There is something about Thanksgiving that elicits strong emotions. How often have you Googled “ways to avoid talking about politics during holiday gatherings,” for example?
When it comes to food, things tend to get particularly intense. People argue about the ideal menu, the ideal way to cook said menu, and even the best time to start eating. But perhaps no subject prompts as strong of a response as the best and worst side dishes that are served on Thanksgiving.
To put it simply, people have very strong opinions about Thanksgiving side dishes — so much so that, just a couple of years ago, Instacart and the Harris Poll joined forces to work on a survey of 2,000 Americans, asking them about their holiday likes and dislikes.
According to the data, 27% of Americans absolutely hate candied yams. Green bean casseroles (25%) and cranberry sauce (24%) rounded out the top three ranking of most-hated sides.
“The rules for side dishes: respect your vegetables and stay true to their texture and color,” said Julie Tracy, who replied to a callout for people with particularly strong feelings about Thanksgiving food. “Overcooking turns an appealing rainbow into mushy gray sludge, which perpetuates its unpopularity.”
In fact, when looked at closely, all Thanksgiving side dishes are, indeed, a transformation of their original selves.
Candied yams, traditionally a Southern staple, call for the extra-softening of the already pretty mushy food through the use of butter, sugar, nutmeg and heavy cream. In a way, a dislike towards the food may actually amount to an appreciation of it in its authentic self. Why not serve sweet potatoes just as they are?
That philosophy can certainly apply to a green bean casserole as well. Usually crunchy and solid in form, green beans take on a bit of a creamier texture when baked as part of a casserole, usually requiring some sort of soup as an ingredient as well. Sure, it might work delightfully alongside a turkey, but the side dish doesn’t seem to retain the same fresh snap that green beans are known for.
Andrea Xu, CEO and founder of online Asian grocer Umamicart, agreed with the sentiment.
“Green bean casserole is a classic but I find it to be too creamy and lack a depth of flavor,” she noted.
Writing for The Food Network years back, food writer Eric Kim also orated on the drawbacks of green bean casserole.
“I’ve never been able to stomach it: that gungy mélange of random pantry ingredients thrown together in a Pyrex, unmistakably salty and plastic in taste,” he wrote then. “I still hate green bean casserole. So much.”
A dislike for soft foods directly leads to the weakness at the heart of cranberry sauce.
“Cranberry sauce never gets eaten and there are so many better dishes,” a friend of mine noted matter-of-factly when asked about the topic. “Why is it still a staple?”
Indeed, the side dish is, alongside turkey, the most commonly referred to Thanksgiving food.
According to Michigan State University, “It is believed that the pilgrims and the American Indians would have eaten [cranberries] at the first Thanksgiving” given their abundance in the 1500s.
Perhaps it’s time to change our ways?
The hatred for the fixin’ seems to also hinge on how it is served. According to the 2021 Instacart survey, over 20% of people don’t eat cranberry sauce at all, but 37% of respondents prefer a homemade version over its canned counterpart.
And so, what are we left with? What sorts of gastronomic accompaniments should we feel safe to serve on that most precious day, hoping that none of our guests end up going home complaining about the less-than-stellar Thanksgiving food they just consumed?
“Carrots,” suggested Xu. “They are a fall staple and hold up well to a variety of different cooking methods.”
Try not to make them too gooey, of course, but do, noted Xu, opt for colorful heirloom varieties.
“Not only are they visually stunning but I find that they have a more intense flavor,” she said. “I like to roast them with a honey glaze or fry them with peas and corn.”
Another great, generally liked option? Coleslaw.
“I really like coleslaw and enjoy it throughout the year,” Xu said. “I find that it’s perfect for cutting through a heavy meal with its freshness.”
The culinary pro does, however, warn against its potential texture.
“Opt for a lighter, vinegar-forward coleslaw, rather than a super creamy one, as a nice contrast to heartier mains,” Xu recommended.
Alas, just like everything else in life, all types of Thanksgiving side dishes enjoy a roster of fans and a seemingly larger group of detractors.
The good news: the average holiday table features at least five side dishes, so you’ve got plenty to choose from any given Thanksgiving day.