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Thanksgiving menu: Classic Americana

These more-than-classic Thanksgiving recipes are steeped in Americana, many with ties to the White House. 

More Thanksgiving menus: Make ahead | Last minute | Simple | With a twist | Cooking for two | Vegetarian | Vegan | Calorie conscious | WaPo Favorites

Oysters Biltmore

This recipe takes the bechamel component of a la poulette oysters and adds country ham from Virginia. The sauce is broiled on top of half-shell oysters and becomes nicely browned and gooey with cheese. The dish is quite rich, so 3 suffice as an appetizer.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 large scallion, green and white parts, finely chopped (3 tablespoons)
  • 2 ounces country ham, finely chopped (1/3 cup)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
  • 1 1/2 ounces Swiss cheese, finely grated (1/2 cup)
  • 18 meaty East Coast oysters with a deep cup, such as Bluepoints

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Once it’s foamy, whisk in the flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, then add the milk slowly, whisking to make sure no lumps form. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, to form a thick white sauce. Remove from the heat and cool completely. Stir in the scallion, ham, Tabasco sauce and cheese.

Position an oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler.

Spread a good amount of kosher salt on a baking sheet — enough to form a terrain for seating the oysters securely. This will anchor the oysters to keep them level so none of the liquor spills out.

Scrub the oysters under cool running water to get rid of any silt and sand on their shells. Shuck the oysters on a dish towel, cup side down, taking care to keep the liquor from spilling. Make sure you’ve swept the oyster knife under the oyster to free it from the bottom shell. Place each opened oyster on the salt so it is level, anchoring it securely. Spoon a tablespoon of sauce over each oyster. Broil the oysters for 3 minutes, until the edges of the oysters curl and the sauce is browned and bubbling.

Serve warm.

Grover Cleveland Parsnip Fritters

These fritters were on the White House Thanksgiving menu during Grover Cleveland’s first term, 1885-1889. The recipe description written in 1887 says these fritters “resemble very nearly the taste of the salsify or oyster plant, and will generally be preferred.” We’ve added nutmeg for a bit of extra flavor.

  • 16 ounces parsnips, peeled, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths, thick rounds cut in half lengthwise
  • Salt
  • 2 teaspoons flour
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • A couple pinches of freshly grated nutmeg (see headnote)
  • 2 tablespoons lard, turkey fat (from pan drippings) or unsalted butter , or more as needed

Place the parsnips in a medium saucepan with salted water to cover, bring to a boil and cook until the parsnips are tender, about 8 minutes. Drain in a colander.

Transfer the parsnips to a large mixing bowl. Use a fork or potato masher to press the parsnips into a coarse mash, discarding any sections that are tough and woody. The yield is about 2 cups.

Stir in the flour, egg, salt to taste and the nutmeg, if using, and stir to combine well.

Line a large plate with several layers of paper towels.

Heat the lard, turkey fat or butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the parsnip mixture 1 spoonful at a time, pressing down on it to form a round patty about 2 inches in diameter. Work in batches so as not to crowd the skillet. Cook until the patties are golden brown, about 2 minutes, then turn them over and cook until golden brown on the second side, about 2 minutes.

Transfer the cooked fritters to the paper towels to drain. Repeat to fry all of the batter, adding fat as needed. Serve the fritters warm.

Indian Corn Bread

At Thanksgiving, Smithsburg, Md., farmer Sally Waltz bakes this corn bread in a round redware casserole dish. Baking it in a pan with a center tube allows for even doneness throughout.

  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups whole or low-fat buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 cups yellow cornmeal

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use nonstick cooking oil spray to liberally grease the inside of a tube pan or medium Dutch oven. Place the tube pan or Dutch oven in the oven to heat up.

Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl, then add the buttermilk, sugar and baking soda. Stir in the flour and cornmeal to form a smooth batter.

Pour into the heated pan or Dutch oven; if you’re using the latter, cover with its lid. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the corn bread is lightly golden brown on top and cooked through.

Let cool for 10 minutes before cutting into wedges. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Cranberries Cooked in Honey

According to some accounts, cranberries were eaten raw at the original Thanksgiving feast, which inspired Patowmack Farm chef Tarver King to create a glistening sauce in which some of the berries remain whole when cooked.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 large sweet onion, cut into small dice
  • 12 ounces fresh cranberries
  • 1/4 cup whiskey
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 quart unsweetened apple cider
  • Finely grated zest of 2 oranges

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Once it’s foamy, add the onion; cook for about 8 minutes, stirring a few times, until softened but not colored.

