10 Laws of Thanksgiving Dinner

This has already been quite a month for Sam Sifton. In addition to being the national editor of The New York Times – and helping run the paper’s coverage of Hurricane Sandy, and the presidential election, and whatever other ever-changing, constantly-unfolding news story that pops up in the meantime – he is also a food columnist for the Sunday Magazine, the newspaper’s former restaurant critic, a recovered short-order cook, a husband, a father of two young girls… and, luckily for us, the author of a just-published book, Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well. Full disclosure: I had the pleasure of editing this book, which means I had the pleasure of reading it several times and, best of all, cooking from it last year, as it was taking shape. Jenny and I love this book (in Jenny’s words – and you can trust her on this stuff – “This feels like the only Thanksgiving book I’ll ever need.”). We love the simplicity of it (130 pages, 50 traditional recipes), the authority of it (do this, not that), the timelessness of it (real cornbread stuffing, butternut squash with sage). It’s so beautifully written, too. If I lived in Glasgow, had never laid eyes on a turkey, and cared not two whits about Thanksgiving, I could pick this up and enjoy myself. Most of all, we love the message buried within: Thanksgiving does not have to be a source of stress. We should cherish it, and aim to make it great. There aren’t many national secular holidays, after all, so let’s get a big group together and dig in, American-style. In Sam’s honor, DALS hereby dedicates this week to his book, beginning here with ten inviolable rules for the big day. We’ll follow it with more advice and a recipe or two, so stay tuned. And give thanks! – Andy

10 Laws of Thanksgiving Dinner
by Sam Sifton

1. Let me speak plainly: you are going to need a lot of butter. Thanksgiving is not a day for diets, or for worrying about your cholesterol. It is a day on which we celebrate the delicious. And there is precious little on a Thanksgiving menu that is not made more delicious by butter. (Note: It should be unsalted butter. There is something magical about a piece of toast with salted butter. But for Thanksgiving, you want the unsalted variety, so that it is you, and not the butter maker, who is in control of the saltiness of your cooking. Figure at least two pounds for the day.)

2. Thanksgiving is a holiday that anchors itself in tradition. Which means: You should make turkey. Turkey is why you are here.

3. I’ll risk starting a brushfire by saying with great confidence that the two most important factors in any credible Thanksgiving feast are the cranberry sauce and the gravy. Debate that all you like. But they tie every element on the plate together, acting as frame and foundation alike. Cranberry sauce only enhances what is already excellent, and good gravy can cure almost any Thanksgiving ill.

4. You can make mashed potatoes lumpy with a fork or a masher device, or smooth with a food mill or stand mixer. And of course you can make them without peeling the potatoes, if your scrub the skins well. This makes for an attractive, rustic-looking dish. Indeed, the only trouble that should ever present itself when the subject comes to mashed potatoes and Thanksgiving is should someone demand that garlic or basil be added to the mix. Your response to this heresy should be brief and unequivocal: No. There is no place in the holiday for a mixture of garlic and potatoes, much less basil and potatoes. The flavors clash with the turkey and other sides. No.

5. Start serving drinks the minutes your guests arrive, no matter the hour. Thanksgiving is not a time to judge.

6. When hosting, do not be afraid to delegate.

7. Dessert need not be extravagant. It absolutely should not be experimental or overly cute. It must not involve individual tartlets or parfaits, nor marshmallows in any form. Save the chocolate for nights of depression and anxiety. Instead, focus on the proper execution of the American classics: apple pie, for instance, with a mound of whipped cream, or pumpkin pie with same. These represent Thanksgiving’s highest achievement. They are an explanation of American exceptionalism, in pastry form.

8. There is no “right” wine for Thanksgiving, no must-have grape or vintage, cocktail or spirit. Nor is there a “wrong” one, though I’d stay away from the low-end fortified stuff unless you are in a boxcar, hurtling west. What you want is a variety of grapes and vintages. Encourage guests to bring wines that interest them, wines that they would like others to try. Additionally, lay in some specialty items: beer for your uncle who only drinks Bud; nonalcoholic sparkling cider for the children; and plenty of Diet Cokes and ashtrays for those who no longer drink.

9. If you find yourself as a guest at someone else’s Thanksgiving, there is no finer gift to bring than a pie and a bottle of brown liquor.

10. As everyone takes a seat and prepares to eat, there is the delicate moment where you or someone at the table should ask for everyone’s attention, and offer thanks to one and all for being present, and for helping out. This is extraordinarily important. It is the point of the entire exercise. William Jennings Bryan wrote, “On Thanksgiving Day, we acknowledge our dependence.” I think that’s just about right.

Illustrations by Sarah Rutherford.


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Leslie (@MsMagpieWrites) — I recently made the apple crisp for Saturday dinner dessert and the cauliflower with anchovies is amazing. If your mom allows you : ) to bring sides or desserts, Sam’s book delivers!


I take issue with the garlic mashed potatoes one– for me, it isn’t Thanksgiving without garlic mashed potatoes. Garlic goes with everything! Otherwise, though, this is spot on.


Rule #5 and #8 are fantastic – spoken like a great hostess! Thanks and thanks for the pointer on the unsalted butter.


Surely this post will invite all the exceptions… It’s not Thanksgiving to me without mashed garnet yams and a toasted marshmallow top. It just isn’t. But technically Mr. Sifton only excludes marshmallows from dessert, so I’m safe to eat it with dinner. And again for breakfast the next day.


