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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh

The Ever-Evolving Southern Thanksgiving

updated Dec 11, 2019
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Growing up as a mixed-race person in a mixed-status home, holiday meals felt disjointed. My dad would make turkey mole and his family would bring tamales; meanwhile my mom wanted mashed potatoes and her family would bring pumpkin pie. It was a delicious, mixed-up way to eat that informed how I learned to cook.

I was born and raised in Southeast Los Angeles and I moved to North Carolina four years ago. So I am not a Southerner by birth, but I have become a fierce defender of the South — of its people, of its culture, and of its food. Not that the South needs me to defend it, but it’s work that I feel called to do. And in North Carolina, I’ve found my culinary voice.

With no prior knowledge of Sandra Gutierrez’s amazing cookbook The New Southern-Latino Table, when I settled in North Carolina I began to cook chicken fajitas piled high on jalapeño pimento cheese grits and fried apple dulce de leche hand pies that looked more like empanadas. Finding ingredients has been easy because Latinx immigrants have been migrating to North Carolina for decades. From farm to table, they are also shaping the future of Southern food.

The South has history to reckon with. There are certainly areas of the South that are hard places for people of color to live, but Boston is also a hard place to live if you’re a person of color. The South that I urge people to learn about is one of radical resistance, and I don’t mean that in the past tense. This region of the country is on the front lines battling for reproductive justice, racial justice, immigrants’ rights, and LGBTQ rights — and these movements are being led by communities of color. It is both convenient and telling that these narratives get erased. 

A similar erasure happens with southern food. In magazines the South appears to be a place where people of color don’t really seem to exist. A majority of recognizable names in the Southern food world — the writers, restaurateurs, cooks, and chefs — are not Indigenous or African American, the people whose foodways and cooking created what we now call Southern food. This says a lot about who is seen as an expert on Southern food, and what versions of the Southern experience get privileged in storytelling. 

Southerners always find a way to take care of their people, and food is often at the core. 

This erasure is shameful, and it robs the public of being able to learn about the nuances and complexities of this demonized, stigmatized place we call the American South. How can those who’ve never stepped foot here understand that in North Carolina, for example, a black farmers market has sprouted up as a way of supporting black farmers who generate less income than their white counterparts? Do they know we have community gardens run by refugee farmers? Or community dinners to help people facing deportation? Southerners always find a way to take care of their people, and food is often at the core. 

As we approach the holidays, I wanted to see all of these complexities reflected in a Thanksgiving meal — arguably the most important and problematic food holiday of the year — and I wanted to center people of color. As it turned out, this was no easy task. I went state by state, scouring blogs and local reporting that purported to be about Southern food, but there were few people of color in sight. Some of the people I wanted to feature had reservations about participating, and declined. This was especially true of Indigenous cooks, who had concerns about participating in a story about Thanksgiving, oftentimes the only time media outlets reach out for their insights.

Others wanted to know who would ultimately own their beloved family recipe? How would this story get told? Whose voices would be centered? I could say very little to assuage people’s fears because they were right to be wary of media after being burned many times before. Food is personal and political, and writing about communities of color and their food traditions requires trust-building. As Angie Willoughby told me for this piece, this process is very much about trust and consent. And this was true for Angie’s participation too. Angie had to reach out to her beloved aunt for permission to share her potato salad recipe, which is essentially a family heirloom that has migrated from Puerto Rico to Florida.

