What Does Thanksgiving Smell Like? Memories & Dinners

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.

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.


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.


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.


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

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