the best conversations. That a great part of the Thanksgiving meal.

Claire Ptak
Author, Love is a Pink Cake
I feel like the best part about planning for Thanksgiving is the shopping list because I'm always very ambitious about what my menu is going to be. But I just adore going to the markets here in London and choosing all the beautiful pumpkins and squashes and quinces and apples. And of course, my potatoes, the very important part. And then going to the butcher and going to get the dry ingredients as well. I really, really, really just cherish that time because I feel like I don't have to hold back; I can buy so much because there's always extra people that show up to my Thanksgiving dinner. And they're always welcome.

Carla Hall
Founder, Sweet Heritage
My favorite moment on Thanksgiving Day is making the cornbread dressing, and it's probably because it involves so many hands. My mother makes the skillet cornbread that goes into the oven and bakes. When that comes out, my niece comes into the kitchen after it's cooled and she cuts it up into cubes and throws it on the sheet pan and finishes that in the oven to get all toasty. In the meantime, I'm doing the onions and the celery and getting the stock together and a little bit of milk and egg, and I mix everything together. It goes into a baking dish and when it comes out It's so crunchy on the top and soft and creamy in the center and it is the favorite thing of everybody's...with gravy of course. It is my favorite moment.

Ashley Christensen

Owner, Ashley Christensen Restaurants
My favorite part of Thanksgiving is how the table evolves with celebration of old and new traditions as our families change and grow. I love that there are no presents, just gathering, being in the kitchen with the sound of the televised parade, and the bowl games piping in from the TV in the living room.

Since getting married and sharing the holidays with our now larger family, we've adopted the tradition of a puzzle slowly being completed over the holiday, beginning the week of Thanksgiving and ideally completed before the big meal is served. We also host a highly competitive Jenga tournament, which my wife Kate almost always wins. My big hope for this Thanksgiving is health and happiness for everyone. And that my family will finally stop referring to dressing as “stuffing.“ It's only stuffing if it's stuffed inside of something. Am I right?

Martha Barnette
Co-host, “A Way With Words
For the last several years, my wife and I have had Friendsgiving at the home of another couple. And they always invite a third couple that they're close with, and we really hit it off with those two. And every year, my wife and I say, “You know, we really like Terrell and Andreas, we should get together with them sometime, we don't live that far apart.” But then life always seems to intervene, and we never see them until the next year, when the whole thing starts again.

So for us, Thanksgiving's become kind of an anchor in the year. It's the time when we're sure that we're going to see these folks we really like and we think of them as our “anyway friends.“ We walk in the door on Thanksgiving and we say, ”Hey, how have you been? Well, anyway...“ And then we just pick up the conversation right there where we left off a whole year ago. So we're grateful that Thanksgiving gives us a chance to reconnect with our ”anyway friends,“ and better yet over delicious food and drink

Memories from Thanksgivings past

Sonoko Sakai
Author, “Mai and the Missing Melon
I have a happy memory to share from Thanksgiving years ago. I got to dress a turkey. Well, all of us dress a turkey, but that particular turkey got a special dressing. I put a tuxedo on it. I made the tuxedo from pie dough and brushed it with some egg and baked it like a pie. It was a beautiful golden tuxedo and we served it and the guests loved it. I was very lucky that my mother would let me do things like that. My curiosity was always a challenge with these happy adventures.

Thomas Keller

Chef, The French Laundry, Per Se and Bouchon Bistro, among other restaurants
Thanksgiving is a day where it's all about your family, and not about the gifts or anything else. Not about a single person, but about all of us together, celebrating a moment with one another. As a young person, my mother worked in the evening, so Thanksgiving Day was an extra special day for us because she actually cooked dinner for us. And that was a wonderful thing with my brothers and my sister and mother, just enjoying those moments together as a family.

Tyler Aiken

Chef, Le Cavalier
My favorite memory of Thanksgiving is my grandmother's cornbread. Every year it was the unsung hero at the dinner table alongside all the knife cuts she'd done with a dull paring knife and arthritic hands. I've never had another quite like it but to this day, any kind of cornbread transports me to that childhood holiday table and reminds me of the loving abundance she's always assemble.

