Can you feel it? We’re in the throes of fall. There’s a chill in the air and a knot in our stomachs as we move ever closer to the prospect of sharing a large, uncomfortable meal with people we see only once or twice a year. I am, therefore, pleased as — punch? Pleased as a batch of Kool-Aid spiked with Everclear? — to present to you the truly factual and 100% correct, very special holiday edition of the L.A. Times Thanksgiving Food Power Rankings.
For the rankings, I have measured the gamut of classic Thanksgiving dishes by 1) taste and 2) something I call Family Strife. What foods are most likely to cause an argument or evoke a tense discussion: a passive-aggressive talk about politics, whether you come home to visit enough or when you’re finally going to settle down once and for all.
Nothing beats Thanksgiving stuffing, which has taught me that, counter to every ridiculous fad diet that’s popped up this decade, bread — even when it’s stale and shoved up the backside of a dead bird — really is the most satisfying thing to eat.
There are a hundred different ways to make it: with or without meat, cornbread, fruit, giblets, cheese or even torn-up bits of old everything bagels.
For my money, the best recipe is still from Vincent Price in his “Treasury of Great Recipes,” co-written with his then-wife, Mary (yes, that Vincent Price). Onion- and celery-rich, its brown crusty bits will be hard to resist picking at before dinner is served, even if that really pisses off your dad.
2) Mashed potatoes and gravy
This entry is in honor of Dee Dee Sharp, one of the first black teen idols in the history of modern pop music. Sharp, née Dione LaRue, was born in Philadelphia in 1945. After beginning her career as a backup vocalist, Sharp had a number of hits in the early ‘60s, two of which are particularly germane to this power rankings: “Mashed Potato Time” and “Gravy (for My Mashed Potatoes).”
Think on that for a second. Sharp had two songs that were not only bona fide Billboard hits but are literal dietary complements to each other. This speaks volumes of Sharp’s underappreciated greatness: Did Jimmy Buffett follow up “Cheeseburger in Paradise” with “Side of Fries (to Go With My Cheeseburger)”? Did Warrant follow their 1990 hit “Cherry Pie” with a B-side called “Ice Cream (for Aforementioned Pie)”? They didn’t. And frankly they should have.
I don’t have to tell you why mashed potatoes and gravy are great. They’re creamy, they’re buttery, they’re craveable and infinitely satisfying. And as a bonus, you can douse the arid turkey your dad cooked with enough giblet gravy to not seem like you’re avoiding it again this year.
3) Broccoli gratin
A broccoli gratin/casserole/whatever your aunt calls it is really a vehicle for cheddar and breadcrumbs, and if you think otherwise, you’re only fooling yourself. But you’re technically eating vegetables, so legally speaking, those other calories don’t really count.
This dish ranks high on the Family Strife scale. Pretending to be good for you while really not is quite passive-aggressive. It’s like your aunt asking about your acting career by saying, “Are you still doing your little plays?”
4) Corn bread
A wise man once said, “Corn bread: Ain’t nothing wrong with that.” And he was correct. But getting it right is easier said than done: You don’t want your corn bread too dense or too crumbly, and you also don’t want to make it too sweet (you can whip up some honey butter for that). Enjoy it. Enjoy one of the few uncontroversially good things that life has to offer. (Note that in families with Southern relatives, the family-strife possibilities of corn bread skyrocket.)
5) Cranberries (canned)
Love it or hate it, there’s something satisfying about the sound of a jiggly cranberry log, tattooed with tin can indentations, plopping onto Grandma’s good china. Marcus Urann is credited with being the first to commercially can cranberries in 1912, allowing for the fruit with a notoriously short picking season (around six weeks in the fall) to be available year-round. Ocean Spray made its jellied cranberry cylindrical loaf widely available in 1941.
Cranberry Strife will be limited; your hippie cousin who makes an incidentally vegan fresh cranberry chutney will be sad when he sees that everyone prefers the sweet, mouth-puckering Jell-O-like bite of canned cranberry to his “more natural” option.
Who doesn’t love a nice ham? Your typical holiday pork promontory will feature a glaze of brown sugar and/or honey and some Dijon mustard, giving it a sweet-and-salty taste combination with just a little bit of a bite. Maybe you want to add some citrus to the glaze? Some kind of spirits? Knock yourself out.
Ham is not, in and of itself, passive-aggressive but will be a favorite dish at the table for anyone on a keto diet, which immediately gives it Family Strife points. “Wow, that’s a lot of carbs, huh?” asks your older sister, who subsists entirely on animal protein, and eats only between the hours of noon and 4 p.m.
7) Macaroni and cheese
The only reason I don’t rank macaroni and cheese higher is simply because it’s something we enjoy throughout the year, and isn’t a holiday dish per se.
I still think sometimes about this tweet criticizing two pans of sallow Thanksgiving macaroni and cheese that says, simply, “Both of you need to be in prison.” It can, therefore, occasionally cause Family Strife owing to different styles of cooking. But generally, mac and cheese is something everyone can get behind.
Corn, on the cob or off, is the unsung workhorse veggie of the Thanksgiving spread. Does anyone out there actively dislike corn? Creamed or steamed, there’s no fuss, no drama.
9) Green bean casserole
The Midwest in me continues to have a soft spot for green bean casserole, despite the somewhat nauseating quality of cream of mushroom soup. The dish was created by the Campbell’s company in the 1950s as a way to encourage people to use cans of the soup — pretty clever, eh? That, along with Rice Krispies treats, are two of the best examples of brands using their leverage to infiltrate our kitchens in a way that endures to this day.
