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Thanksgiving dinner: A time of weird and wonderful family food traditions

A large cooked turkey surrounded by Thanksgiving side dishes.
It's not all about the turkey when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner.

Getty Images: Tetra Images

This will be my first Thanksgiving in my Minnesotan homeland in over 10 years. It's one of those holidays that seems to intrigue and confuse those unfamiliar with it.

America is still struggling to reconcile Thanksgiving's painful history — but the questions I tend to get asked most about the holiday aren't to do with that.

They're about what people eat. Is it really as weird as it seems in movies and on television?

That great export, the entertainment industry, gives non-Americans the image of a turkey so big it barely fits in an oven and needs two to lift it.

Then there's the pumpkin pie, a mysterious dessert that makes a sweet from a savoury.

While those two classics are usually the bookends of the meal, the side dishes filling the rest of the family table are where creativity really blossoms and tradition shines.

And celebrating the holiday this year in the United States has given me a fresh perspective on its culinary appeal.

Two hands hold a dish of pumpkin pie
Pumpkin pie is a staple of many Thanksgiving dinners.

Getty Images: Tetra Images

No two Thanksgiving dinners seem to be the same.

My family's Thanksgiving never resembled the dinner spreads found at my friends' houses. Ours was much too boring: mounds of green peas and undoctored mashed potatoes surrounding a super-sized turkey.

Others push it in a far more interesting — and somewhat challenging — direction.

'Butter, sugar, more butter, more sugar...'

Sarah Sherman is from Virginia, a state that identifies as southern, but not too southern.

The Shermans' extensive Thanksgiving menu reinforces the stereotype — beans cooked in pork back fat, creamed corn and sweet tea — but they turn their noses up at oyster dressing (just a bit too southern). All are things we would never eat in my native Midwest.

"I remember a sweet potato casserole. Our version is unique — it was my grandmother's recipe," Sarah says.

A sweet potato casserole with berries on top.
Sweet potato casserole veers somewhere between sweet and savoury.

Flickr: Meal Makeover Moms

"It used a special kind of sugar to hold it all together and had a lattice of puff pastry across the top.

"It was super fancy. None of us really know how to make it now and it's very hard to get the special ingredient."

Versions of a sweet potato dish seem to pop up in other family menus.

Jessica Miller, a native Minnesotan, says her favourite Thanksgiving dish was her Grandmother Jackie's sweet potato casserole.

The main ingredients, she says, were "butter, sugar, more butter, more sugar, pecans and some sweet potatoes — big cans of sweet potatoes."

"As a kid, my mom knew we loved the topping more than the potatoes, so she would make us a separate pan of just the topping.

"This wasn't a dessert — you would eat it with the turkey."

Dishes of jelly, pineapple and shredded cheese

When I lived in France as a student, I shared my first Thanksgiving away from home with Jenny Parker, a Texan.

Over a store-bought roast chicken and hastily made mashed potatoes, Jenny recounted what would normally be on her family's Thanksgiving table.

One dish, known as yum yum salad, is "a mix of jello, pineapple, cream cheese, mini marshmallows, pecans, and shredded cheddar cheese".

She says this description either intrigues people or loses them. I had to admit to Jenny that she'd lost me.

A lurid green salad of marshmallows and cheese.
The curious hue of the Parker family's yum yum salad.

Supplied: Jenny Parker

The recipe is said to have been in her family for over 100 years. The original notes you need to cut full-size marshmallows into quarters — as mini marshmallows didn't exist back then.

In another family home, long-time vegetarian Nicole Beck recently learned her Aunt Janet's cornflake potato casserole — which she'd been enjoying for years — had been made with cream of chicken soup.

"It was a bit of a surprise since I had been some type of vegan or vegetarian since I was around 12," Nicole says.

"I only eat it once a year and I get pretty sick after eating too much of it.

A layered jello salad on a red checked tablecloth.
Salads made with jello appear on Thanksgiving menus around the country.

Getty Images: DarcyMaulsby

Angela Tucker was not a fan of her family's Thanksgiving tradition — a lemon jelly salad with grated carrots and celery suspended in the mix.

"I love vegetables, carrots and celery, but not in [jelly]," Angela says.

"My mother cut it into squares and served it on a lettuce leaf with a dollop of mayonnaise.

"I guess it was quite pretty, but I think I am the only person who did not like it."

Somehow the strange power of Thanksgiving makes these odd combinations of ingredients seem normal.

Perhaps it's a good thing it hasn't spread to these shores yet.