Food & Drink

How Do You Do Thanksgiving?

Readers weigh in on the spread, the guests, the etiquette, the triumphs, and some Turkey Day disasters

illustration: Sean Tulgetske

We asked Garden & Gun readers (in our newsletters and on social media) how they observe the big day, from the choice of sides to what time they sit down to eat to who is most likely to say the wrong thing at the table. We received more than five hundred responses, and no surprise, they were insightful, passionate, touching, and funny. Here are the results:

The Meal

 

What’s the most important dish on the table?

Turkey, of course, is the crown jewel on most Thanksgiving tables, with about 55 percent of respondents calling the bird the most important dish. About 25 percent say dressing gets top billing, followed by gravy and stuffing

 

How do you prepare your turkey?

 

White or dark meat?

 

Is it “stuffing” or “dressing”?

 

On average, how many casseroles are on your table?

 

Green bean casserole?

 

Marshmallows on the sweet potato casserole?

 

How many pies are on your table?

 

Which pie is a must-have?

Pecan is the pie of choice for about 40 percent of respondents, followed closely by pumpkin. Apple came in third, with about 10 percent of the vote. Other pies mentioned include sweet potato, chocolate, key lime, minced meat, shoofly, chess pie, and coconut meringue.

 

What are the three most important sides?

Readers like their dressing. Almost half of all respondents include dressing among their top three sides. Potatoes were the second most popular, with about 30 percent listing mashed potatoes and 20 percent noting sweet potatoes. The other top sides: stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans, and mac and cheese.

 

Be honest: Is there a dish you always buy at the store instead of making? If so, what is it?

Nearly a third of respondents say they would never dream of buying a dish instead of lovingly preparing it at home, but not everybody has a problem with a quick store run. The top food likely to be purchased is cranberry sauce, followed closely by dinner rolls and pie

 

What’s your drink of choice on Thanksgiving?

About 45 percent of readers like to sip wine with their turkey, another 10 percent prefer bourbon or champagne, and some people aren’t picky (“Anything with booze”). Around 20 percent opt for sweet or iced tea, and others just stick to “water in a silver goblet ’cause I’ve already had two glasses of wine.”

 

Do you break out the silver tomato server for the canned cranberry sauce?

 

What leftover do you look forward to the most?

Not surprisingly, turkey is the most sought-after leftover. Some responses:

“Smoked turkey and sausage gumbo with cornbread dressing.”

“Turkey Manhattan (basically heat up chopped turkey in gravy) poured over warmed-up squares of stuffing.”

“Next-morning potato cakes made of potatoes, cornbread, and chopped turkey, pan-fried in butter and topped with a fried egg.”

“Turkey Tetrazzini.”

About 30 percent look forward to next-day dressing (“Crisp it in a waffle iron,” one reader suggests), and some just pile everything back on their plate:

“A modest replay of the entire meal the next day.”

“Thanksgiving dinner sandwiches with a little of everything.”

“Everything But the Kitchen Sink Casserole (all the leftovers, layered, generously laced with gravy and topped with mashed potatoes a la Shepherd’s Pie).”

“All of it, as I make turkey soup with all the leftovers.”

 

Do you have a floral centerpiece, or is the food the star of the table?

 

The People

 

Who’s in charge of cooking?

About half of respondents say they themselves do the cooking. Some are quite protective about it:

“Me. Only me. I will never share.”

“Me. I don’t like other people messing about in my kitchen.”

“Me, and don’t forget it.”

“Me, for our small party. My husband is not familiar with our kitchen.”

And about half divvy up meal prep:

“I do the turkey, and my mom, sisters, and aunt do the sides.”

“Me and my daughter-in-law, but anyone can chip in.”

“Me. But I have begun to delegate sides and pies to grown daughters and granddaughters. Sometimes we fry an ‘extra’ turkey, and that goes to a grandson-in-law.”

“Everyone. Dad’s on turkey and pie, Mom’s on casseroles, kids are on sides.” 

“My husband and I. He’s outside frying the turkey with his youngest son, I’m inside directing traffic and taking care of the rest.”

 

Who’s in charge of cleaning up?

About 70 percent of respondents indicate it’s a shared duty. The person who said this about cooking: “Me. Only me. I will never share”…also said this about cleaning: “Me. Would love to share!” Some other responses:

“Everyone better offer to help. I don’t care who takes the lead.”

“Oldest sibling delegates to others.”

“Everyone but Mom.”

“The men. At our house, the rule my mother established long ago is this: On holidays, the women cook and the men clean up.”

“Kids. Grandkids. That’s why you have ‘em.”

“The ones who don’t cook.”

“My sister and I wind up cleaning up amid lots of laughter and ridiculous fun.”

“Grandfather. He has always cleaned up the kitchen throughout their sixty years of marriage.”

 

The Etiquette

 

Who is the first person to fall asleep after the meal?