Illyanna Maisonet
Author, “Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook"
When I was young, I'd walk the mile to my grandma's house and help her get the turkey out of the oven. It was also just a moment to spend time with her before the chaos of our very large family packed into her very small townhouse. She served turkey, mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing with salami—hard salami—rolls, cranberry sauce out of the can, the kind that is the best at noon. That way my family had time to visit, play football, play dominoes, drink libations, dance, eat again, and be home comfy cozy in your pjs by 8pm. And that's tradition. That's a tradition I still carry, even if it's only for a few people as opposed to dozens.

Alice Waters
Chef, Chez Panisse
I always have Thanksgiving at home with my friends and their families. We're about 10 or 15 people at my kitchen table in front of a fireplace. But this last year, the sons who are grown up now of my friend Sharon, came over very early, and they took my heritage breed organic turkey, and they fitted it in the fireplace. They helped to make all of the dishes that I had wanted to do. It it was such a delight to watch them work, keeping their eye on the turkey all the time. And Sharon always brings the desserts. We have the most wonderful gathering and lighting of the candle.

I'm grateful for the farmers and the ranchers, who are taking care of the land for our future. And always grateful to be seated at a beautiful table [with food] that smells good and tastes good. It was wonderful last year, and I cannot wait until this year.

Gratitude on Thanksgiving

Lidia Bastianich
Author, “Lidia's From Our Family Table to Yours"
I am grateful and appreciative of the opportunity that I was given as a young immigrant to become an American. And [I am appreciative] of my children and grandchildren that are American. Together, we celebrate this great holiday. Celebrating this great country America.

Jacques Pépin
Author, “Cooking My Way
Thanksgiving is the greatest holiday for me. It's all about food. It's all about wine. It's all about meeting friends. There is no gift, no date of battle to remember. No saint going up to heaven to remember. It's only getting together without any gifts, eating and drinking together. The best of the holidays.

When Thanksgiving Means Blending Cultures

Pierre Thiam
Author, “Simply West African
Thanksgiving is something I learned when I moved to America. It wasn't celebrated in Senegal. But I saw that oh, there's so much way we have in common. And for me when people come to spend Thanksgiving with us, my best best way to do it is to turn those recipes into a West African twist. So that turkey one time was a turkey glazed with tamarind. And this Thanksgiving, I'm going to do a Piri Piri turkey. They turkey is marinaded with our Piri Piri West African spice blend. Thanksgiving can have a West African twist to it, and that makes it even more interesting to my guests.

Andrea Nguyễn
Author, “Ever-Green Vietnamese"
My favorite part of Thanksgiving is cooking whatever I want. And typically our menu is a combination of Vietnamese and American dishes and ideas. So this year I am going to roast chicken because we're not a turkey family, with lots of vegetables and finish it off with a nước chấm vinaigrette for a little Viet flavor. And then I'm going to roast some sweet potatoes and top it off with something called Sốt Sa tế, which is a lemongrass and chili oil. It's very Vietnamese.

Marcus Samuelsson
Author, “The Rise
I grew up outside the United States. So I didn't know anything about the traditions around Thanksgiving. And now Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, because it's around food and getting together.

I love all things around it, like when you get excited around that Sunday, Monday before you start to pick up the turkey. I start thinking about the sides somewhere after Halloween actually. Most of the time we do similar sides like Brussels with either pancetta or some type of slight meat. It could also be just Turkey bits. And then very often with nuts and pomegranate, super delicious. And then we always have an Ethiopian side. It could be chickpeas and lentils with a little bit of pumpkin. We call it Shiro, which is super, super delicious. And then we put cornbread breading on top on that. So it has a little bit of American traditionalism in but also really part of our Ethiopian culture.

And then getting the bird right, which is the big task. I love the whole part about figuring out frying, no brine, and then rubbing my spice blend on top of it. I've changed the spice blend every year, but there's always some aspects of curing [the turkey] in a little bit of salt and water and then adding in Berbere, with this amazing more Moroccan spice blend, Ras el hanout, which has cumin and coriander and it's really, really delicious. It's after about three, three and a half hours of roasting the bird and letting it rest and brushing it with lots of lots of fat and butter.

It's such a special holiday. And what's always at our Thanksgiving table is our Swedish Glögg which is really red wine, brown sugar, cardamom, cinnamon. It's a warm wine that we heat up, and you've got to drink it warm. We garnish it with raisins and almonds. It's really delicious. And we keep drinking it all the way to Christmas.

These excerpts have been edited for clarity.

Join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Pinterest.

And if you're looking for more Milk Street, check out our livestream cooking classes with our favorite chefs, home cooks and friends for global recipes, cooking methods and more.