Thanksgiving Dinner: Meals and Memories

Thanksgiving dinner is our favorite meal of the year.  Not only is it a holiday filled with fabulous eating, family and football, but it is also the day when we give our diets a hall pass, stuffing ourselves in a way we would never dream of the other 364 days of the year. But more than the food we savor, it is the scent of the feast that we love and that endures.

Thanksgiving Dinner

The sense of smell, more than sight, hearing or even taste, is where we store our most cherished and vintage memories. Once you raise that first fork full of stuffing, you begin to breathe in a memory of your childhood. As you sit at the table with your kids, parents, aunts, cousins and friends, the homeward journey begins.

Lisa and I are getting ready for the holiday at our two homes and have asked our friends about their traditions.  While hewing to the classics, they shared their favorites. Both traditional and idiosyncratic, all are treasured like family heirlooms.

Imagine getting up on Thanksgiving morning to the luscious smell of Darryl’s pumpkin bread baking in the oven. An aromatic wake up call,  the scent might lure even our sleepy college kids out of their beds and into the kitchen for a slice and their first cup of coffee. Sharon’s kids depend on her cinnamon rolls to get the holiday started early on Thursday while Risa’s festive breakfast is French toast made with Challah and eggnog.
cinnamon rolls

Slowly, the turkey begins a four, five, six-hour roast, until it’s finally ready to be presented as the centerpiece of the feast. With the bird underway, we turn our attention to the sides, where family traditions and regional preferences come into play. Many of us have dishes we prepare once a year on Thanksgiving and only Thanksgiving. Helene told us about the “Leenzil’s Thanksgiving Salad” she makes with cherry jello and Caryn offered her favorite, so-called “Cheese Jello,” which she acknowledges as sounding weird but swears her family loves it.

Gourmet Magazine last issue, Thanksgiving dinner turkey, Thanksgiving turkey, November magazines

At Lisa C’s house, it is a corn casserole she bakes with cheese until it’s melted and bubbling. She slides a double batch into the oven so her daughters and grandsons have an extra helping to take home with them.

Though we live in New York, my kitchen smells more like my mom’s house in Texas with cornbread baking in a cast iron skillet and the roasted sweet potatoes I whip with bourbon for a souffle. Each Thanksgiving dinner, I keep my most traditional of sources, Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook close at hand.

cornbread stuffing

Potatoes, stuffing, roasted butternut squash, rolls – each dish renders a unique smell. With the ever-more ready turkey roasting in the oven, these combine, creating a signature fragrance greeting guests the moment they step through our front doors.

Pumpkin pie rules on Thanksgiving but caramel apple and chocolate pecan pies sound amazing, especially if pastry chef and writer, Mindy, is the one baking.

pumpkin pie

Everyone gathers, talks, eats, takes seconds, and…..dinner ends, with a slice of pie and a side of football. Cleanup. Deep breath, rest….

If we’ve planned it just right, Thanksgiving stretches into a multi-day feast with signature leftovers as an eagerly anticipated Act Two. Sharon gushes about her mom’s turkey chile and turkey meatloaf. For Theresa, our photographer and friend, it’s turkey noodle soup.

This year, we are planning to try out the Turkey Posole soup from Katie Workman. You can find the recipe in her wonderful cookbook The Mom 100 Cookbook: 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in Her Back Pocket.

But Thanksgiving holiday doesn’t stop on Friday when your guests arrive carrying suitcases. When you have college kids coming back for a holiday break, they long for the home-cooking that is sorely missing on their meal plans.

Lisa L received an SOS from her college daughters for matzoh ball soup. With both kids sick, and sick of dorm food, she is ready with both the soup and the TLC they can count on once they set foot in the door.

While the multiple dishes that make up Thanksgiving dinner create a complex bouquet, a big pot of soup simmering for hours on the stove has a simpler smell. More like a pot of love, the smell of Lisa’s chicken noodle soup permeates her house, filling it with both the scent of the dish and affection of the cook.

