Rainbow Rowell Wants to See Your Thanksgiving Plate
The holidays will be different this year. Our series, "The One Dish," collects stories about what we're doing for Thanksgiving that will make us feel right at home.
I love to see people's Thanksgiving and Christmas plates. A few years ago on Twitter, people were sharing their Thanksgiving dinners, and I said, "A thing I'm looking forward to today is just seeing your plates." People started tagging me, then the next year, I didn't even have to say anything, they're like, "Oh, I can't wait to show you my plate!" I feel like it's been a thing for three years now. I get hundreds of responses and I genuinely enjoy every one. I'm not pretending. I'm not just being polite. I really love to see people's plates because you learn so much about people's families and where they live. If you grew up with just your own family traditions and recipes, you kind of think that's what everybody is eating.
It varies even within a region. The people across the street from you are eating really different stuff and they think it's classic, iconic, Thanksgiving food. And then you'll ask, "What is oyster casserole?" And they'll say, "Everybody eats that on Thanksgiving." I'm like, "No, tell me more." They're so proud. I love learning about new things that people eat and why it's special to them. People have shared recipes with me. There's a really diverse, wild appetizer game happening.
I have never been a part of a large family Thanksgiving. My regular Thanksgiving meal with my husband's family is small. We can't even get through one pie, so this idea that you have a dozen sides and then also a dozen different appetizers that people seem to snack on for the hours before the meal—so many cheese balls and little puff pastries with fillings in them, and oh, I love the little pinwheels. There's often a cheese element and then they wrap them in tortillas or who knows what, and slice it. I think those are super fun. I'm probably just jealous because I don't have that.
It almost seems to be this thing I would see on television when I was younger, the huge groups of people coming together. It feels like a carnival where they're having all of these wonderful courses and they're eating for six hours. Everybody has a special thing they're bringing. I love listening to people talk about it. On Twitter, people tend to be kind of arch and cool over everything all the time. They're usually not that way about their Thanksgiving meal.
Even if they talk really cynically about where they grew up or their families, when they're talking about what they eat with their family, that cynicism fades away. Usually the food is not pretentious at all, or cool. It's often not very photogenic, It's little piles of slop. I always ask if I don't recognize something. It's hard because I'll be like, "What is that green blob?" In a way, it's a counter to what's happening on social media, where people are curating and shooting food under perfect light. They're in their parents' house. The lighting is bad. The plates are not beautiful, or it's paper plates because big families don't want to do the dishes. I find it so refreshing; it cuts through the crap. You have someone showing you something that means something to them. There's nothing cool or beautiful about it; it's just this thing they actually really love and have a lot to say about. I could do it for hours—just talk to people about what they're eating.
My fantasy is to show up at a holiday meal and there are four different cracker casseroles. There's also four different Jell-O salads. I grew up in the Midwest, but my mom is from the East coast, as she constantly reminded us. I'm in Omaha and so is she. She looked down her nose at any recipe with a soup can. She was so snobby about it, we never had green bean casserole—which is my favorite Thanksgiving food now. We'd only have it at church dinners or potlucks where there'd be so many casseroles: turkey Tetrazzini, and lots of things made with Lipton onion soup or Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, or cream of asparagus. I never got to have that stuff at home. I always felt like it was such a treat. It's usually cheesy and creamy and hot. To me it's just another version of lasagna.
Green bean casserole was always such a delicacy for me. So exotic when I would go to someone's house and they would be making it. I think people think it's kind of gross if they've had it all the time. Everything is canned: canned green beans, canned soup, Durkee's onions on top. My mom was trying to raise us to look down on that stuff, instead it turned it into this rare delicacy. My first Thanksgiving with my husband, there was no casserole. And I was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!" He's making this really beautiful artisanal stuff and I'm like, "Can we please have green bean casserole?"
People have become more fussy and more judgmental. They make fun of what other people eat a lot. There's almost nothing that bums me out more, because I feel like it's like making fun of people for how they smell. I just never want to make fun of something. It just seems too personal.
At Thanksgiving, it is usually just my husband Kai, and my kids and my husband's parents. We have lots of old things—tablecloths and dishes. Everything is sort of a mismatch. I am a workaholic and I tend to acquire interesting things, but then never use them. So let's drag out the tablecloth, let's get the pumpkin-shaped tureen out. Kai is an artist and he makes everything look beautiful, he can't help it. But it's very, very small. We can't sustain that many dishes. Besides the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and then usually one green vegetable, and green bean casserole—that's enough. That's too much. If his mom brings more than a couple pies, we can't even eat half a pie sometimes.
I think I've crammed green bean casserole into two or three of my books. There's lots of food in Carry On and in Any Way the Wind Blows, the final book in the Simon Snow trilogy. All of my contemporary books take place over the winter—Attachments, Eleanor & Park, and Landline is practically a Christmas book and I felt we should just put a Christmas cover on that one. I have holiday meals in all of those books. I imagined we would get to meet [Fangirl character] Levi's big family and there would be so many casseroles. They may be from an Evangelical church, because I feel like there's a mention of his sister as being churchy.
My perfect plate would have turkey. It's so much my favorite meal that my husband makes it several times throughout the year—a couple of times since the pandemic started. There would be mashed potatoes, gravy. I really love Pepperidge farm stuffing. Kai makes fancier stuffing and it's very good, but I do like Pepperidge Farm in the bird—especially the crunchy part from the outside. I love creamy casserole. I love squash casserole. I love a cheeseball. My mom makes one that's so good with cream cheese, Worcestershire sauce, and a very specific dried corned beef you can hardly find any more. It comes in like the little plastic packages in the refrigerator section—Carl Buddig. What I haven't had for years and should maybe make this year is pretzels and cream cheese in cherry Jell-O—a pretzel salad. I am not into anything fruit. I don't want a fruit pie ever. I never eat dessert on Thanksgiving, but it's important to my kids that there is pumpkin pie for sure.
I have this almost Alice in Wonderland table idea. You walk in and there's like, 10 siblings and all of their spouses, and all of their kids, and a couple of dogs. I imagine there's a sideboard. There's a cheese plate and a charcuterie plate and platters and little things on toothpicks. I think that's why I like to see it on Twitter because I'm like, "Oh, that's what I want: I want five different cheese balls and six different pies." This Charlie And The Chocolate Factory vision of Thanksgiving. In my next book, I indulged all of my fantasies, and there is a scene where it's a table heaping with everything that you can think of—because I'm not going to make that happen in real life. I'm not domestic in that way and you have to have a big group of people. You just can't do that right now. But I can imagine it.