The Family Thanksgiving Traditions Our Editors Cherish

·7 min read
Thanksgiving dishes on a table
Thanksgiving dishes on a table

Getty Images / LauriPatterson

Like a Thanksgiving potluck, we all bring something different to the table when it comes to holiday traditions. When we think of Thanksgiving, we likely all think of turkey and dressing, but everyone's minds' eye paints a different picture based on the unique aspects of their own Turkey Day celebrations. For some, Thanksgiving means classic family casseroles and watching football, for others, it means a full day of indulging on new and old recipes and going around the table to express thanks. For some, it may mean something different altogether.

Our editors are revealing what Thanksgiving looks like in our households from the eats, to the activities, and even some setbacks. Join in the festivities with our favorite traditions for a Southern Living Thanksgiving.

Turkey Multiple Ways

There's so many ways to cook the holiday's starring bird: smoked, fried, roasted, spatchcocked, barbecued. Our Southern Living editors can't agree on the best way to prepare the Thanksgiving turkey. "The star of our Thanksgiving meal is fried turkey, but not the whole turkey. It's pieces cut from turkey breast that are soaked in buttermilk then coated with a flour mixture and fried," says Digital Editor Jenna Sims. "It's what everyone looks forward to all year and was started by my great grandmother, Nanny." Senior Digital Food Editor Kimberly Holland's family does the Thanksgiving bird a bit differently: "We spatchcock! It's an entire Olympic sporting event."

With so many good choices, some of our staff reveal that they don't like to limit themselves, so their Thanksgiving spread usually includes a few varieties. Why stick to just one turkey? Senior Special Projects Editor Katie Rousso says her in-laws typically serve a smoked turkey, a roasted bird, and a third picked up from a local BBQ spot. Assistant Homes Editor Cameron Beall adds that her family feasts on two turkeys prepared in different ways—"one fried, one in the oven… If we're lucky enough we might have a wild turkey my brother shot."

Desserts Galore

Our editors agree that there can be no shortage of sweets on the after-dinner Thanksgiving spread. Seasonal classics like apple pie, pumpkin pie, and pecan pie are staples on our editors' tables while some Southern Living editors like Holland take Thanksgiving as an opportunity to add something new and different to the spread, rotating through dessert ideas. "I love to contribute a non-traditional dessert," says Rousso. "In recent years I've had fun trying Southern Living recipes, like our Caramel Apple Cookies, Pecan Pie Bars, and Apple Pie Cookies."

Thanksgiving Brunch

Thanksgiving is a holiday full of food, and our editors agree that's not limited to supper: It's an all day affair. Whether the most important meal of the day happens on Thanksgiving or the next morning, brunch is a crucial part of the Turkey Day menu for our editors. Rousso says she enjoys hosting day-after-Thanksgiving brunch, squeezing a big group of extended family into her home, while Southern Living Fellow Mary Alice Russell voices that her family always indulges on cinnamon buns from a local bakery the morning before the feast. Other editors keep the food rolling throughout the day with lunch, rather than breakfast or brunch, like Assistant General Manager Anna Price Olson whose family tradition includes a potluck-style late-lunch at her uncle's farm.

Mishaps

If there's one thing that our editors agree on, it's that something always goes wayward on Thanksgiving despite our best laid plans. Whether it's discovering that a beloved "family recipe" is from the back of a box, like Olson's dad's family-famous stuffing, or forgetting to make the rolls year after year like Kimberly Holland's family, these missteps give us something to laugh about over the meal. Homes & Features Editor Betsy Cribb's family even had a tradition that makes the most of these blunders: "We used to vote on 'Worst Dish of the Day,'" she divulges. "I don't think my uncle ever counted the votes, though, he always deemed his rice the winning loser."

Strategic Reunions

As our editors know well, big families are all too common in the South. Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to catch up with extended family and get the whole crew under one roof, but sometimes with crowds this large, a get-together takes some maneuvering. Beall expresses that her great aunt divvies up cooking duties over email to her 50+ person family months in advance, while Digital Associate Editor Mary Shannon Wells shares that her family often has to divide and conquer by generation. "My husband has more than 50 first cousins on one side of his family. Each year on the night before Thanksgiving, they get together for a cousins-only party," she says. "With an age range from young teens to mid-40s, it's so much fun to see the different stages of life everyone is in as the years go by."

Leftovers

Thanksgiving leftovers are almost as highly anticipated as the feast itself among our editors. Whether that involves artfully throwing turkey and all the fixings between bread or shaping them into something new all together differs from family to family. "My biggest tradition is making a 'turkey stoup' with my dad," says Rousso, while Beall shares, "My great grandmother used to bring jars of homemade pickles for the leftover sandwiches."

Melting Pot Meals

For one Southern Living editor, Thanksgiving is all about mixing classic American food culture with family heritage. "My dad's family is Italian, so we do both American and Italian dishes," says Copy Assistant Katherine Polcari. This means Uncle Jimmy's famous deviled eggs and antipasto for holiday starters, both turkey and ravioli with sauce made from scratch for the main course, and some variation of pumpkin pie and cannolis to top it all off.

American Pastimes

Between meals, our editors pass Thanksgiving day by participating in uniquely American activities with family and friends. Russell's family gathers around the TV to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade together while Beall's crew starts the day with a turkey trot and later in the afternoon, picks up a game of family flag football. Other activities like watching the NFL game and going around the table to announce what everyone is thankful for are staples in our editors' households.

Recreating Family Recipes

Even when it comes to the classic Thanksgiving stars like turkey and dressing, every family has its quirks and secrets for getting the feast just right to suit family preferences. "The most unique thing about our Thanksgiving is how the cornbread dressing is made: in a hospital bed pan, by feel, not recipe," says Holland.

We've also found that in many of our editor's homes, Thanksgiving is a time when certain family members really shine with signature recipes, from Senior Food Editor Lisa Cericola's Nanny's Cranberry Sauce ("My favorite thing on the table as a kid and I still love it"), to Assistant Editor Kaitlyn Yarborough's dad's family-famous tomato pudding and the squash casserole for which her grandmother touts a secret ingredient (hint: it comes in a can).

These signature dishes are the kind so beloved among the family that they survive through generations. Copy Chief Libby Minor's Mama studied up to keep her late Grandmama's cornbread dressing alive on Thanksgiving, but for others, keeping family recipes going requires an effort of recreation. Holland reveals that after her grandmother's—"the dessert queen's"—passing, she recreated her signature Thanksgiving caramel cake.

Our Own Recipes

At Southern Living, we practice what we preach. In addition to impenetrable family recipes, you'll find Southern Living Test Kitchen recipes gracing our Thanksgiving tables. "I stand by the Basic Deviled Eggs recipe which I make a day ahead each year," shares Sims, "along with a perfect Pumpkin Pie recipe." Minor loves our spiced Fig Cake on Thanksgiving, especially when made with figs harvested from her parents' Mississippi yard, while Rousso relates, "Last year I made the Pecan Pie Cake, and it's been a repeat request."