Mostly, it’s the men. The words “dad,” “husband,” “father-in-law,” “son,” and “brother” are cited by more than half of respondents. “All the men,” say several others. “Mom,” “wife,” “mother-in-law,” “sister,” and “grandmother” are mentioned by about 20 percent. 

 

Who is the person you can always count on to say the wrong thing at the table?

Most tables have at least one person who will say the wrong thing. A sampling of answers:

“A close friend who shall remain nameless.”

“Brother-in-law with politics.”

“Everyone is suspect!”

“It’s anyone’s game. However, it’s usually an old family friend.”

“Me, after a few too many.”

“Mother-in-law. For the last forty years.”

“My entire family.”

“Pick a nephew, any nephew.”

“Tipsy aunt.”

“Uncle Jim.”

“Uncle Jim!”

“Uncle Mike.”

“We all have screwed up.”

“We lost my father  three years ago. Boy, did he have some whoppers— those are always quoted.”

“There’s no wrong thing.”

 

Is there a football game on your TV during the meal?

 

If you could invite two well-known people to your Thanksgiving, who would they be and why?

Responses ranged from Martha Washington to Steve Spurrier to Kanye West to Sophia Loren. Some others:

Mavis Staples and Dolly Parton, because they both exude love and kindness.” — Lori T. 

Albert Einstein—he’s always fascinated me because he was so smart but didn’t take himself too seriously. And Elon Musk—he’s so smart and does seem to take himself too seriously.” — Priscilla M. 

Oprah for the conversation and Matthew McConaughey for the eye candy.” — Sloane H. 

Ann Patchett, because she would be inspired by my family for her next book. Ken Burns, because he would see the potential of a documentary about the craziness of the American family during the holidays.” — Sheila A. 

Muhammad Ali, because he’s the greatest. — Doug T. 

Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. Love Southern women authors, and their stories would be amazing.” — Jill W. 

Thomas Jefferson, because he liked food.” — A LaCoste

Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, because we would all like to share a meal with them and then play music together after.” — Ellen M. 

Edna Lewis: She could teach me how to cook Thanksgiving her way. Jessye Norman: This great American soprano was a favorite, and she just died, so I’d love to have a personal visit with her. Also, I would ask her to say the blessing … or sing it!” — Alan A.

Vivian Howard: Her love of family, friends, food, and the land resonate with me. Her cookbook is my favorite in my collection of over 100. Dak Prescott: We are Mississippi State and Dallas Cowboy fans … but most of all, we are Dak fans. He, like Vivian, is outspoken in his love of family, friends, and food.” — Cindy R. 

Gerard Butler, because he is funny, loves food, and is a Scot. Alton Brown, because he is witty, a fellow Southerner, and would give me his honest opinion about my cooking.” — Nancy T. 

Benjamin Franklin, sexiest of the Founding Fathers.” — Patricia T. 

Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo. They would never complain.” — Randy M. 

Harriet Tubman, because she is a badass, and Tom Selleck, because he’s still hot.” — Jill A. 

Teddy Roosevelt, who would have killed the turkey, and Coco Chanel, for bringing glamor to an otherwise not-so-glamorous meal.” — Franklin C. 

Sean Brock and Edward Lee. I want the hell critiqued out of me!” — William A. 

“I would never subject anyone to my family.” — Noelle S. 

 “My group is entertaining enough. After all, we are Southerners.” — Sally M. 

 

The Process

 

Who usually hosts your Thanksgiving?

We received a range of answers. “Parents” are frequently cited, while many respondents say hosting varies from year to year. Some comments:

“We rotate between families.”

“We rent a big place at the lake, so all the cousins can be together and our grandkids can spend more time together.”

“We are now the eldest, so we do.” 

“The youngest immediate family members.” 

“My home is taken over, and I couldn’t be more honored.”

“My daughter. I bought her a big table and eight chairs.”

“Me. I fight for it and sulk when I lose.”

 

Where do you eat your meal?

 

When does preparation begin?

About 55 percent start ironing the tablecloth and prepping the food the week of Thanksgiving, while about 20 percent get a jumpstart the week before.

Then there are the fanatics, who start preparing their spreadsheets and designing the menu weeks, if not months, in advance:

“After Halloween.”

“The day after the previous Thanksgiving.”

“Committee meeting two weeks ago. Spreadsheet going out this weekend.”

“Never really stops, but I guess the chives were planted in May.”

“When the first turkeys show up in the backyard.”

And about 4 percent of readers have mastered the art of putting together the perfect meal the morning of Thanksgiving

 

Do you have a Thanksgiving shortcut that you’re proud of?

Many readers say there are no shortcuts this holiday (“Thanksgiving is a labor of love … and, boy, do I labor!”). But readers do have some tips and tricks to share:

“I put the turkey in a low oven the night before. I wake to the smells of turkey, and it is glorious! Cooks low and slow and is tender and delicious. And then the oven is free for all the other cooking needed throughout the day.”

“Picking up Bojangles’ biscuits the day before.”

