The story of the South is brighter than October leaves in the lower Appalachians, louder than a University of Alabama football game, sweeter than a glass of iced tea, and smoother than a Willie Nelson ballad. This tale is rooted in tradition, defined by family, and punctuated with holiday splendor.
Our favorite Southern storytellers masterfully explore the memories, the moments, and the momentum that define our region and our people. Their award-winning novels and prose illustrate the magic of a culture that’s both tenacious and tender, reminding readers that the south is simultaneously steadfast and ever-changing.
In celebration of the season and the spirit of Southern Living, these authors share the Thanksgiving customs that shape their voices, their craft, and their stories.
Thanksgiving is a time of reflection, a place to stop in the chaos, a resting spot. Our Henry family spends this holiday on a small island in South Carolina, Daufuskie Island, where our children grew up running wild in the woods and on the beaches. We all gather, anywhere from ten to twenty-two of us, in one place apart from the world to eat and laugh and take long walks. There’s the usual fare: turkey, stuffing, green beans, and my mother-in-law’s secret family recipe for oyster casserole. There’s football on TV and music in the background, a puzzle on the table and crafts for the little ones, but the real meaning of the holiday is hidden inside the stories told out loud. Because we can email and send photos and follow each other on social media, but our real life takes place in the stories, in the cadence of language, the twitch of an eye, the laughter gathered in the folds of Grandma’s face, or the deep breath over or under words that means something more. For us, Thanksgiving offers the time and space for family to reconnect.
– Patti Callahan Henry, author of The Idea Of Love
New Orleans is a city centered around two things — family and food. (And music, but that’s a story for another time.) After a couple of hundred years, our traditions have melded into one big way of life. For the most part, everyone knows how to cook. We talk about food a lot. And we like parties. So Thanksgiving is the ultimate family celebration that brings together everything we love.
For the past ten years, our extended family has gathered at our home. My husband leaves Thanksgiving eve to spend the night downriver at his hunting camp in preparation for the annual Thanksgiving morning duck hunt. He brings home a bounty of teal that he dresses with bacon and smokes along with the turkey. In the meantime, I have set the table with the fine china and silver that stays closeted for most of the year. We start the day with Bloody Mary’s, milk punches or champagne served with the smoked teal, cheese straws, and a baked brie topped with praline sauce. Everyone gatherers in the kitchen to help prepare the sides of sweet potatoes with marshmallows, garlic cheese grits, creamed spinach, cranberry relish and oyster cornbread dressing. We decorate the table with whatever is blooming outside – camellias, azaleas, winter roses, holly. Lately, our centerpiece features what we call our ‘pumpkin turkey’ surrounded by kumquats that I’ve trimmed from the tree in our backyard. We don’t usually sit down for Thanksgiving dinner until two or three in the afternoon, giving us a good five hours to catch up and reminisce. Afterwards, we retreat to the family room to watch football, eat pecan pie, and think about what a wonderful day it has been.
What makes a Southern Thanksgiving particularly distinctive? It’s all about pitching in, sharing our thoughts and dreams, and remembering what we have to be thankful for, because in the end, that’s what family is all about. But in New Orleans, we don’t just celebrate on Thanksgiving Day. We celebrate all year long.
– Laura Lane McNeal, author of Dollbaby
On every Thanksgiving as far back as I can remember—and that’s more than half a century now—twenty to thirty people have arrived at my parent’s house in San Marcos, Texas, bringing various desserts and side dishes. My mother cooks a turkey, cornbread dressing and sweet potatoes and my brother usually provides a wild turkey he’s killed on our family place in Bandera County. Most of the guests are family or life-long friends, but there are always newcomers who join us because their own families are too far away. The general rule is that anyone can bring anyone, as long as they bring food. Heated political discussions are banned. We’ve had visitors from the UK, Australia, Ethiopia, and Pakistan, and for many it’s their first American Thanksgiving. Now that my father is deceased it’s my mother who calls everyone together and introduces the guests and talks about changes in the lives of any of us in the past year: marriages, losses, new jobs, new babies born, degrees earned. She ends with a reminder about suffering in the wider world and the gifts of warmth, good food and companionship that bless our gathering. – Elizabeth Crook, author of Monday, Monday
My nephew Tommy was eight, and into history, when my father asked him to say grace before our Thanksgiving meal. It became tradition.
