The Branley family will gather around their table in Fairfax County this afternoon for a traditional Thanksgiving meal of dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, lima beans, cranberry sauce and the two centerpieces: crawfish pie and Uncle Charlie.

Well, actually, that's crawfish pie and Uncle Charlie cake. And therein lies a story.

Although the National Turkey Federation says turkey will be at the center of 98 percent of holiday plates today, and countless glossy magazine spreads, newspaper articles and broadcast accounts provide pointers on various de rigueur side dishes, the Branleys are among many families who have made their own traditions.

Some families include unusual dishes that have been a part of their celebrations for generations; some add specialities to satisfy their children's appetites; and others eschew the whole turkey convention and opt for ribs, meatloaf, roast beef or sushi. Some do all of the above.

Although turkey, the wild variety, may have been a part of the first Thanksgiving (whether you subscribe to the Massachusetts or the Virginia theory of its origins), the meal doubtlessly included whatever the settlers and Native Americans could scrounge up, including lobster, crab, venison and all manner of game birds, said Pam Frese, an anthropologist at the College of Wooster in Ohio who studies American ritual foods.

Frese said the traditional Thanksgiving menu -- essentially the only American national meal -- was composed by Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who persuaded President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to proclaim a national day of thanksgiving.

It was a way of "unifying the country during a crisis, the Civil War," much the way Thanksgiving is a way of unifying Americans in this time of national crisis and potential war, Frese said. President George Washington had proclaimed a similar day of thanksgiving in 1789 for the same purpose.

Hale, as editor of the influential Godey's Lady's Book, drew from her "white Anglo-Saxon roots" to create the Thanksgiving national cuisine -- turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie -- and published it in her monthly magazine, Frese said.

Ultimately, the exact composition of the meal wasn't as important as celebrating family and community and thanking God, Frese said.

Families soon modified Hale's national menu, Frese said, incorporating their own traditions, from collard greens to Southern Maryland stuffed ham.

Lori Branley said her family turned to crawfish pie, a comfort food from her husband Dan's upbringing in New Orleans, after they stopped eating beef, pork and poultry.

Basically, the dish is crawfish e{acute}touffe{acute}e (a spicy Cajun stew) that is allowed to thicken and then baked in a pastry crust. The Branleys use frozen crawfish tails purchased at a local seafood store and make two conventional-size pies -- one double-crusted and one with just a bottom crust. "We just can't decide which it should be," Lori Branley said.

In recent years, the family has added "the smallest free-range turkey" Branley can find, at the request of their school-age children, who want the same foods as their playmates. But the favorite part of the meal for Mitchell, 8; Madeleine, 6; and Mallory, 4, is Uncle Charlie. More about him later.

For Bev Ringel of Northwest Washington, chestnuts and red cabbage most signify Thanksgiving. The recipe probably came from her father's Alsatian family. A butcher who operated a shop for game and fine meats in Manhattan's old Washington Market, Ringel's father loved chestnuts and the smell of them roasting that filled the brisk fall air.

The simple recipe (cook a half-pound of peeled chestnuts in prepared sweet-and-sour red cabbage for about 20 minutes, then allow the flavors to meld) came with Ringel to Washington, when she moved here with her husband, a government psychologist, in 1951.

This year about eight family members and friends will join her for Thanksgiving dinner, said Ringel, former owner of the well-known Yarns and Twine store near Connecticut and Nebraska avenues NW. The hardest part of the recipe is peeling the chestnuts. But she doesn't mind. "It's my Thanksgiving."

For Muriel Walker, her grandmother's peach kugen pie is essential for today's feast. The kugen, more commonly called peach kuchen, is a German coffeecake-style confection that her grandparents served at a tearoom they once ran in Asbury Park, N.J.

"I don't know what black people were doing with a German recipe," Walker said, laughing. But it has stayed in the family and will be on the table when 13 relatives gather at her Montgomery Village home in Montgomery County.

Sue Loveless of Williamsburg grew up in the Washington area. The sauerkraut salad her mother, Sally Daily -- now 85 and living in Palm Coast, Fla. -- got 30 years ago from a cookbook by the women's group of St. Matthew's United Methodist Church in Bowie has been a family Thanksgiving staple ever since then.

Loveless said her mother, known at St. Matthew's for her Christmas cookies, is no longer able to cook, so her children now prepare the salad.

Richard Calvert of Annandale, who traces his family's presence in the District to 1812, always prepares a pork and sauerkraut recipe that his family has been cooking for at least six decades.

"We've been making it all my life, and I'm 63," Calvert said. ("Brown a few pork chops in a pot, add lots of sauerkraut, then cook until the pork falls off the bones. That wonderful tartness is simply delicious.")

Rita Jordan of Upper Marlboro has to have southern potato salad and a dish of sweet peas and dumplings that her mother always made.

"My daughter makes the potato salad," said Jordan. "It goes better with ham than mashed potatoes, and mashed potatoes go better with turkey." Of course, she has ham and turkey on her menu, along with those peas and dumplings.

Jordan has no idea where her mother learned to prepare the dumpling dish, but she has been eating it since she was a little girl. (The dumplings, made from a dough that is similar to pie crust, are dropped into simmering sweet peas.)

Denise Green of Mount Rainier in Prince George's County prepares dishes connected to a host of relatives. Turkey and dressing are, well, traditional. The chicken (marinated in white wine, then stuffed and roasted) was always prepared by her South Carolina grandmother. The spare ribs (soaked in vinegar, cut into bite-size pieces, parboiled and finished off in the oven) came from her mother. The pot roast is her father's favorite. And the shrimp fettuccine, that's her favorite. There's also her great-grandmother's macaroni and cheese -- "made with about five cheeses," Green said.

They are in addition to a host of side dishes and desserts, including banana pudding, bread pudding, poundcake and sweet potato pie.

On Tuesday, Green served this same menu for her office, the Black Student Fund. She will present it today for 15 family members who will gather at her home and will cook it again Saturday at her father's home in New York for him and several older relatives who can't make the trip to Maryland.

And then there is Uncle Charlie.

Dan Branley said his mother started making a Thanksgiving gingerbread cake man for her children to decorate about 50 years ago. This was before Dan (the sixth of seven children) was born.

The cake remained nameless until the mid-1960s. That's when his youngest sister, Sharon, complained that she had never met her father's brother Charlie, who also happened to be her godfather. Unlike other relatives who lived nearby and made it home for Thanksgiving, Charles Branley lived in New Jersey (and still does).

So he, too, would be represented at the holiday celebrations -- the gingerbread cake man became "Uncle Charlie." (And it's a good thing, too. Dan Branley didn't meet the real Uncle Charlie until 1989, and his sister didn't meet him until a decade later.)

Now there are a half-dozen or so Uncle Charlie cakes in attendance at Thanksgiving celebrations throughout the Branley family.

A traditional Thanksgiving includes crawfish pie and a gingerbread cake man named Uncle Charlie at the home of Dan Branley, clockwise from top; children Mitchell, 8; Mallory, 4; Madeleine, 6; and wife Lori.