Muriel Walker will set her Thanksgiving table today with the traditional turkey and fixings -- and smothered chicken breasts, ham, roast beef, potato salad, collards, macaroni and cheese, smothered cabbage and baby carrots.

And then will come the desserts: sweet potato pie, seven-flavor poundcake, strawberry shortcake, gingerbread with whipped cream and peach kugen pie. The latter, also known as peach kuchen, is a German recipe (a coffecake-type confection) that her grandparents served at the tearoom they once owned in Asbury Park, N.J.

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

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 provided pointers on various de rigueur side dishes, the Walkers are among many families who have made their own traditions.

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 the Native Americans could scrounge up, 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 says 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 this Thanksgiving is one way of unifying Americans in this time of national crisis and potential war, Frese explained. 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, celebrating 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. That's exactly what people throughout the Washington area are still doing.

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, 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 then 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).

Green adds a mountain of side dishes and desserts that include banana pudding, bread pudding, poundcake and sweet potato pies. And 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 the 15 family members who will gather 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.

For Bev Ringel of Northwest Washington, a single family recipe evokes Thanksgiving memories: chestnuts and red cabbage. She is uncertain of the recipe's origins but assumes it came from her father's Alsatian family.

Her father, a butcher who operated a shop selling game and fine meats in Manhattan's old Washington Market, loved chestnuts and the smell of them roasting that filled the brisk fall air, Ringel said.

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 Yarns and Twine store near Connecticut and Nebraska avenues NW. The hardest part of the recipe is peeling the chestnuts. But Ringel doesn't mind. "It's my Thanksgiving."

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 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, is no longer able to cook, so her children now prepare the salad.

Richard Calvert, who traces his family's presence in Washington 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, now of 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 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," Jordan said. "It goes better with ham than mashed potatoes, and mashed potatoes go better with turkey." Of course, both ham and turkey will be on her table today.

She has no idea where her mother learned to prepare the dumpling dish, but Jordan 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.)

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

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

Anderson said his mother is no longer able to cook, and 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.

Crawfish pie will be the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal when the Branley family gathers around the table in Fairfax County this afternoon. Well, actually, crawfish pie and Uncle Charlie. And therein lies a story.

Lori Branley explained that 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 is 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.

There are also traditional foods that include dressing gravy, mashed potatoes, lima beans, cranberry sauce and pecan and pumpkin pies. And 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.

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 even born.

The cake remained nameless until the mid '60s. That's 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 to New Orleans for Thanksgiving, Charles Branley lived in New Jersey (and still does) and couldn't attend.

So that he, too, would be represented at the holiday celebrations, the gingerbread cake man became "Uncle Charlie." (And that's all Dan knew of the man until he finally met Uncle Charlie in 1989. His sister didn't meet him for another decade.)

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

Montgomery's Muriel Walker makes peach kugen pie in a bow to her grandparents.