At ten, Tommy went upstairs to his grandmother’s Wisconsin study and typed his Thanksgiving blessing on her Mac. He summoned the majesty of a public prayer, delivered in a fifth grader’s grammar and spelling. He printed it out and read it to us before the cutting of the turkey, the clinking of glasses, the telling of stories.
“We come here today,” Tommy began,” to not only celebrate the pilgrims’ success of finding the new world of which they were freely aloud to worship…but to give thanks for food, water, a house to sleep in, a country that doesn’t have war inside it.” His was an ecumenical blessing, befitting the three generations at the table. Some of us were raised Catholic, one Methodist, two Unitarian Universalist. My father was visibly moved.
Two years later, we sat down to our first Thanksgiving without my father, a voice of enthusiasm and creativity and laments and plans, suddenly gone. He died that summer of an infection that went to his heart. “As we are here together,” my nephew read aloud, “though subtracted one…” He offered thanks for shelter, food, a new Labrador puppy, for our family.
“And for the bond of love through hardship.” In one sentence, he broke my heart and began to mend it.
My nephew is 16 now and goes by Thomas. Other hardships have visited our family. So has joy.
I don’t know what his words of gratitude will be this year. I do know, every year, the best part of our Thanksgiving meal. It is grace.
– Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door
I am a Southerner from Louisiana, which, as you probably know, is not at all like being a Southerner from any other state. I served my first panicked Thanksgiving dinner for twelve guests at age twenty-one shortly after I married and moved to Missouri with my husband (from Florida!–which is nothing like Louisiana). All of my guests were from elsewhere: San Francisco, New York City, Cleveland, and so as I grew increasingly alarmed at the task I began reading about, shopping for, and largely preparing on the Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, I decided simply to re-interpret the holiday for these non-southern guests! All that really entailed was simply declaring that mashed potatoes never made an appearance at a Southern Thanksgiving, which was true in Louisiana. I had no idea how to make mashed potatoes, but I was utterly comfortable producing a large quantity of rice–a staple of my growing up–to be slathered with the one other necessity of Thanksgiving dinner–more important than the turkey, in my opinion: wonderful, deep brown gravy, which was a snap to take on after years and years of watching my grandmother make a roux! As a result mashed potatoes is simply not ever on my menu, which caused one guest from Idaho several years ago to burst into tears. Since then I’ve kept a box of instant mashed potatoes on hand for emergencies!
– Robb Forman Dew, author of Being Polite to Hitler
So maybe I lived in the sole southern household that didn’t place Thanksgiving one notch below Christmas/Easter, and one ahead of Halloween, or April Fools’ Day. I was an only child. My mother’s relatives lived in Michigan, my father’s mostly in graveyards, prisons, and mental institutions. We lived in South Carolina. Sure, my mom and/or dad cooked a turkey. We had dressing that included oysters for some reason. Yams. Ocean Spray jelled cranberry sauce that slid out of the can like a sinking ocean liner. Maybe some green beans or squash casserole, something like that. I remember creamed corn–lots of creamed corn spreading across the plate like an advancing army. Chilled water in special crystal glasses that came out only on Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and April Fools’ Day. My mother baked a special cranberry bread that involved walnuts so impenetrable that one of the dentists’ associations awarded the Walnut Growers of America a commendation.
My father had an Aunt May. So she was my Great Aunt May. She never married, so that kind of made her Great Old Maid Aunt May. Anyway, being a spinster single great aunt who worked at a place called H. L. Green as a bespectacled bookkeeper and maybe stood four-foot-nine, she didn’t have much else to do in life but crochet bottle caps together into trivets suitable for too-hot Jenny Lind 1785 Royal Staffordshire England plates and whatnot, maybe for a serving dish of yams, or a turkey, or nuclear-hot creamed corn. She gave these trivets to my mother, who–I found out years later–thought them atrocious at best.
My father went and picked up his aunt, and brought her back to Greenwood, South Carolina, for Thanksgiving–as I remember–every year until her death when I was in college. My mother reluctantly brought out the trivets (though I didn’t know how reluctant at the time). I reached for the creamed corn, but I became mesmerized by these crocheted things stoically holding up food containers so hot that they could’ve set the table afire. They lacked real color outside of plain brown and off-green, they flopped around like air-needful fish, but they’d been so meticulously sewn–if that’s the right word–that I couldn’t fathom the handiwork involved.
That’s my Thanksgiving memory. It ain’t about family squabbles or love between Pilgrims and Native Americans. Sorry. I can’t do any better.
– George Singleton, author of Calloustown