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What Side Should You Bring to Thanksgiving? A Guide for Every Situation

While acknowledging that you shouldn’t actually be doing any of this at all during a global pandemic, of course

Okay, let’s be real: You probably aren’t going anywhere for Thanksgiving this year. We at MEL don’t even want you to go somewhere for Thanksgiving, unless you plan on being incredibly safe about it — all parties quarantining in advance, taking COVID tests, keeping the headcount low, staying local, etc. But assuming you’re taking all the proper precautions, you still need to bring a side dish to Thanksgiving dinner, no matter what else you’re dealing with. So without further ado, here’s what to bring…

If You Want to Impress People

Of all the traditional dishes Americans eat on Thanksgiving, green bean casserole is the least exciting. It’s just a casserole dish filled with limp, unpleasant green beans from a can with a can of cream of mushroom soup on top of it. The only reason anyone makes it is because it’s easy, and the only reason anyone eats it is for the delicious, fat-soaked “crispy fried onions” on top. But imagine the oohs and aahs if you brought a green bean casserole that tasted amazing? I’ve used the Pioneer Woman’s recipe for nearly a decade to impress my dinner hosts. It requires fresh green beans, bacon, a cheesy cream sauce and actual spices. It is incredible.

If You Want to Impress People While Doing as Little Work as Possible

Your inclination might be to bring wine, since all you need to do is purchase it. But chances are your family doesn’t care enough about wine to be impressed that you spent $40 on it, especially when they drink it and it just tastes like wine to them. If your family is made up of wine snobs, they’ll know too much to be impressed with anything you pick. So instead, volunteer to make the mashed potatoes! No, you can’t just whip out those Instant bags if you’re going to impress them. Instead, cut and boil chunks of actual potatoes — you can even leave the skins on, and call it “rustic.” When they’re soft, add whole fat milk then mash them into a creamy delight that’s a major upgrade over store-bought. Even if you don’t have a masher, you can just use forks or my preferred method, which is to drink a beer, wash the bottle, and use that to mash. It works!

If No One Told You What to Bring

This is tricky, because your options depend wildly on how many people are coming. If it’s less than a dozen, you could get away with a slightly off-beat Thanksgiving dish like macaroni and cheese, a fruit casserole or even salad. (No one will eat the salad, but they’ll likely enjoy the pretense that they were considering eating healthy.) But if it’s a large group and you can get info on what the spread might be, there are only two foolproof options. No one has ever, ever gotten the stink-eye for bringing pie or booze to a Thanksgiving meal, and even if beer and pie are already available, people love having more options. Hell, even if you bring the exact same beer and pie, people love having more of both! These are the safest two bets in Thanksgiving dinner.

If You Have a Bumpy Car Ride Ahead

Mashed potatoes can slosh around, the crispy fried onions could go flying from the top of your green bean casserole and pies will never survive. Trying to keep hold of a turkey is like playing Russian roulette with the main course, and beer is going to get shaken up and explode in people’s faces. And so, roll, my boys. That is, bring the rolls. They roll around and remain fine, because they are called rolls and that’s what they do.

Wine (but not sparkling or champagne, natch) is a solid option, but if you still feed the need to bring something more substantial — or have been mercilessly guilted into bringing something more substantial — it’s time to break out the mac-and-cheese. Use an egg or two in the mix, because it will help bind all the elements together as it bakes. But also load the top of the casserole with extra cheese until it becomes a beautiful cheesy, slightly crunchy roof that has been welded to the sides of the casserole dish. Let it cool for a little while, and that baby doesn’t even need a seatbelt.

If You Didn’t Remember It Was Thanksgiving Until This Morning

Pies and booze, my friend. When in Thanksgiving doubt, the answers are always pies and booze.

If You Want to Seem Cultured and/or Slightly Obnoxious

The first Thanksgiving dinner was held by the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe in 1623. Since the Plymouth Colony was in Cape Cod, the meal was full of venison and lobsters, both of which would greatly unbalance the modern, traditional Turkey Day meal no matter how much you argued it was more authentic than canned cranberry sauce. Or you can take the seafood a step further, as the 1887 White House Cook Book put oysters on the half-shell and fried smelt fish on the menu, along with boiled onions and parsnip fritters. Bringing a big bowl containing nothing but boiled onions and arguing about its validity on the table will achieve both your goals nicely.

If You Suspect Your Host Is Going to Screw Up the Turkey

There’s no easy answer here. Well, there is an easy answer — just bring another turkey, set it next to his, and tell him flatly, “I trust no food your hand has touched,” then let the bad times roll. But if you don’t want to be a dick about it and still want to eat some protein at dinner, your safest bet is to show up with a nice ham, from a specialty store in the vein of Honey Baked Hams. Your host may glare at you, but you can innocently respond that many American households eat ham for the holiday, and you thought it might be cool to shake things up a little and have two meats available. The other dinner guests will not complain… unless their religion prescribes them from eating pork, in which case you’re an asshole. But an asshole who’s going to eat well!

If You’re Planning on Getting Drunk

I don’t mean just getting drunk. Most adults are likely going to get a little bit tipsy at minimum. I mean passing out full-length on the couch in the den by 5 p.m. and snoring loudly as everyone else tries to continue to socialize in the living room. If you don’t care what people think of you, congratulations, you’re all set! If you don’t want them to hate you and talk behind your back about how you ruined Thanksgiving, you need to endear yourself to all the guests beforehand. That means volunteering to make at least one side dish and bring a dessert, but then you should also bring a second dessert, and maybe a third, too.

Bring toys or games for any child under eight to get their parents to cut you some slack. And you have to bring beer, wine, liquor — much more than you’re planning to personally consume. This way you aren’t committing the cardinal sin of binging on your hosts’ stockpile, but it may also have the effect of getting other adult guests to drink more than they might, given the multitude of options.

But if you can stay sober — or at least stay conscious — long enough to help clear the table and help with some of the dishes before passing out, you’re golden.