For some, Thanksgiving can be rather disappointing if someone is expecting to have some delicious, homemade cranberry sauce, only to realize that it’s coming straight out of a can. Others can’t think of the side any other way.
As Thanksgiving often brings friends and family together to enjoy a large dinner, it can result in debates as to what is the best Thanksgiving dish and the “correct” way to make it.
Although the history of Thanksgiving goes back hundreds of years, it wasn’t an official festive occasion until 1870 when Congress made it a national holiday. After that, food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson says a lot of “Yankee propaganda” propelled the holiday into the grand feast that it is today.
Since the holiday originated in the New England area, dishes such as turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie have become synonymous with Thanksgiving to this day. But as the holiday grew in celebration, certain parts of the country put their own regional twists on classic dishes.
For example, sweet potato casserole comes from African slaves in the South, as the dish, also called yams (even though it’s not exactly the same), originates from the starch commonly grown in West Africa. Cornbread stuffing and pecan pie are also very popular in the South, while oysters in stuffing is common in the Northeast. What also played a huge role in Thanksgiving food was being able to produce food in a factory, such as canned cranberries and pumpkins.
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There are numerous other regional and personal favorites in the country, and Johnson says the reason why people get so defensive about the way their favorite dishes are prepared is because of nostalgia.
“It’s more now about family and foods. But there’s a lot of pressure, I think, to have things the way they’ve always been,” Johnson told USA TODAY. “There can be some kind of tyranny of tradition of having to do everything the same way.”
Christopher Arturo, chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, said he has witnessed himself how strongly people feel about Thanksgiving food, having to once break up a screaming match between his mom and sister over stuffing. He said growing up, the one thing people always remember about Thanksgiving is the food. So, to see things change is like taking away someone’s childhood.
“There’s so many positive memories, and then someone’s is like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna change it.’ It’s like, ‘No, please don’t take my joy away,'” he said.
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Stuffing/dressing is made numerous ways, but Wesley McWhorter, director of culinary nutrition at The University of Texas Health Science Center at the Houston School of Public Health, said adding more vegetables in the dish, the better.
“There’s there’s a lot of things that you can put in there,” he said. “If you can add some vegetables and other whole grains to it, it’s going to make it a better meal.”
There also is a divide in people making stuffing inside their turkey or just on its own. While cooking it inside the turkey may add more flavor, it can also cause food poisoning if not cooked properly.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for people cooking it in the turkey to put it inside the meat before cooking it. People should make sure the stuffing’s center reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and wait 20 minutes after taking everything out of the oven to allow the stuffing to cook a little bit more.
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Sweet potato casserole
One of the most diverse dishes at Thanksgiving, sweet potato casserole can serve as a side or as a dessert, depending what’s on it. It can just be made on its own, or it can be topped with pecans or with marshmallows.
Wesley said he does marshmallows in his casserole because of the sweetness, but nutritionally, it doesn’t really do much.
“Marshmallow isn’t adding nutritional value. It’s just adding some sugar sweetness to the dish,” he said.
Most recipes involving marshmallows call for using around two cups of it, with equals to around 57 grams of sugar, according to Eat This Much. Unless the dish is all to yourself, it’s not bad considering the American Heart Association recommends women eat no more than 24 grams of added sugar and 36 grams for men a day.
McWhorter said people are missing out on a lot more nutrients if they prefer it out of a can. It also depends if people add sugar to add sweetness to the dish.
Arturo said people that prefer the canned version probably like it for texture reasons, but if you want to make both sides of the argument happy, you can make cranberry sauce and before finishing it, you can mix it in with cranberry juice and the canned version.
“Throw it in the fridge and then you have an amazing cranberry sauce also out of the can,” he said.
For those who prefer the canned version, the fiber pectin is what gives it a jelly-like texture rather than it being a sauce. There aren’t many difference between the two in terms of ingredients, but in canned cranberries, the berries are cooked enough to where it breaks down completely into a jelly, where a homemade version will have pieces of cranberries in it.
For a turkey, McWhorter said brining it is one of the best ways to cook it because it not only keeps it juicy, but doesn’t add any extra fat or butter to it.
Arturo said that brining it is not only healthier, but it offers the most flavor. But one way to avoid? Deep frying it, as it’s not only not healthy, but “so many things can go wrong.”
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There are things to look out for like adding too much sodium in the turkey, as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends adults eat no more than one teaspoon of table salt. McWhorter added people should focus on not overcooking their turkey and there really isn’t a difference from preferring the darker meat versus lighter meat.
“A lot of us will just dump a ton of gravy, especially if we overcook the turkey because it’s too dry,” he said. “Focus on cooking it and not overcooking it, and that’ll make it better all around.”
Even if there is no meeting in the middle for your Thanksgiving, Johnson said people should communicate what families will be having for dinner. If there is a food being made in a way you cannot stand, there is no shame in just making a small batch just for yourself or anyone else on your side.
“People should not feel shame over what they want to eat and should not feel coerced into eating something they don’t want to eat, because that’s ridiculous.
“Life is too short for bad meals,” she said.
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.