Some of the people featured here can trace their family history in the South for generations, while others are first-generation Southerners or people who immigrated to the U.S. and landed in the South. Some, like me, are transplants from other places who have found their home here. For some folks, these recipes are about remembering. For others, it’s about reclamation. But all of them tell a story we need to hear about the ever-evolving South.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh;Courtesy of Latria Graham

Sweet Potatoes and 100 Years of History

By Latria Graham of Spartanburg, South Carolina

My dad was a fifth-generation South Carolina farmer and our family land was 100 acres. My grandmother lived on a big parcel and so did one aunt and another uncle. Our families always had gardens, we had hogs, we did the farm-to-table thing before it was a thing. All of that taught me to respect the work that goes into food. When I was in college, I started to realize the rest of the country did not grow up the way that I grew up or eat the way that I grew up eating. I remember taking a coffee maker with me to make sweet tea and I’d have my family mail me jars of chow chow and bags of cornmeal and grits because I couldn’t find those things. I come from a culture, and it’s a culture worth preserving.

Read the rest of Latria’s story and get her recipe for sweet potato pecan cake.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh; Headshot: Courtesy of Nandita Godbole

Cranberries and a Thread of India

By Nandita Godbole of Atlanta, Georgia

In Georgia we only started to put together a Thanksgiving meal because our daughter began to ask questions about traditional Indian and American holidays as she grew up. She wanted to know what Thanksgiving was, and why we didn’t observe it. We created our version of Thanksgiving, which usually entails some version of chicken, potatoes, greens, and a dessert, but with our flavors. So for example, we usually have spicy tandoori or baked chicken.

Read the rest of Nandita’s story and get her recipe for cranberry-cherry chutney.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh;Headshot: Courtesy of Gabrielle Eitienne

Field Peas and a Threatened Family Ritual

By Gabrielle Eitienne of Holly Springs, North Carolina

Uncle Drew is my grandfather’s baby brother. Every year he plants a patch of collards that holds about 300 heads. During the holiday season these plants feed our community, but this year for the first time that patch will only be grass. This is because my uncle has been removed from our community through eminent domain. This was a choice made by the state of North Carolina in order to enforce what they refer to as “progress.” Uncle Drew’s story is not an isolated incident.

Read the rest of Gabrielle’s story and get her recipe for field peas in peanut gravy topped with pickled onions and herbs.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh; Courtesy of Ronald Cerdas

Ancho Chiles and Memories of Ancestors

By Kim Pineda of Lubbock, Texas

My family history is what brought me to Mexican American cuisine, but it’s been a long process. The families of both of my parents came from Mexico, but my parents had a contentious relationship. My mom never let my dad cook for us. He was a cook in the Navy and ended up being a chef de cuisine, so he was used to having a crew clean up after him and she already had her hands full looking after us kids. When they split up, my mom closed off everything Mexican, including the cuisine. I see cooking as my way of reclaiming the Mexican culture that was hidden from me for so long. Once my wife and I were married in 2002, we started to celebrate Dia de los Muertos and my obsession with cooking New Mexican and Tex-Mex food began.

Read the rest of Kim’s story and get his recipe for ancho chile sweet potato pie.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh; Courtesy of Angie Willoughby

Potatoes and an Afro-Caribbean Legacy

By Angie Willoughby of West Palm Beach, Florida

Nancy is my mom’s sister. She is my favorite aunt who is more like a second mom. Growing up, we were always at different family member’s houses, and when we were planning a get-together there was no question who was doing the potato salad. It was like, “You got the potato salad, Nancy?” And she was like, “Yeah, I got it.” This potato salad’s origin story starts in Puerto Rico, but then it migrated to Florida when our family moved here. This potato salad is like a tradition that we’ve carried with us, and as an Afro-Caribbean family, where potato salad is a touchy subject, Titi Nancy’s potato salad always passes the test. It’s never contested.

My aunt is getting older now and there was a time when she didn’t feel well enough to do the potato salad. It was a big question: Who’s going to make the potato salad, after years and years of eating and loving this potato salad? I thought I could step up, but not without her bendición.