Stir in the cranberries and whiskey; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring a few times, until the alcohol has mostly evaporated. Add the honey, cider and orange zest; cook uncovered for about 30 minutes, stirring as needed. The sauce will be quite liquid but will thicken as it cools. Not all of the cranberries will have popped. (For a firmer set, cook the cranberry sauce for up to 1 hour, then cool.)

Transfer to a container; cool, cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Rich, Velvety Potato Puree

A whole lot of work is involved in the making of chef-restaurateur Joal Robuchon’s famous — and infamous — potato puree. It demands concentration, hard work and not least a shocking amount of butter. But when you know the basic principles involved, it is up to you to decide how much to invest.

  • 1 pound small, starchy (unpeeled) potatoes, such as Yukon Gold fingerlings
  • Salt
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 8 to 24 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small dice

Rinse and brush the potatoes thoroughly; cut each one into 2 or 4 pieces.

Bring 1 quart of water to a boil over high heat; add a tablespoon of salt.

Add the potatoes; once the water returns to a boil, cook them for 15 to 20 minutes, until tender and soft. (Check for doneness with a fork.)

Drain the potatoes in a colander, allowing them to sit for a few minutes. While the potatoes are still hot, press them through a fine-mesh potato ricer into a large saucepan. If you don’t have a ricer, you can press the potatoes through a metal sieve using the back of a spoon. Discard any skin that will gather in the ricer or the sieve. Process the potatoes two or three more times through the ricer or sieve; this will ensure a fine texture and is the best way to puree the potatoes without their becoming gluey. It will be significantly easier the second and third time.

Bring the milk to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.

Place the saucepan with the pureed potatoes over low heat. Once it has heated up, use a large whisk to stir in the milk, using slow movements. Whisk in the butter to taste a little at a time, making sure it is completely incorporated before the next addition.

For an even finer, lighter texture, pass the potato puree through a metal sieve or a ricer just before serving.

Annelie’s Cinnamon-y Sweet Potatoes

This side dish is almost sweet enough to be dessert.

SERVINGS: 8 – 10
  • 6 medium sweet potatoes (a scant 4 pounds)
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch salt
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon or mace
  • 10 to 14 ounces large marshmallows

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Clean, but do not peel, the sweet potatoes. Pierce them, then place on the baking sheet. Roast for about 40 minutes, until the potatoes are soft. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and place in a mixing bowl; mash slightly. (At this point, the sweet potato mash can be covered and refrigerated until ready to bake.)

Let it sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes before adding the remaining ingredients.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish with nonstick cooking oil spray.

Add the cream to taste, vanilla extract, salt, brown sugar and cinnamon or mace, stirring just until well combined. Transfer to the casserole dish, then place the marshmallows on top of the sweet potato mixture, covering as much of the surface as possible.

Bake for 30 minutes or until the marshmallows are slightly melted and golden brown on top.

Laura Bush’s Green Beans With Anchovy Butter

People who don’t think they like anchovies might not even realize the little fish are in there — but they’ll pick up on the rich, salty taste they can’t quite put their finger on.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 or 4 anchovy fillets, rinsed, well-drained and finely chopped
  • 2 pounds green beans, trimmed
  • 1 cup crisped quinoa, for garnish (see NOTE)

Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the anchovies (to taste) and cook, stirring, until the anchovies fall apart and the mixture turns into a smooth paste, about 4 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat.

Have ready a large bowl of ice water.

Bring an inch of water to a boil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Set a steamer basket in the pot, add the beans, cover the pot and steam for 7 to 10 minutes or until the beans are just tender. (Depending on the size of your pot, you might have to do this in two batches.) Immediately transfer the beans to the ice water to cool rapidly. At this point, if desired, you can pat the beans dry, wrap them in paper towels, then place them in plastic bags and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to cook, return the beans to the large pot over low heat. (If they have been refrigerated, let them sit at room temperature for a half-hour or so.) Add the anchovy butter and use tongs to toss the beans for 1 to 2 minutes or until the beans are warmed and evenly coated in the butter. Transfer to a warmed serving dish and serve right away, with fried quinoa passed on the side, if desired.

NOTE: To make crisped quinoa, combine 1 cup of cooked, cooled quinoa with 2 tablespoons of canola oil in a bowl and use your fingers to rub the oil onto the quinoa, breaking up any clumps. Spread the quinoa on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and bake in a 300-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and watching to make sure the quinoa does not burn. Drain on paper towels and use more towels to blot off some of the oil. Serve at room temperature.