The recipe, which includes the soup, green beans, soy sauce and divinely crunchy French’s fried onions, is heavy and rich, but it takes me back to drinking pop, lake-effect snow and Garrison Keillor monologues (before he got canceled).
10) Rolls or biscuits
Bad rolls or biscuits can easily be ignored, but good ones can really propel a meal onto a higher plane. Remember to get the right flour for biscuits — not bread flour!
A good biscuit can also give you something to bite, besides your tongue, when you get told for the third time that, yes, you can have children into your 30s, or even 40s, but that you really don’t want to be an old parent.
11) Apple pie
The other day, I was listening to “American Pie” by Don McLean, a.k.a. the most aggressive song you could ever choose at karaoke, and wondering how it came to become a ruler to measure the American-ness of things. That thing is American, sure. But is it … as American as apple pie?
McLean’s 8½-minute folk-rock dirge covers everything from Marx to Jackie Kennedy to Vietnam, and is mostly a wandering complaint about how everything used to be good in the ’50s and ’60s and no longer is.
A well-prepared apple pie is still a thing of gloriousness — sweet and tart, with a crumbly, buttery crust — but the centuries-old English dish is perhaps no longer appropriate as a benchmark of national identity. Things that might be a good replacement: Cheeseburger? Breakfast burrito? Soup dumpling? Nominations are now open. If you’ve got a xenophobic cousin or dad, you can probably get under his skin by bringing that up, putting you in the driver’s seat of the Family Strife-mobile.
12) Brussels sprouts
For children of my generation, Brussels sprouts were a comically, hyperbolically maligned vegetable. Now they are served at literally every fancy or fancy-adjacent restaurant in the whole of the United States.
I’m glad for that change because Brussels sprouts are good fried, grilled or steamed. Just be careful not to overcook them, because they’ll smell like farts. I feel like they register a certain amount of Family Strife — but maybe that’s phantom Strife trauma from childhood. Are kids down with the sprouts these days?
13) Pecan pie
Pecan pie is a fine, beloved dish, but I don’t particularly like the goopy, corn syrup filling. Everyone picks off the beautifully browned pecan bits from the top of a finished pie — why can’t it be that from start to finish? Just fantasizing out loud here.
There are so many shades of white, orange and brown on a Thanksgiving plate, you might think you’ve landed in a British school nutrition video. Don’t forget to mix it up with something raw and green. Just remember, though, that too much salad will ultimately leave you friendless.
15) Roasted squash
Sprinkle a little salt and pepper and drizzle on some oil and, boom, you’ve got yourself an easy little side dish. But let’s not kid ourselves — it’s pretty boring.
16) Sweet potato casserole
I think you’re on #teamsweetpotatocasserole or you’re not, and there’s really not much wiggle room in between. I don’t like it, but then again, I don’t really like sweet potato French fries, either. Most versions are like cloying baby food, slick and goopy; the addition of the toasted marshmallows on top, while totally charming, doesn’t do anything to help the dish. That said, it is undoubtedly a classic, and I respect that some people are ride-or-die for this dish.
17) Cranberries (fresh)
Fresh cranberries are less enjoyable than their processed brethren. Due, no doubt, to the fact that most people don’t really know how to properly prepare fresh cranberries, usually adding too much or not enough sugar, or failing to cook them for the proper amount of time.
Even when they are cooked respectably, fresh bog cherries lack the candy-like, fruit-leather appeal of a slice of canned cran. Is it possible to expect Family Strife around the two types of cranberries — the “kale and quinoa” millennials versus the boomers? Maybe. Or maybe that kind of thing is, you know, entirely made up to manipulate us.
Tofurky, or soybean-based scarequotes turkey, is theoretically useful — it’s a turkey-ish olive branch to inclusively extend to any family members dabbling in vegetarianism — but sadly doesn’t really measure up in the flavor department. The two varieties I tried, peppered and oven-roasted, both had the same problem: They tasted chemically, unpleasantly bitter — almost ashy. The wet, spongy chew recalls smelly tennis shoes squishing around in the rain. It’s worth a shot for the vegetarians out there but it’s tough to recommend otherwise.
19) Pumpkin pie
Pumpkin pie rates highly on the Family Strife scale, as it’s a divisive dessert. The heavy spices along with a color and texture reminiscent of a soft dog turd just don’t whet my appetite, sorry!
If I wanted something this dry and white, I’d watch a “Frasier” marathon. Sure, you can rub it, you can brine it, you can spatchcock it, you can deep-fry it, you can cook it whole or in separate parts, but the fact remains: Turkey kind of sucks. Most people oven-roast their bird whole, which means it’s never cooked evenly; the white meat is inevitably overdone, leading to an aridness in your mouth that will make you think Dorothy Parker set up camp in there.
Thanksgiving turkey isn’t anyone’s favorite dish but feels wrong to exclude, like that one uncle who never got married. Don’t believe that turkey is an objectively sucky thing to eat? How often do you see it on menus in sit-down restaurants, relative to other proteins? Not often! As leftovers, turkey also comes up short. A poultry puck hardened by a night in the fridge does little to excite the day after the holiday. Turkey also can cause some arguments in the kitchen: In some households, not mine (definitely mine), it’s the one time a year Dad decides he wants to cook, which annoys Mom and causes a whole lot of stress.
In a strange bit of irony, turkey is actually the strongest sandwich meat but only if it’s processed turkey. Regular roasted turkey in a sandwich often proves too thick, fibrous and drier than the town in “Footloose.”