Thanksgiving centers largely around one thing: turkey. Christmas can kind of come down to a fight between a ham and more turkey. And sometimes lamb comes into the picture on Easter but, for the most part, Thanksgiving is a one-main-dish kinda holiday.
So everyone else is basically fighting for the number-two slot. And it’s a crowded field — think of how many different side dishes gather in the kitchen every Thanksgiving.
Now think of them fighting, because that’s what we’re going to do right now. This is Thanksgiving side dishes, ranked from worst to best. Some rules: Obviously no desserts, because that’s not what we’re here for. (But, hey, here’s 20 pie recipes.) Also, I’m avoiding any kind of extremely bizarre variation on these classic dishes, because we’re not ranking 36 different kinds of stuffing. Not today, anyway.
13. Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts have of late been undergoing a tide of critical reappraisal lately, which is frankly all wrong. They take forever, they smell, and they uncomfortably evoke long-repressed childhood memories involving uneaten portions of dinner. I pay good money for a therapist to dredge up my childhood and try to figure out why I have bad credit; I don’t need my Thanksgiving sides to do that, thank you very much. Go ahead, throw bacon on there to try and trick me, sorcerer. I’m immune to your deceitful ways.
12. Roasted Carrots
Carrots — glazed, roasted, however you decide to debase them — are a fun dish to bring to a gathering of people you loathe. Sure, you can glaze them with whatever you want or just roast them until they’re disconcertingly wilted and limp, like an unconscious human or old leaf of bibb lettuce discovered in the crisper long after its use-by date, but people are judging you. They’re all talking about you, Karen, the second you leave the room. “Did you see Karen brought carrots?” “I hate Kar — I mean carrots.” And so forth. The proper place for carrots is as a hummus-delivery vehicle or doing shameful behind-the-scenes work as part of a stock or mirepoix.
I’m starting to suspect that there’s a hidden agenda to normalize weird-colored foods for Thanksgiving that don’t sell any other time of the year. Three (!!!) Thanksgiving sides — squash, sweet potatoes and carrots — are bright orange. Cranberry sauce is that unnatural maroon, and corn is bright, shrill yellow. This is a family meal, not some kind of godless Day-Glo nightmare.
10. Cranberry Sauce (traditional)
Nay, I’ll have none of it. Did you know cranberries grow in bogs? Like a swamp creature. They might be disarmingly colorful little bulbs, but they’re just packed with gritty seeds and bitter, staining juices and all the artisanal, flavor-disrupting recipes you can throw at me won’t change that, Martha Stewart. Back to the swamp with you, cranberries. Grow a-twixt the peat moss and rocks, as is befitting your station.
Fine. Just… fine. Roast ’em, sautée ’em, do whatever. They’re just… fine. Johnny Appleseed’s campaign across America was more about making booze than it was about planting trees, so let’s not overstate the apple’s importance to the country.
8. Creamed Corn
“Where does creamed corn figure into the workings of the universe?” the Log Lady asked in Twin Peaks. I’m still not sure. It is pretty delicious, but in Fire Walk with Me, it’s explained (to the extent that a David Lynch work really ever “explains” anything) that creamed corn is something called “garmonbozia,” a kind of manifested pain and suffering that the evil spirits of the Twin Peaks world feast on. I don’t really get it either, but I still don’t trust creamed corn.
Potatoes have gotten a bad rep because of the anti-starch diet fads of the past few years, but they’re a fantastic food. Also, they’re underrated as a building material: Experienced Thanksgiving plate builders know that the key to a gravity-defying plate — and therefore, one that eradicates the need to get up for seconds — is binding together disparate elements with mashed potatoes. Just look at Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
6. Sweet Potatoes
Usain Bolt’s dad once chalked up his son’s superhuman running abilities to the Trelawny yam. Also, once you coat the top of a cooking dish of sweet potatoes with marshmallows, it becomes a dessert AND a side dish. Sweet potatoes walk in two worlds at once, like a sorcerer or actor/singer Bruce Willis.
Empty carbs. Delicious, empty carbs. I don’t care if they came from a pressure-sealed can or if they were lovingly crafted from your Antebellum grandmother’s handwritten recipe, I’ll consume one dozen of them before they’ve cooled. And then you can make sandwiches out of all the other leftovers with them the next day, meaning they’re the hardest-working side here.
4. Cranberry Sauce (from a can)
There’s nothing more American than subjugating nature to our whim. And in taking the fruit of the bog, cranberries, and flattening all textural idiosyncrasies into a consistent gel/mush that retains the shape of its packaging after you free it — down the very ridges of the can — we are honoring that destructive, beautiful legacy. Be an American. Eat your cranberry sauce from a can.
I take back literally everything I said. There’s nothing more American than gravy: Creating a delicious sauce from the juices of the vanquished foe you’re about to eat. Granted, this was probably much more satisfying in olden times, when turkeys were the size of Volkswagens and roamed hither and yon across the frozen wastelands of nascent America, devouring any Pilgrims unfortunate enough to be accused as witches and cast out of their lean-to. (Please note I have a very tenuous understanding of American history.)
I’m forced to confront how barbaric the idea of stuffing is every Thanksgiving. Every year I approach it knowing that in olden times, pre-FDA, stuffing first came to life being shoved back into the empty cavity of a bird. Then you cook it and out it comes again, and then you eat it. So why do I whisper “I wish I knew how to quit you” annually while loading my plate up with it? Unless you’re putting cranberries in it. Get thee to a nunnery.
1. Green Bean Casserole
Name me one other side on here you can top with fried onion rings. I mean, technically the answer is “all of them” if you believe in yourself, but you’re bound to get some wacky looks. Green bean casserole, though… you can just load that sucker up with fried bits and unhealthy little meats of all stripes and it’ll still count as a vaguely healthy side.