Full disclosure: I’ve always loved Thanksgiving, but I don’t love “traditional” Thanksgiving foods. “How are you the one ranking Thanksgiving dishes then??” you ask. Good question. I believe not having decades of ingrained emotional bias toward any Thanksgiving dishes makes me a clear-thinking, objective arbiter of truth for, say, sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows. Also, I volunteered.
Now for what this list will not be. It will not be an interrogation of the myriad damaging myths Thanksgiving is built upon and perpetuates, or the inauthenticity of its traditions (I’m pretty sure the Wampanoag tribe did not share cranberry can-opening technology with the colonists). And except for one type of classification (think about what kind of magazine this is), I will not be ranking any regional dishes or dishes that seem non-traditional. Sorry mac & cheese and brussels sprouts.
Stuffing is the clear winner of Thanksgiving. Oh, all the boxes it ticks. It is a non-regional, “core” Thanksgiving dish, it has a universally high approval rating, it’s great on its own but also pairs well with other dishes, it can be made from the turkey but doesn’t need to be, it hits almost every food group, and while Stovetop Stuffing wishes you’d think otherwise, it is pretty exclusive to Thanksgiving. It is the perfect Thanksgiving dish. It effing SLAPS. And I don’t even eat stuffing!
2. Mashed Potatoes
Stuffing edged out mashed potatoes because mashed potatoes are not Thanksgiving-specific, but that is ironically also their greatest strength - it’s hard to give a low rank to a dish that is in heavy rotation year-round nationally (especially if you traffic in fried chicken meal deals). Warm, comforting, and reliable. Like an old, starchy friend.
“Brah - Is gravy even a side dish??” you doth protest. I would argue (1) yes, it definitely qualifies, and (2) the fact that hot meat syrup ranks this highly is an indictment of the entire Thanksgiving industrial complex. Gravy is docked for not being drinkable on its own (10/10 cardiologists do not recommend), but it ultimately is the grand unifying force of Thanksgiving dinner. It’s the grey lipstick used to pretty up this meal. Also, last week a friend told me a recipe for early gravy was in the Roman compendium Apicius de re Coquinaria, Western civilization’s oldest cookbook, so it has that going for it (note: a cursory Google search did NOT verify this to be true).
4. Shiro Gohan
Do you not eat rice on Thanksgiving? Why not? It makes it better.
True story - I did a macro diet a while back where I ate ground turkey at essentially every meal for like a year. Your immediate reaction is probably to think, “Wow, that is very sad”, which should tell you turkey is not good. Think about it - how often have you sat down at a posh restaurant, took a glance at the menu, and excitedly said, “Garçon, I’ll have the turkey”? Turkey is dry, white, and boring, the roasted fowl equivalent of Al Gore. Unlike other animals (which produce useful things like milk or eggs or leather or fur or BACON), the turkey is largely useless. Even its best form - deli meat - is processed so it isn’t like cardboard, and even that is probably slowly killing you. At Thanksgiving, turkey is just a cumbersome, labor-intensive vehicle for making and consuming gravy. Some might argue, “What about fried turkey???” My retort: “It’s actually pretty good if you brine it for 36 hours, then risk getting third-degree burns while frying it in a gallon of oil over a propane flame in your backyard!” is not a sentence you have to say about beef, pork, chicken, or fish. In fact, turkey only ranks this high because (1) gravy and (sometimes) stuffing is a by-product of it, (2) early colonials actually ate wild turkeys, and (3) it is the most tangible and ubiquitous symbol of the holiday (just beating out wicker horns overflowing with gourds and black hats with Big Buckle Energy - holidays are weird).
6. Some Kind of Cooked Asian Dish
Does your Thanksgiving have a noodle dish? What about fried wonton? Teriyaki chicken? Chinese chicken salad? Whatever it is, it’s probably better than what’s left on this list.
7 & 8. Pecan Pie & Pumpkin Pie
Pecan pie beats pumpkin pie by a nose because it doesn’t look like someone blended the rest of Thanksgiving dinner in a Vitamix and left it in a pie tin to congeal. But pie is good. To be clear, cake is better than pie, but ... pie is good.
9. Deviled Eggs
Are deviled eggs on holidays a JA thing? I don’t know, but when I was a kid I’d truck a platter of these at every holiday. It was a lot of cholesterol, but it was the good cholesterol.
10. 7-Layer Jell-O
I’m almost certain this one is a JA thing. Apparently we love finger foods. To be honest, I prefer my Jell-O in non-7-layer form, but this pretty little guy works overtime as an appetizer, a side, a dessert, and an after-dessert snack that brings together (people of) all ages and (Jell-O of) all colors.
11. Inarizushi & Futomaki
Just to get real vulnerable and transparent for a second, as a child I was not a fan of how vinegar-y either of these tasted (and like - the fresh, warm rice was RIGHT there). But we all grow and evolve as people.
12. Some Kind of Casserole
For most, this is a green bean or broccoli casserole, and ranking it this low is probably controversial, but casseroles can have WILDLY different outcomes depending on the recipe and who is making it. In general though, I think we can agree that "casserole" doesn't connote the peak of culinary achievement in most people's minds. Also, green bean casserole was invented in 1955 by a Campbell’s Test Kitchen employee (a woman incredibly named “Dorcas”) so they could sell more cream of mushroom soup. Plus, in the upper Midwest, casserole is called “hot dish”, which is very off-putting.
13. Candied Sweet Potatoes
Remember when “yams” used to be a word associated with Thanksgiving? Well, no one was actually ever eating yams (it was yet another marketing ploy, this time by farmers in Louisiana; real yams are a tuber similar to yucca), which is why we now correctly refer to them as sweet potatoes. I don’t like sweet potatoes, and coating a dinner dish in marshmallows is just bizarre. I get that some people love this, but: down vote.
14. Cranberry Sauce
Is this the most divisive entry here? It shouldn’t be. The satisfying thwack sound this makes falling out of the can aside, this is objectively bad. It has the dubious distinction of “canned product that most retains the detailed shape of the can”, which is unsettling, and the homemade version that is made from actual cranberries somehow often tastes worse. Why is the de facto presentation just lazily plopping it on a plate and slicing it? Speaking of which, how can something that can be SLICED even be called a sauce? What are we doing here? Honestly, it took many years as a kid until I even understood what this was and why it was on the table; then, when I first saw canned beets, I thought those were cranberry sauce too, so I don’t eat those either. Thumbs down.