Bev Ringel is direct. Chestnuts with red cabbage is her family's most traditional Thanksgiving dish, and the only way to make it is to peel the chestnuts herself.

That can be a troublesome process, which modern-day cooks usually skip, thanks to vacuum-packed jars and packages of the tasty morsels. But to Ringel, "It's my Thanksgiving."

She isn't certain of the recipe's origins, though it's probably from her father's parents, who immigrated to New York from Alsace. She knows that it was a favorite of her father, a butcher who owned a game and fine meat shop in Manhattan's old Washington Market. He loved the smell of roasting chestnuts that filled the New York air.

Ringel brought the recipe to Washington when she and her husband moved here in 1951 for him to take a job as a government psychologist. Later, she owned the Yarns and Twines store near Connecticut and Nebraska avenues NW.

Today, as her daughter's family and some friends gather with Ringel in her Connecticut Avenue apartment, she will begin her sixth decade of serving the simple dish -- simmer the peeled chestnuts in sweet and sour cabbage for 20 minutes, then let the flavors meld before reheating.

Although the National Turkey Federation says turkey will be at the center of 98 percent of holiday plates today and although countless glossy magazine spreads, newspaper articles and broadcast accounts provide pointers on various de rigueur side dishes, the Ringels 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 specialties to sate children's appetites and others eschew the whole turkey convention and opt for ribs or meatloaf or roast beef or sushi. Some do all of the above.

Though turkey, the wild variety, may have been a part of the first Thanksgiving whether you back Massachusetts or Virginia as its origin, the meal doubtlessly included whatever the settlers and Native Americans could scrounge, including lobster, crab, venison and all manner of game birds, according to 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, 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 that Thanksgiving is a unifier of Americans in this time of national crisis and imminent war, Frese explained. George Washington had proclaimed a similar day of thanksgiving in 1789 for the same purpose.

As editor of the influential Godey's Lady's Book, Hale 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 and Dan Branley of Fairfax turned to crawfish pie, a comfort food from Dan's upbringing in New Orleans, as the centerpiece of their Thanksgiving feast 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 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 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 tea room they once ran in Asbury Park, N.J.

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

Sue Loveless lives in Williamsburg but grew up in the Washington area, and 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 Methodist church in Bowie has been a family Thanksgiving staple ever since.

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

Richard Calvert, 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," said Calvert, who lives in Annandale. "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 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," Jordan said. "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 of Upper Marlboro has no idea where her mother learned to prepare the dumpling dish but has been eating it since she was a little girl. Made from a dough similar to pie crust, the dumplings are dropped into simmering sweet peas.)

Leroy Anderson of Ellicott City doesn't have the recipe for his mother's meatloaf, and that is a problem. After he and his brother went away to college and later left home altogether, he said, they craved moms's meatloaf when they made it home for Thanksgiving.

"She would always put a small meatloaf between the two of us on the table," Anderson recalled. That continued through last year, though by then, Anderson's son and his brother's son (now 30 and 31) had staked claims to the meatloaf.

Anderson said that his mother can no longer cook and that Sandra Kaiser, his "roommate," hasn't come close to mastering his mother's recipe (brown gravy, no tomato). "There's nothing like Rosa Anderson's meatloaf," Kaiser said with a laugh.

The family feast for Denise Green of Mount Rainier in Prince George's County includes roast turkey, chicken in wine sauce, ribs, pot roast and shrimp fettuccine.

The turkey and dressing are, well, traditional; the chicken (marinated in white wine, 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 is her favorite. There's also her great-grandmother's macaroni and cheese, "made with about five cheeses," Green said.

Green adds a mountain of side dishes and desserts that include banana pudding, bread pudding, pound cake and sweet potato pies. This year, she is serving the same menu three times.

The first was Tuesday for her office at the Black Student Fund. She is preparing the same spread for 15 family members at her home today and she will cook everything again on Saturday at her father's home in New York for him and several older relatives who can't make the trip to Maryland.

Then there is Uncle Charlie.

Dan Branley explained that his mother started making a Thanksgiving gingerbread man cake for her children to decorate about 50 years ago. This was before Dan, sixth of what would be seven children, was born.

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

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

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

Bev Ringel, left, of Northwest Washington cooks red cabbage and chestnuts every Thanksgiving. As family tradition demands, she peels the chestnuts by hand.