Southern Thanksgiving Traditions

We are thankful for delicious culinary culture every Thanksgiving holiday meal

Thanksgiving traditions made from scratch

The day after Halloween, November begins as both a month designated for a time of reflection and giving thanks for the things we value most.  It is also the month where we eagerly prepare for the year’s most highly anticipated meal, Thanksgiving dinner.

As the holiday season gains momentum, November issues of the many food magazines to which I subscribe arrive adorned with glossy covers featuring vivid images of crisp, golden turkeys, heaping spoonfuls of stuffing, and picture-perfect pecan pies.  Suffice to say, the depiction of what we Americans widely acknowledge as a “traditional” Thanksgiving meal made me wonder, “Is there really such thing as a traditional Thanksgiving meal?”

Keeping with tradition by breaking it

If I had to answer my own question, my guess would be no. Sure, there are standard staples around which the American Thanksgiving meal tends to revolve:

  • Some kind of game meat like turkey or duck
  • Dressing
  • Gravy
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Sweet potato casserole
  • Green bean casserole
  • Cornbread
  • Pie of the pecan or pumpkin persuasion

However, if you read those food magazines, they’re littered with chef’s anecdotes of how one’s local culture or personal heritage distorts the “traditional” Thanksgiving menu, resulting in something that is unique to the individual’s family. Thus, that meal becomes the traditional Thanksgiving menu, as without those items that Thanksgiving simply would not be Thanksgiving.

A German-Southern Thanksgiving tradition

I for one cannot remember a single Thanksgiving where our meal consisted of all of the above-listed fixings, and honestly, I’m pretty thankful for that because I only really like about three of the things mentioned above (as one cannot live on dressing and gravy alone).

The only holiday meals I have known have featured two staples that, for me, would simply not be Thanksgiving without: one is braised red cabbage; the other is German potato salad.  My Oma was born in Germany and moved to the U.S. just after WWII when she was still a new mother.  Not only did she bring my father to the U.S. from Germany, she also brought some of her culture’s cuisine, which found its way into the most American of traditions: Thanksgiving.

That said, I do recall a time when our family ate turkey or ham during holiday meals; however, at some point, Mom became a Pescatarian, and a few holiday meals later, it was revealed that the majority didn’t really like turkey anyway, which led to us serving catfish as our protein.

Braised red cabbage

Today, here’s what my family’s Thanksgiving menu looks like, and honestly, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving with any other fare:

  • Pan-fried catfish fillets
  • A traditional (vegetarian) dressing
  • Gravy (this is actually really good with catfish and dressing)
  • Vinegar-based German potato salad
  • Braised red cabbage
  • Sweet potato casserole
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Cranberry sauce (straight from the can because that’s how my mother likes it … believe me, I’ve tried to make fresh.  She wants it from the can, and by golly, it had better still look like the can when you serve it)

I find dessert to be a forgettable affair because I would much rather make myself miserably full with the aforementioned eats than waste valuable stomach real estate on something as common as store-bought pie or even the (quite good) cheesecakes Oma buys from her contact in Biloxi.

Making traditions from scratch

When I got married, I experienced both Thanksgiving and Christmas with my husband’s family.  Thanksgiving in the Delcambre household leans more toward the traditional menu except that there’s an amazing layer salad my mother-in-law prepares.  Also, there’s meat dressing … and possibly one more special dish depending on who all is coming and who all is cooking.

At Christmases past with my in-laws, we have traditionally convened at my husband’s grandmother’s house for homemade gumbo with yellow potato salad.  There are rum balls and confections all around along with other hearty staples, but I zero in on the gumbo and potato salad (which must be eaten together; I put my potato salad on the side and mix each bit individually; my father-in-law puts his potato salad scoop directly into his gumbo. There is no wrong way to eat potato salad and gumbo (unless you eat it separately … that is wrong)).

The first time I saw this otherwise unlikely match made in heaven, I was grossed out (the same way you get grossed out when you see your parents really kissing).  But the first time I tried it (the food, not watching may parents make out (shudder)), I realized I’m a horrible, judgmental human being who has been missing out her entire life.  Merry Christmas to me.

Now, that I have a growing family, I know that where we convene to give thanks might change in years to come, but I know that my holiday meals will now hinge not only on German potato salad and red cabbage, but also on the presence of my mother-in-law’s layer salad and Grandma’s gumbo and yellow potato salad.

If you compare this to the first menu I shared with you, it’s not even clear that we’re talking about the same holiday anymore, at least not in the same country.  But, that’s Thanksgiving in the South … it’s a reflection of its culture and its people’s collective heritages. 

Want to learn how to make some of our favorite Southern-inspired dishes? Check out our VisitSouth recipe page.