Highlighting the side dishes this Thanksgiving

Move over, turkey

by Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Light

As any food columnist knows, turkey is the centerpiece of the traditional Thanksgiving menu. While we can smile at New Yorker columnist Calvin Trillin’s campaign to have the national Thanksgiving dish changed to spaghetti carbonara, you don’t mess with the turkey. Even though it may be the least favorite part of the meal for many of you.

Indeed, as one of my students at the Kitchen Conservatory told me last week, “No one in my immediate family likes turkey, but the mere suggestion that I leave it off the menu one year caused my husband’s aunt to declare: “If there is no turkey on the table, you can tell your wife I’m not coming.”

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So I knew going in that I wasn’t going to mess with the turkey. Instead, my idea was to update the sides. It seemed an innocent enough proposal. After all, many of us grew up on Thanksgivings featuring two iconic casseroles rooted in the 1960s: string beans mixed with a can of mushroom soup and topped with a can of French-fried onions, and sweet potatoes mashed with loads of butter and brown sugar and then blanketed with toasted marshmallows. Why not move our Thanksgiving sides into the 21st century?

Alas, what I didn’t take into consideration was the power of Thanksgiving traditions, which extend beyond the turkey. My awakening began with a telephone conversation last week with my son Josh in Boston. He was bemoaning that he and his wife Emily could not be in St. Louis for Thanksgiving because they had used up all their vacation days honeymooning in Europe.

“Mom,” he said, “I suppose that means I’ll have to go a whole year without your rolls.”

Later that day, I polled students in my class at the Kitchen Conservatory. “My family would be devastated without the green bean casserole,” one said. “They’re never any leftovers.”

Another told me that her grown children look forward to having exactly the same meal they’ve had every year for the past decade. “I tried substituting a warm cranberry salad for the usual cranberry sauce, and everyone protested. My son left the table, drove to Walgreen’s, and came back with a can of Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce.”

OK, so some of us would be tempting fate if we altered our Thanksgiving menus.  But how about introducing just a few new dishes and serving them alongside some of the older ones? It’s something I’ve done every year, and guess what? Our family’s “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner now includes a few dishes that weren’t on the table just five years ago.

We will, of course, have turkey this year. Rather than the more traditional roasted version, I will try smoking one for the first time. Wish me luck!  And I will make our “traditional” flaky butter rolls, dried-fruit stuffing, and a dessert that premiered only last year: a pumpkin pie made with fresh pumpkin and topped with homemade candied pecans.  I will admit this new pumpkin pie came under intense scrutiny when I placed it on the table last year, but by the end of dessert it had become a family favorite. Indeed, it’s even the birthday dessert of choice for my son Zack, whose 26th birthday we’ll celebrate on Thanksgiving.

So if you’d like to introduce one or two new items onto your Thanksgiving table this year, I have some easy and delicious possibilities for you to consider. Perhaps one or two or even more will become traditional fare at your future Thanksgiving feasts.  Enjoy the holiday!

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of three.  A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]