The Holy Grail of Thanksgiving sides, cornbread stuffing is proof that something good came out of the (admittedly horrifying) Thanksgiving origin story, and that something truly incredible can be made out of slightly stale bread. Cornbread stuffing is, of course, superior to regular stuffing, because cornbread (especially with little kernels of corn in it) has that wonderful sweetness that is perfect when counteracted with things like onion, sausage, aromatic herbs, garlic, and delicious turkey/chicken stock. You can even go crazy and make it a jalapeno cornbread stuffing, although I admit that I am partial to the traditional Thanksgiving flavor profile (and Simon & Garfunkel lyric) of sage, rosemary, and thyme.
Regular stuffing is to cornbread stuffing as Harry Styles is to Zayn Malik. Not bad, by any means, but definitely not the star of the show. Regular stuffing is your standard-issue white guy in the group. There’s nothing wrong with him, but you’re not going to be fighting anyone to take home leftovers.
Roasted brussels sprouts
Perhaps this is just a liberal East Coaster side, as my red state family members never seem to break them out, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t an incredible dish. Roasted brussels sprouts are the attractive, smart date you bring to the family Thanksgiving celebration. Everyone is vaguely impressed that you brought them, and – as long as they are properly executed and crispy with a little bacon and candied nuts – they are going to be the surprise favorite of the evening. Brussels sprouts will never get into a fight about ISIS with your grandfather.
Mashed potatoes with gravy
Who doesn’t love mashed potatoes? Literally only criminals and ghosts. Mashed potatoes are delicious, and the exceptional thing about gravy is that, even on your aunt’s inarguably bland and shitty mash, it manages to work its magic. There is almost no mashed potato that cannot be saved by a half-boatful of good gravy, and that shit can go on to improve nearly everything else on your plate, if done right. (This of course means that whoever is charged with making the gravy better have their shit together, but usually people can pull it off reasonably well.)
Sweet potato with marshmallow
Honestly, I’m not even really sure how or why this ever became a dish, but I’m assuming that it came from the same crazy ‘50s cookbooks that advocated shit like shrimp in jell-o and topping your cakes with raw cream cheese. Either way, it’s somehow stood the test of time, and although it is arguably not really deserving of being called a dinner item (it’s honestly more of a dessert), it’s usually pretty delicious. If a relative who can’t cook makes it, at least you can pick off the toasted marshmallows, which is a saving grace most dishes can’t claim.
Green bean casserole
Honestly, all dishes that are based on the concept of dumping Campbell’s cream-of-whatever soup into the mix and topping it with some kind of crushed, fried item need to go the way of Crystal Pepsi. We have clearly evolved past green bean casserole, and unless you’re making some elevated foodie version, you really have no excuse for putting this on your table. It’s literally just a wobbly pyrex full of chemicals and sadness. And it’s not worth the calories.
Canned cranberry sauce
The recipe for actual, real, homemade cranberry sauce is literally three ingredients: sugar, water, cranberries. If you’re getting fancy you can throw some cloves and orange peel in there, but you don’t even have to! It’s literally the easiest thing in the entire world to make, and the difference in goodness between “gross, jiggly canned cranberry sauce” and “the stuff you took 10 minutes to make on the stove” is canyon-sized. Upgrade your whole life and get rid of canned cranberry sauce, because anything called a “sauce” that can be sliced into individual patties to serve is not something people should be eating in 2015.
The Sad Salad
There’s always the one Sad Salad that someone brings because they’re trying to be healthy and thus foisting their sadness on everyone else at the table. It’s Thanksgiving, don’t they know it’s the time to eat carbs and animal protein by the ladle-full, and to serve yourself gravy out of something literally called a boat? It’s not a moment for salad. So, of course, literally no one touches the salad, and everyone just watches it wilt slowly under its dressing as Aunt Carole gets sadder and sadder that no one is choosing to follow her on her Healthy Holiday Journey. Sorry, Carole. Pass the potatoes covered in melted sugar.