Read the rest of Angie’s story and get the recipe for Titi Nancy’s potato salad.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh; Headshot: Courtesy of Darlene Ivey

Collard Greens and a Mother’s Memory

By Darlene Ivey of Statesville, North Carolina

Before my mom died 10 years ago, her health was declining and she just couldn’t cook the way she used to. Things tasted different. I tried to make her collards just like she did — boiling the ham hock, washing the collards three times, all of it — but I couldn’t get them right. I didn’t want them greasy, but I did want them seasoned. If I kept the collards in the ham hock juice, they were too salty. That’s when I decided to try draining them, rinsing them off, and putting them back in the pot with a little of the ham hock juice. It’s perfect this way, and I’ve been making it like this ever since.

Maybe some of the magic is in the pot. I cook my collards in a pot my mom used to cook hers in. This pot must be 60 or 70 years old. After she passed away, I walked into her kitchen and saw the pot and just started crying. My family told me I had to keep the pot, so I did. The lid makes a sound when the collards are cooking. When I hear it, it brings back so many memories of my mom cooking collards.

Read the rest of Darlene’s story and get her recipe for collard greens.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh; Headshot: Courtesy of Ronald Cerdas

Butternut Squash and Vegan Latin Flavor

By Ronald Cerdas from Nashville, Tennessee

I have a large Latin family from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Mexico. None of them are vegan and we don’t really have traditional Thanksgiving food. There’s a lot of rice, beans, and pork. My girlfriend and I bring the most “traditional” dish to the meal and even though it’s vegan mac and cheese, everyone loves it. I add the chipotle because I always like to include some Latin flavor. Now I make this every year.

Read the rest of Ronald’s story and get his recipe for butternut squash mac and cheese.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh; Headshot: Courtesy of Eddie Garza

Black Beans and Gratitude for Health

By Eddie Garza of Dallas, Texas

Tamale-making is a food ritual that has been part of Mexican life since Mesoamerican times. They date as far back as 5000 BC and are perhaps the best example of Mexican communal cooking. Preparation is complex and time-consuming, so multiple people are usually tasked to make them together. In my grandma’s kitchen when I was growing up, making tamales was an all-day event. We made dozens upon dozens to give away as gifts for friends and family around the fall and winter holidays. These silky black bean tamales are a family favorite. They represent the harvest season in the yummiest and most economical way possible, featuring some of the most abundantly harvested foods since ancient times.

Read the rest of Eddie’s story and get his recipe for black bean tamales.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh; Headshot: Courtesy of Ann Pittman

Corn Bread and Korea Meet

By Ann Taylor Pittman from Birmingham, Alabama

My mother moved to Mississippi from Korea only knowing my father. To her, assimilation was very important and she wanted to raise her kids to be American. She didn’t push Korean food on any of us. She learned to cook Southern food, like biscuits and gravy, things that were so radically different than what she ate in Korea. I remember she would sometimes have her own little pot of kimchi soup bubbling on the stovetop, but none of us would eat it with her. It’s sad to think about it now.

I look just like my mother; I look Korean, but all through high school I thought I was passing for a white girl. My mom would tell me that when I was an adult, I’d appreciate that I was different. When you’re a kid, you’re incapable of seeing that. I just wanted to be white and have blonde hair like my friends. I didn’t want Korean kimchi soup cooking on the stove. But my mom was right. There came a time when I embraced both sides of who I am. In college, I started to read about Korean food and try to cook it, and that’s a process that continues today.

Read the rest of Ann’s story and get her recipe for classic corn bread dressing.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh; Courtesy of Johnisha Levi

Sweet Potato Pie and Generations Together

By Johnisha Levi from Nashville, Tennessee

I grew up in a kind of unconventional family. My parents were different religions and different races. My mom was Eastern European and Jewish, and my dad was African American and Catholic. We were a blended family in a lot of ways. I had older siblings from my dad’s previous marriages. Thanksgiving was a huge deal; it was an occasion when so many generations came together.

Read the rest of Johnisha’s story and get her recipe for “new school” sweet potato pie.

Tina Vasquez is a researcher and journalist in North Carolina whose work focuses on immigration, reproductive justice, food, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez