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Side hustle: Digging into some unconventional Thanksgiving dishes

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Full disclosure: I love Thanksgiving. Always have.

Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of the massive (and I do mean massive) family gatherings that happened during my childhood. You have to understand – my father had 11 brothers and sisters, all of whom married and had kids of their own. Back in the day, when my Grammie Shirley – the matriarch of that side of the family – was still around, everyone would gather for a huge Thanksgiving feast.

And when I say everyone, that’s exactly what I mean.

The family would rent the grange hall in Levant – it was the only place in town that could accommodate the whole brood. And let me tell you, when a dozen people get married and start having kids, the numbers grow at an exponential rate. Throw in a bunch of cousins and assorted family friends, and all of a sudden you’re looking at over 100 people at a single Thanksgiving dinner. Long folding tables, gigantic vats of mashed potatoes and peas and stuffing, anywhere from 10-15 turkeys of varying sizes – it was chaos. Wonderful, loving chaos.

I do miss those days sometimes.

One thing that should be noted, however, is that the sheer scale of those meals meant that there wasn’t a lot of room for nuance. Ours was not a family that was particularly adventurous with regard to the types of food we ate. Simple, straightforward Thanksgiving fare.

But when those large gatherings faded away and more individualized Thanksgiving celebrations came to the forefront, some creativity – particularly when it comes to side dishes – began to bubble up.

I greatly enjoy writing about Thanksgiving in these pages, having done it a few different times over the course of tenure here. But one thing that I’ve never explored is the world of … let’s call them unconventional side dishes. The joy of having family traditions is that they differ from person to person; a dish that I think is perfectly normal on a Thanksgiving table might seem weird or out of place to you. But traditions they are.

In that spirit, I thought I might delve into some of the different types of sides that I’ve seen over the course of my holiday feasting career. Now, most of these are recipes that I vaguely recall having graced the table at this dinner or that one. I dug into some dusty cookbooks and ever dustier memories, trying to recollect some of the stuff that seemed so run-of-the-mill at the time and turned out to mystify those with whom I subsequently shared it.

Check out these recipes. You won’t find turkey or mashed potatoes or green bean casserole here, but rather a few things from off the beaten path. Some sweet, some savory, but all have their place in a Thanksgiving spread.


Perfection of Baby Beets

2 qt beet greens (approx. ¾ lb)

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp fresh lemon juice

18(ish) 1-inch unpeeled beets, steamed until tender

¼ cup hot cream

Handful of fresh dill

Rinse and chop greens and place in skillet with water that clings to them. Moisten with olive oil and lemon juice.

Cook over low heat, moving beets around with tongs for 5-6 minutes or until tender.

Trim roots from hot beets and arrange in the middle of a hot platter; surround the beets with the greens.

Pour hot cream over the top, then season with dill, salt and pepper. Serve hot.

(Pulled this one from a cookbook assembled to celebrate the Pullens, my grandmother’s extended family.)

Green Limas in Squash Nests

2 cups cooked acorn squash

1½ cups cooked lima beans

Mash squash, season with salt and pepper; whip until light.

Place in individual mounds on greased cookie sheet.

Make a hollow in the center of each mound and fill with lima beans.

Heat in oven at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

(My mom only did this one once, unsurprisingly. I rediscovered the recipe in the pages of an old “Better Homes and Gardens” cookbook. You know the one, with the red-and-white checked tablecloth cover?)

Corn Oysters

2 cups grated fresh corn

2 eggs, beaten

½ cup cracker crumbs

½ cup sifted flour

½ tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

¼ tsp pepper

Grate corn on coarse grater. Add eggs, cracker crumbs and flour, then baking powder, salt and pepper.

Drop from tablespoon into oil, hot enough to brown cube in 40 seconds. Turn once. Makes 18 “oysters.”

(Another classic from the folks at “Better Homes and Gardens” – and also from my grandmother.)

Scalloped Tomatoes

½ cup chopped onion

½ cup chopped celery

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp flour

1 tbsp honey

2 tsp mustard

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp pepper

2 slices whole grain bread (toasted and cubed)

4 cups chopped tomatoes

Saute onion and celery in butter until tender.

Stir in flour, cook and stir for one minute.

Stir in honey, mustard, salt and pepper.

Stir in bread cubes and tomatoes.

Transfer to greased one-quart casserole dish; bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes until bubbly.

(Another one from the Pullen Family Cookbook.)


1 cup buckwheat flour

1/3 cup white flour

1½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

1 cup cold water

½ cup hot water

Mix together the buckwheat flour, white flour, baking powder and salt.

Add cold water and mix until combined.

Add the hot water and mix until the batter is without lumps and fairly thin (not quite as thick as pancake batter).

