Let’s be real: Thanksgiving as it has been popularly conceived is absolutely not worth celebrating. But I don’t think we need to romanticize colonialism to enjoy a good home-cooked meal with friends and family. So although I don’t believe in commemorating the values my kindergarten teacher articulated to me about Thanksgiving, I will be participating in the food portion of the holiday. Frankly, apart from the crispy, herb-encrusted skin, I find turkey to be supremely dry and unappealing. The real joy is found in the side dishes. But which are worth the extra effort, and which can you leave off the table when you’re in a time pinch? Here is my definitive ranking of Thanksgiving side dishes.
10. Bread Rolls
Boring. Bland. Pointless. The cornbread is already on the table. Why do you need extra bread rolls? Plus, if you’re like me, you’re definitely not baking these things from scratch; with everything else that’s going on, these bad boys come straight from the freezer and are popped into the oven a few minutes before the guests arrive. This year, let’s not even bother with them.
9. Sweet Potato Casserole
There are few dishes on this planet as vile as sweet potato casserole. Okay, sure, your mom or your grandma might do it well, and if you’re lucky enough to have gotten the opportunity to experience good sweet potato casserole, I’m happy for you. But I’m sorry—I cannot permit a root vegetable to be covered in a layer of marshmallows in my home. Sweet potato casserole belongs to the trash bin.
8. Mac and Cheese
I love mac and cheese, as do we all. But does it have a place on the Thanksgiving dinner table? I’ll argue that it doesn’t. There are already so many vaguely creamy, relatively bland foods that seem essential to the holiday, so mac and cheese, a food that you can easily find any time of the year, doesn’t seem to be worth the extra time and effort it takes to throw together. I probably wouldn’t refuse it, but I’d take the smallest portion possible so I have more room for the more holiday-appropriate carbs.
7. Roasted Vegetables
Roasted vegetables are an essential part of any good Thanksgiving feast. Without them, you’ll feel like something’s missing. That being said, I think most would agree that they’re usually not the best part of the meal. Miso-glazed carrots or brussels sprouts roasted in bacon fat could potentially rank higher on this list, but the average, everyday roasted vegetables some of us are used to on Thanksgiving just can’t break into the top five.
6. Green Bean Casserole
Depending on the green bean casserole you’ve had in your life, you may absolutely love it, or you may despise it with every taste bud you possess. Your feelings are valid. When it’s done well with fresh green beans, a top-notch green bean casserole can be crispy, crunchy and ultra-flavorful—I personally love freshly fried shallots on top. However, if it’s not good, it turns into a gloopy, creamy mess that people take tiny servings of just to be polite. I sincerely hope you will not be forced to endure the latter this Thanksgiving.
5. Mashed Potatoes
The mashed potato evangelists out there need to calm down. Of course mashed potatoes are delicious; how can you not like mushy carbs drenched with butter and cream? But let’s be real: On their own, mashed potatoes are never that good. Instead, they need to be combined with other ingredients on your plate to shine as the flavor vehicle they are. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking the gravy isn’t doing the heavy lifting here.
Cornbread: Dense, slightly sweet and a little crispy on top. It crumbles into pieces after your first bite, littering your plate with its flavorful morsels. It’s a dish to behold, and it just happens to be one of my absolute favorites. It’s a perfect carrier for other items on your plate, but it can also easily stand on its own. Personally, I like eating mine with cranberry sauce, but you don’t have to stick to my rules—that’s part of what makes cornbread such a treat.
3. Cranberry Sauce
Cranberry sauce unfortunately suffers from a terrible reputation. It seems to be among the most hated Thanksgiving sides out there. But as chef, author and television personality Samin Nosrat points out in Salt Fat Acid Heat, cranberry sauce offers a shock of acidity to a Thanksgiving table that’s overwhelmingly dominated by fat. My mom always lovingly made the fresh stuff, which I’ll always be partial to, but lazy as I am, I’ve also developed an affinity for the canned stuff with the ridges. Whether you use store-bought or make your home, a good cranberry sauce can make the whole meal.
Something I’ll never understand is why stuffing doesn’t have a greater presence outside of Thanksgiving. It’s an excuse to tear up little pieces of bread, soak them in broth and fat and spices and call it a side dish. And when the top layer gets crispy and all the little pieces get stuck together, forming a crust? It’s an unmatched culinary experience. Where can I appeal to make stuffing a year-round dish?
You may not think of gravy as a side dish of its own; some of us may even think of the gravy as nothing more than a condiment. But, alas, the gravy dish is the most important part of the entire Thanksgiving spread. Gravy belongs on literally everything. Yes, I’m talking turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, but also the roasted veggies, the cornbread, even the mac and cheese. Cover everything in gravy. Start a family fight with your liberal use of the meat juice. There are few pleasures in this world as simple and as sublime as Thanksgiving gravy, and we owe it to ourselves to feast on the savory liquid to our hearts’ content.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.