“Setting the table in early November so we can enjoy it all month (and tweak if necessary).”

“Eat dessert first.”

“I go to my sister’s house!”

“Plan, plan, panic!”

“Get kids to cook it.”

 

What time do you sit down for your Thanksgiving meal?

 

Do you say a blessing? If so, who says it?

A majority of respondents report they do say a blessing, with men more likely to be the ones to give it. About a quarter of respondents say the responsibility changes from person to person each year. In some houses, everybody pitches in with a family blessing (“Good bread, good meat, good gosh, let’s eat!”), and about 10 percent skip it and dig right in. Some responses:

“My husband will read the George Washington piece about Thanksgiving, then thank God for all of his enormous blessings.”

“Recently, my grandson, Hudson, whom we call ‘Our Little Theologian.’”

“My son Brooks, and it just warms by heart.”

“Yes, we all say it together, except my brother, who speed prays.”

“No, we go around the table and each person tells what they’re thankful for.”

“Nope. But a thank-you to the cook is appreciated.”

 

Extra Credit

Where does Thanksgiving rank among holidays?

 

What’s been your biggest Thanksgiving disaster?

Had to run out to the store for last-minute supplies and left two large pans of mixed, but not yet baked, dressing on the counter top. Came back to find one completely gone and the other halfway disappeared—and a very satisfied rotund dog. I should have known better. She was a known cornbread fiend. She appeared to suffer no ill effects and continued to be highly motivated by cornbread until her passing last year. — Tara W. 

My mom didn’t fully cook the turkey, and we all got food poisoning. It hit me at a bar the night before the Georgia-Georgia Tech game, and everyone cheered me on while I puked my guts out because they thought I was so drunk. — Danny O. 

One year, my Nana put the hot turkey on a cold, porcelain platter being held by my mother. The platter split down the middle, and the turkey plunged to the floor. We picked that bad boy up, wiped it off with a dish towel, and acted like nothing happened. It was the only time I heard my mother curse. — Stephanie K. 

Guest trying to light candles with a rolled-up paper towel, then dumping the water pitcher on the ensuing fire. Or the exploding crock pot full of mashed potatoes. — Patsy C. 

I dropped the cranberry sauce on the cream-colored carpet. The spray on the walls looked like a crime scene. Sent my son to the store to get cranberries. He came back with cherries. — Melissa S. 

Mom put out the leftovers in the screened-in porch to cool. An owl broke through the screen and went crazy on the porch before safely escaping. We had to throw everything away 🙁 — Allison

>> Read about more Thanksgiving disasters

 

What’s your best Thanksgiving-related story? Did you overcome difficult travel? Learn a family secret? Please share.

I had my daughter at 2:51 a.m. on Thanksgiving day, and my doctor said, “Well done, I can still make my reservation.” —Pamela J. 

The time our dachshund chewed off the bottom of my grandmother’s pants while she was sitting at the table and nobody noticed until she got up to walk into the kitchen. — Kristin P. 

I lived in Florida and my parents lived in Charlotte, N.C. I wasn’t sure I could make it home because work was so busy. But Mom was very sick, so I drove straight through and made it home, the night before. So thankful I did because Mom passed away three months later. — Katherine B.  

We were at our son and daughter-in-law’s house, and she watched part of a show where Martha Stewart showed a new way to roast a turkey … unfortunately, she didn’t finish watching the show and obviously missed a very important direction. As the turkey was roasting, there was a loud explosion, the oven door flew open, flames came out, their two dogs started barking and running around, and at that moment the doorbell rang and their two dinner guests arrived, looking wild eyed and frightened! The fire was put out, and the turkey was delicious. — Gwen P. 

My folks always had older folks over for the big jam. One in particular was Mr. Lundquist. During the meal he got a large crouton stuck on his chin. It was huge and refused to move. Nobody at the table said a word. Finally I got up and “thumped” it across the room. Great memory. — Ron O. 

My grandmother (from the other side of the family) sneezed a pea out of her nose and it landed in my mashed potatoes. The dog got a full plate of Thanksgiving food that year. — Beth R. 

Last year both my mother and I found ourselves fighting breast cancer at Thanksgiving, so we had resigned our family that we would just have something very simple—spaghetti—because both of us are the cooks but neither one of us were up to the task of a Thanksgiving meal. However, on Thanksgiving day, multiple cars pulled into the driveway as our church family showed up at our house with a turkey, all the sides, and desserts, all made by various people from church. It blew us away! On a day when everyone is rushing around to cook for their own families, they took the time to cook for us, too. To say our cups runneth over was an understatement. — Barbie P. 

My son was active-duty military, and he arrived Thanksgiving Day after deployment. We did not need anything else, just his presence at the table. Best holiday ever! — Marie N. 


Thanks to all who responded to the survey. And Happy Thanksgiving from G&G.


Responses compiled by Jessica Giles; charts by Julia Knetzer; illustrations by Sean Tulgetske


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