With great thanks to our friends who contributed to this story,  Mary Dell and Lisa wish you all a delicious Thanksgiving week.

Photo credit: Pumpkin pie: sea turtle



  1. says

    I too LOVE Thanksgiving, and this article. (A huge thanks for the shout out!) My huge collection of November issues of food magazines gets dragged out and thumbed through only once a year, but it is something I cherish and will never get rid of (although after many, many years, that collection is occupying more and more prime real estate in my home these days). I know the holiday represents frustration and stress to lots of people, but for me it is sheer bliss!

    • says

      Mindy, your enthusiasm for Thanksgiving, and November magazines, is contagious! I have the last copy of Gourmet with the turkey on it right here – I should flip through it for some new ideas. Have a wonderful holiday.

  2. says

    Great roundup of Thanksgiving delights! Thank you for including my cheesy corn casserole. Will be clicking on over to Darryl’s pumpkin bread recipe as I *just might* have all the ingredients on hand.
    Super seasonal post. Love it. Thank you! And Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

    • says

      Lisa, have a great holiday with your family. I agree with you that Darryl’s pumpkin bread sounds fantastic. Thanks for the kind words.

    • says

      Sharon, agreed! Wish your mom would make us some turkey chile…..even before the holiday! Hope you have a great one with your family.

  3. says

    Yum. Yum. And yum. We’re away from home or any family this Thanksgiving so just viewing these was a treat!

    • says

      Barbara, hope it is a great holiday wherever you are spending it. We were away last year, too, which may explain some of my enthusiasm now. Happy to be back home, again. Thanks for visiting!

  4. says

    I am a horrible cook and usually relagated to “clean-up” duty. Thanksgiving takes me into my mom’s kitchen with my aunt eating the turkey while my dad carves it. I’m hoping that’s what they will be doing this Thanksgiving up in heaven.

    • says

      Janie, clean up duty is key to Thanksgiving, in my opinion, with the mountain of dishes, pots and pans that are at the end of the meal. You contribute greatly if that is your role. Glad that this took you back to a sweet childhood memory. Have a wonderful holiday!

  5. LL says

    I can smell through the computer! I absolutely love the traditional Thanksgiving dinner of my own childhood. However, since my kids were born, we have spent every Thanksgiving at a resort with my husband’s family, savoring stone crabs over turkey. Thankfully, since my kids went off to college, they prefer to come home to see their friends so we have begged off the tropical vacations. They unfortunately do not enjoy what we consider Thanksgiving dinner, because they have no real connection to it, but I am now back to my roots with turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries, and all the rest. They just have to accept the trade-off! And they do get matzo ball soup to satisfy their “taste of home”.

    • says

      Interesting reflection that your kids’ Thanksgiving childhood memories are more tropical than your traditional ones. Good luck with the re-boot along with the matzo ball soup. It sounds great that your family will be eating at home this year over the long college break. Enjoy having your kids there with you!

  6. says

    what a wonderful walk down memory lane–though we had our Thanksgiving weeks ago–there is nothing I like better than a post about Thanksgiving food and memories

  7. says

    YUM! Thanks for sharing–and for the reminder that it’s time to start baking pumpkin bread—somehow Thanksgiving snuck up on me this year. Happy thanksgiving to all.

    • says

      Darryle, thanks for offering your recipe for the pumpkin bread – it is on my list to try this year….in fact, I would like some this morning! Have a great holiday.

  8. Caryn/The Mid Life Guru says

    Thanks for including my “weird” jello. You all should really give it a go.
    Your post made me totally hungry and so ready for our family feast next week. I am grateful to join with family near and far, in a warm, cozy home, to count our blessings and share a delicious meal. Happy Thanksgiving to you!!!