Place approx. ¼ cup of batter on the heated cooking surface (griddles tend to work best).

When the ploye begins to bubble, with lots of small holes, you’re on the right track. Cook until the top is dry.

(Note: there are different schools of thought w/r/t flipping. Traditionally, ployes are cooked on only one side, but there are those who swear by a quick flip at the end of the cook. Do what you will.)

(This one came to me via my friend Webster Reed, who also gave me a bit of a history lesson about ployes and their place in Northern Maine’s food traditions. Many Thanksgiving tables up that way have ployes alongside – or even instead of – dinner rolls.)

Gelled Salad

1 large box Jell-O, any color 

1 can crushed pineapple

1 cup walnuts, chopped

1 block of cream cheese, cut into chunks

Grease a Jell-O mold or fluted pan with spray oil. Use a piece of plastic wrap to spread it around into the grooves, and also to keep it from pooling at the bottom of the pan. 

Boil one cup of water and add that to the Jell-O. Stir until the Jell-O has dissolved completely. Add the crushed pineapple and the juice from the can to the Jell-O mixture. Stir in the chopped walnuts and the chunks of cream cheese. 

Pour the mixture into the mold and refrigerate overnight. Release from the mold and serve with cottage cheese or whipped cream and garnish with maraschino cherries.

(This one comes courtesy of my wonderful mother-in-law, Cynthia Kelley.)

5 Cup Salad

1 cup chunked pineapple

1 cup mini marshmallows

1 cup chopped coconut

1 cup mandarin oranges

1 cup sour cream

Mix well, serve chilled – it’s precisely what it claims to be.

(This one is from Claire Kennedy, by way of my mother-in-law.)


Kevin’s Salad

1 package Jell-O, any kind

1 package cottage cheese

1 can crushed pineapple, drained

1 small container Cool Whip

Simple prep: Mix it all together in a bowl and chill. Boom – ready to go! I will confess, however, that I personally have no idea who Kevin is or why this is his salad.

(This recipe comes from my sister-in-law Casey – it’s a well-loved tradition in her husband’s family.)


Allen’s oddball appetizer corner

So this isn’t quite part of the Thanksgiving sides discussion, but I really wanted to share it with you all, so here we are.

In recent years, I’ve developed a fascination with strange appetizer recipes that I find on the internet. These are items that few right-thinking people would engage with, and yet there’s something undeniably compelling about them. They are apps that, upon first description, sound vaguely off-putting or downright unpleasant, yet upon their execution they are weird, but also weirdly good.

I’ve found a few favorites that I thought I might share with you. A lot of folks like to pregame Thanksgiving with appetizers. If you’re one of them, here are some recipes that will almost certainly prove unlike anything else in the spread.

Bologna Cake

1 lb sliced bologna

2 packages (16 oz) cream cheese, room temp

1 package powdered ranch dressing mix

3 tbsp onion powder

Can spray cheese (optional)

In a large bowl, add room temperature cream cheese, ranch mix and onion powder. Combine using a spatula.

Take a slice of bologna and pat dry, then place it on a plate.

Spread a layer of the cream cheese mixture on top of the bologna using an offset spatula. (A cake decorating turntable or last Susan can be helpful here if you have one.)

Spread one tablespoon (ish) of cream cheese mixture between each layer. Repeat until you use up all the bologna slices. Spread more cream cheese mixture onto the side of the bologna cake.

If you want to jazz up your bologna cake, a can of spray cheese can be used for decorative accents.

Slice and serve with crackers – I prefer Ritz, but really, any cracker will do.


White Castle Pate

10 White Castle sliders (thawed)

8 oz cream cheese

4 tbsp steak sauce

2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

2 tbsp ketchup

2 tbsp dijon mustard

2 tbsp BBQ sauce

2 tsp hot sauce (Tabasco)

Put it all in a blender. Yep, all of it. The sliders should go in whole, buns and all. Blend until thick.

Mold into a ball. Chill well.

Serve with crackers.



1 can Spam (12 oz)

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

3 oz softened cream cheese

1 tsp onion powder

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

½ tsp dry mustard

½ tsp chili powder

1 tsp smoked paprika

3 tsp chopped parsley

1 package saltine crackers

Finely chop the Spam in a food processor.

In a bowl, combine the chopped spam with the shredded cheese, cream cheese, onion powder Worcestershire sauce, mustard and chili powder. Mix together thoroughly.

Cover and refrigerate until firm (approximately one hour).

Shape mixture into a ball and wrap in wax paper; chill until time to serve.

When prepared to serve, roll ball in parsley and paprika. Place on tray and add saltines.

Last modified on Wednesday, 17 November 2021 18:25


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