This made me SO excited that it’s November and almost Thanksgiving! Thank you for brightening my Monday morning by reminding me of what I have to look forward to in only 2 1/2 weeks!

Lori@ In My Kitchen, In My Life

This post gave me a chuckle until the end. We give thanks to God. *That’s* the point of the entire exercise. Thanking Him includes our thankfulness for everyone who is with us and away from us, because He gave them to us.

Jennifer O.

I’m from the South. Two pounds of unsalted butter is a very conservative amount. I’m not often with family for Thanksgiving these days, so frequently the days after find me making some family dish that I’m missing, like my mom’s acron squash.


Re: #10, in the wake of Sandy, we will be thankful for the roof over our heads and all the generosity of our friends.


I love #7! My inlaws idea of pie at Thanksgiving is Chocolate Pudding pie and Coconut Cream pie. I can never really wrap my head around it. There is usually an apple pie and pumpkin pie (storebought) but they mostly go uneaten.
Of course my family also had the tradition of having a grape pie in addition to apple, pumpkin, and sometimes pecan pie. I think that should get a pass though since concord grapes ARE a fall fruit!


@Alison — I’m glad I’m not the only one who took issue with the garlic comment. I add roasted garlic to my mashed potatoes every year. It’s actually the first step of my cooking on Thanksgiving day because I have to roast the garlic before the turkey goes in the oven, so every year my boyfriend wakes up to the smell of roasted garlic in the morning.
#7 – I learned this the hard way. Last year I made these beautiful vanilla roasted pears thinking everyone would love me for the light dessert. Nobody ate them. Not even one.


all good tips. however, i still get myself into a fit of anxiety whenever i think of having to cook thanksgiving dinner. my sis-in-law took care of it the past 2 years and it was amazing. this year, we’re hosting and i’m just trying to wrap my head around how to tackle everything we want to make. guuurrgh.


wmbg – I am the same way. I’m telling you, get this book. Sifton does three things at once with it: he simplifies things, he gives you a seemingly viable plan, and he gets you so freaking pumped for the holiday. I’m not kidding. the book is sooo good! I haven’t felt this way about a cookbook in a long time. It’s like I was a little kid wandering around the playground craving for some authority…for someone to tell me what to do.


The best thing about lists like this, is quibbling with them 🙂

On #3 I must substitute stuffing for gravy. Stuffing is so varied and so personal and so, so essential to the Thanksgiving experience.

On #7 This would not fly with my family. yes, we have pies (apple, pumpkin) but it is absolutely not Thanksgiving without something chocolate. For the last several years, this has been part of my contribution to the feast- chocolate chip caramel squares. Once in college, I spent the holiday with my boyfriend’s family in another state. When I called my aunts house to say hi to my extended family they were appalled (as was I!) that my boyfriends’ family didn’t have anything chocolate to offer for dessert.


I also disagree about garlic – it definitely belongs at my Thanksgiving table! My in-laws rotate host houses for Thanksgiving and one year soon it will be our turn. However, everyone has an assigned dish to bring year after year, so if I want to introduce something new, I have to add it on to my normal contribution 🙂 But, I bought this book because my husband and I are starting a “Friendsgiving” tradition at our house this year. It’s like a pre-Thanksgiving, with college football, and friends (ie chosen family). Roasted garlic will be served!

Leslie [MsMagpieWrites]

@Amy – We go to a Friendsgiving party the Saturday before Thanksgiving every year. Everyone brings a different dish and a different drink, and it’s so much fun. Good luck with your garlic!


Just ordered this book from my library. Love this post and don’t have a single problem with any item on the list.


I love this! It is so insanely true how much butter is consumed on Thanksgiving, however I like to think that is combated by miles of parking lot and mall walking that comes the following day, right? 😉 Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because of the childhood memories it brings back for me, and because any time a family (or group of close friends) gathers for the sake of being grateful, surrounded by delicious food, nothing can beat that. I hope your Thanksgiving is as wonderful as you hope for it to be! :))


Wow – these are wonderful, well-said and for some reason brought tears to my eyes. Very basic rules that should never be broken. I think my family does each of these things well, and I hope to continue that tradition as my family grows.

I’ve always been curious that there is no garlic in my family’s meal. Every other day of the year there is at least a clove of garlic in each dinner, but not on Thanksgiving. It makes me wonder about the evolution of garlic. Was it around at the first Thanksgiving? Or, as Sam says, does it just clash with the rest of the meal? Curious, is all.

Thanks for sharing.


Maybe it’s because I’m from a New England Jewish family, but the idea of there being any butter on Thanksgiving is so odd to me. Same with cranberry sauce, which we introduced to the table last year to help a homesick girlfriend (mine, in fact).
For desserts, there’s usually an apple pie, although I’m sure my grandfather would be happy if we replaced it with the true American classics of indian pudding and chocolate babka.


I still plan to make our traditional Thanksgiving dinner, including my father’s strong garlic vinaigrette that we have been enjoying at every holiday meal since we lived in France in the 1950’s. I don’t plan to change a thing, but I have just bought this book because I am crazy about Sam Sifton’s prose, particularly on any food-related subject. I’ll buy his next one, too!

Kath the Cook

amen!!! 10 rules I can certainly get behind. the more times you cook Thanksgiving dinner, the better the meal gets I think – always good to bring something new to the mix though.

Jane Sanders

I was composing a comment in response to # 10, but then got to Lori’s and she said it perfectly. Thanksgiving is not to say hooray for us.