    • says

      Counting our blessings, let us not forget that. Glad that you are able to see your family and friends, even those coming from distant places. Are you making the cheese jello this year? My mom always made a congealed salad with lime jello so I think each family must have their favorite for the holidays. Thank you for letting us include yours.Have a wonderful holiday!

  9. says

    I have fond memories growing up of Thanksgiving and love it now. It is fun to hear other’s recipes and must have dishes!

    • says

      Haralee, thanks for visiting and glad you enjoyed our collection. We had fun, too. Have a great holiday.

  10. Helene says

    Thanks for the shout out for Leenzil’s Thanksgiving Salad! Yes, it has a strange name, but I hope you try it and like it as much as my family does. Can’t wait to try some of these recipes. Hope everyone has a great holiday!

    • says

      Helene, nicknames are so family specific. I am imagining a Helene – Leen -Leenzil derivation of your name and that you much have loved this cheery jello salad as a little girl. It is a sweet story and fun to include. Thanks and hope your holiday is a good one, too.

  11. happyoutlook says

    Reading your blog post got me hungry enough to start my Thanksgiving grocery shopping today now that I primed with delicious ideas.

  12. Cynthia Fine says

    I’m starving now! Can we come to your house????

  13. Jane de Beneducci says

    How wonderful all those culinary memories are from our parents, and what fun we have continuing them and adding a few more too. Happy Thanksgiving.

  14. says

    I’m with you on stretching it out over a few days! Any one of the yummy treats you’ve mentioned here would make my Thanksgiving even more of a special meal.

  15. says

    Oh, it’s getting cooler here, and between the weather and your post, I’m in the mood to cook all day! Yummy ideas.

    • says

      We relied on our friends to come up with some wonderful ideas for the holidays. thanks for visiting!

    • says

      All of these blogs on the blog hop are just conjuring up such wonderful smells. Wish my kitchen could magically be filled with each fabulous dish. thanks for visiting!

  16. says

    Smell really is the most evocative sense, isn’t it? I know exactly what you mean…even though here in Canada, our Thanksgiving is but a memory now! :)


    • says

      Yes, smell is a strong memory – love to revisit holidays past this time of year whenever I am in the kitchen baking or cooking something special.

  17. Helene Cohen Bludman says

    My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, too, and I love reading how others celebrate it. You are so right about the heavenly aromas: just one sniff and our childhoods come rushing back. Thank you for this savory post!

    • says

      Helene, smelling the food cooking for Thanksgiving is a big part of the tradition. One reason why going out to dinner is never the same.

  18. says

    Sounds wonderful! The tastes and smells of food on Thanksgiving. There is nothing like it. :)

  19. says

    I love thanksgiving, especially heirloom recipes. We lost my grandmother at the age of 100 several years ago this year I’m recreating some of her specialties.

    • says

      Waht an amazing thing to have your grandmother until she was 100. YOu must think of her whenever you cook from her recipes. Lovely.

  20. Carpool Goddess says

    Those cinnamon rolls stopped me in my tracks and (of course) is a family favorite of ours too. Oh, I better by elastic waist pants, the holiday season is a comin’.

    • says

      We should have midlife blvd drawstring pj pants made up for us – we would all live in them Nov-Dec!

  21. says

    Thanksgiving is my absolutely favorite holiday. I cook for our extended family and friends. Up before dawn I prep the turkey and begin the prep for the day. It’s always a perfect day, whether or not all the foood is “perfect.” Thanks for sharing so many happy memories.

  22. Renee says

    Thanksgiving rocks…Favorite meal to cook as chef.. Thanks for sharing and reminding me of true love.

  23. says

    What a beautiful post! I agree with you: scents trigger some of our most powerful memories. This is why cooking and baking are such satisfying endeavors. Thank you for sharing such an evocative essay! Can’t wait to click through to find recipes for these delicious foods!

    • says

      I should bake more, you are right. I tend to do it only during the holidays and only selectively. Thanks, Marci!


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