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Rethinking the Thanksgiving table

Not all traditions have to stay the same this November season

By Joshua Henreckson | Contributor 

Okay, so you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner. It doesn’t matter how it happened — maybe it’s longstanding tradition, or maybe your aunt Carol is bedridden with influenza — whatever the reason, you now bear the horrifying weight of a family’s expectations.

With exquisite-looking dishes such as these, it’s hard to imagine executing one’s own Thanksgiving plans without a mishap. (Photograph provided by Jennifer Moore)

With exquisite-looking dishes such as these, it’s hard to imagine executing one’s own Thanksgiving plans without a mishap. (Photograph provided by Jennifer Moore)

Here’s the problem. Thanksgiving isn’t like other holidays. You can’t just order a nice-ish pizza and buy a package of frosted sugar cookies from Meijer like you could at Christmas. There are no presents to serve as a distraction. No, every single person who shows up at your door — braving the minefield of family drama that is sure to claim more than a few victims each year — is there for one reason: food.

So what are you going to make? Beyond the obvious, I mean. Turkey, rolls and mashed potatoes with gravy go without saying. The key to a truly excellent Thanksgiving dinner is the side dishes. But there’s only so much time to stitch these together, and the list of “traditional” sides is long enough that the turkey may be done before you’ve finished reading.

You’re going to have to pick and choose anyway, so, while we’re at it, we’re going to prune out the weak links that somehow find their way onto our Thanksgiving tables every year. Stick with me here — I promise this will pay off.

First things first — ditch the cranberry sauce. Nothing against cranberries — they’re quite good, actually. The common canned sauce variety though, is just bad. Anything that comes out of a can as a perfect mold of that can should be viewed with healthy suspicion. And then there’s the leftovers factor — who wants to eat cranberry sauce two days after Thanksgiving?

While we’re on the subject of strange, gooey substances, let’s talk about Jell-O salad. Maybe you’re lucky and haven’t heard of it before — it’s definitely a holdover from Thanksgivings of decades past — but this molded mass of gelatin, marshmallows and canned fruits has stuck around like a stubborn Halloween zombie. Steer clear.

Next, we’re going to have to take a bigger risk. It’s time to cut green bean casserole. There’s usually a few people who like this dish, so be careful, but these are the sort of people who are happy when they’re served green beans anyway. For everyone else, adding a few onion straws and some cream of mushroom soup isn’t going to make beans magically taste good.

A perfect Thanksgiving place setting. (Photograph provided by Jori Hanna)

A perfect Thanksgiving place setting. (Photograph provided by Jori Hanna)

Now that you have some extra time and space on your table, let’s fill it with some better options. First, if you have the budget and time for it, ham is a great complementary option for turkey. Some people just prefer red meat to white meat, and they’ll be thanking you all afternoon. Add some pineapple sauce and you’ll have a true second foundation for your meal.

Next, substitute your green bean casserole with corn chowder. This soup should’ve become a staple of Thanksgiving dinners years ago. It has some of the holiday’s most signature flavors in corn and potatoes and you can throw in bacon for good measure. Having a soup will provide a nice contrast to the meats and stuffing as well.

Another great side option is baked macaroni and cheese. The beauty of this dish is that it’s cheap, easy to prepare and popular. Best of all, it’s customizable. If you’re short on time or want a lighter option, just find a simple mac and cheese recipe and put it in the oven. If you want to go all out, you can add bacon, onion or pepper.

So now you have a game plan — or, at least, the game plan I’d choose. You know your family better than I do. Maybe they hate macaroni and cheese, or maybe they couldn’t live without cranberry sauce. The point is, Thanksgiving dinner shouldn’t be about bringing the same foods to the table every year just because someone, somewhere, sometime decided it was tradition. Find what you love and make your own traditions.They’ll be far more special to your family than Jell-O salad.

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