Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday both in its whitewashed approach to telling partial truths and its gluttonous excess in the form of a meal that can feed multiple people over an entire week.
That said — it’s one of my favorite times of year.
Still, despite the tradition of it all, the national event varies greatly by region, and perhaps even by race. Here again, we have an example of (at least) two Americas: Those who serve baked macaroni and cheese, and those who don’t.
Baked macaroni and cheese — and I’m specifying the necessity of the baked variety because some folks are reckless enough to serve a creamy one-pot variation — is unquestionably the most important feature of Black folks’ dinner, irrespective of location, perhaps because of the varied ways it’s prepared: bread crumbed top or; browned? dense and blocked or laced with stringy cheese pulls?
If Thanksgiving dinner is a group project (as in, there’s no one elder preparing food all week) and there are cousins and nieces and aunties all contributing to dinner, you can bet someone is going to ask “Who made the macaroni and cheese?”
Macaroni and cheese takes center stage on Black Thanksgiving tables, seconded only to collard greens. Both are considered a solid litmus for whether somebody can cook or not.
Up next: sweet potatoes. This is where you’ll start to see different schools of thought. There are those who garnish with pineapple cubes and cook with a splash of orange juice if they’re making the candied sweet variety, and those who dot theirs with mini marshmallows. Either way, they are presented like a side and really should be considered a dessert because they’re so damn sweet.
Dressing or stuffing? Well, that depends. Where do you live and how many generations removed from the South are you and your family? Dressing is a word that emerged among polite society in the South (“stuffing” seemed a bit too crude) and has come to distinguish whether the beloved bird is actually stuffed, or if the breaded aromatic goodness actually stands on its own as a separate dish. Aside from the linguistic distinctions? There are many ways to prepare, and they’ll arrive on the table differently depending on a family’s origins — remember! Black people are not a monolith! There’s the savory white bread stuffing that’ll show up in Northern homes and the cornbread variety they feed folks in the South — even if it’s not the signature part of the meal, it’ll tell you a lot about the cook and their family.
Notice I haven’t said much about that bird. Even though it’s the central protein - it’s not the star of the show. But can also be cooked in various ways. Besides, if your family is anything like mine, we’re still serving ham, fried chicken and some sorta beef (for my Uncle Calvin) anyway.