White House Thyme-Roasted Turkey

White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford puts the thyme in the brine rather than on the bird because, she says, the leaves would burn in the oven during roasting.



  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 bunch thyme
  • 4 whole heads garlic, cut in half horizontally
  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 1 pound light brown sugar
  • Ice


  • 20-pound fresh turkey, neck and giblets removed, rinsed
  • 16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks), at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 3 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

For the brine: Heat the water, thyme, garlic, peppercorns, bay leaves, salt and brown sugar in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the salt and sugar dissolve. Transfer to a clean 5-gallon bucket. Add enough ice to total 3 gallons of liquid, and mix until incorporated. Add the turkey to the bucket and transfer to the refrigerator for at least 12 hours. (Alternatively, place the turkey in a large brining bag and fill with enough of the brine to cover the turkey; seal the bag and refrigerate. Or place the bird and brine in a cooler, cover and add ice bags periodically to keep the temperature of the brine below 40 degrees.)

For the turkey: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Have ready a large roasting pan with a rack.

Remove the turkey from the brining liquid and use paper towels to pat it as dry as possible, inside and out. Rub the turkey with the butter all over, including the cavity, and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Fold the wingtips underneath the turkey.

Place the turkey in the roasting pan, breast side up. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine and fold the neck flap under.

Roast the turkey for 1 hour to brown it, then reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and cook for 90 minutes to 2 hours or until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees.

Let the turkey rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before carving. Use the pan drippings for gravy, if desired.

Mincemeat Pie

Venison is believed to have been the first meat used in a mincemeat filling. Because the meat was so lean, beef suet was ground along with the cooked, cooled venison to keep the meat from becoming too dry when baked in the pie, but a well-marbled boneless chuck roast works well instead.

SERVINGS: 12 – 16


  • 2 1/2 to 3 pounds well-marbled boneless chuck roast, roasted, cooled and ground (about 6 1/2 cups; may substitute 3 pounds beef necks, cooked, cooled, deboned and ground (see headnote)
  • Kosher salt (optional)
  • Freshly ground black pepper (optional)
  • 4 ounces beef suet (optional; see headnote)
  • About 2 cups raisins
  • 1 1/2 to 2 pounds apples, preferably Golden Delicious, peeled, cored and shredded using a box grater or food processor (about 4 cups)
  • 1 to 2 cups packed light or dark brown sugar, amount depending on the sweetness of the apples and cider
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cups fresh apple cider
  • 1 generous cup whiskey


  • 4 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/3 cups pure lard
  • 8 tablespoons ice water

For the filling: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Season the meat lightly with salt and pepper, if desired, then place it on a rack inside a roasting pan. Roast for about 2 hours, then cut into large chunks and place in a heatproof bowl. Cover loosely, and refrigerate until it is no longer warm. Discard any pan juices.

Working in batches, mince the meat in a food processor with some of the suet, if desired, to yield about 6 1/2 cups, transferring it to a very large mixing bowl as you work. If the mixture seems too soupy, drain off some of the liquid. You want just enough liquid to keep the filling moist in the pie.

Place the raisins in a large saucepan. Cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook for 10 minutes, then drain and add to the minced meat. Add the shredded apple, 1 cup of the brown sugar, the cinnamon, cloves, salt, apple cider and whiskey. Stir to mix well; taste, and add some or all of the remaining brown sugar, as needed. Let the mixture sit for 20 to 30 minutes at room temperature before using; during that time, the filling will thicken. The yield is about 4 quarts.

(At this point, cover and refrigerate half of the filling for the 2 pies, reserving the rest for another use.)

For the crusts: Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Add the lard. Use two forks or a pastry cutter to work the lard into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Gradually add the ice water, mixing with a fork to form a fairly firm dough. Divide into four equal portions.

Roll each portion of dough between two sheets of plastic wrap to a thickness of 1/4 to 1/2 inch and a diameter of 11 inches. (If you do this on flexible cutting boards, it’s easy to transfer to the refrigerator.) Chill for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 day.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Have two 9-inch pie plates or pans at hand.

Discard the top plastic wrap of two of the rolled-out pie dough rounds. Carefully invert each one on the pie plates or pans; discard the remaining plastic wrap. Gently press the dough in to form bottom crusts, trimming the edges of the dough as needed, leaving about a 1/2-inch overhang.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer 1 quart of filling into each pie shell, spreading it evenly and being careful not to transfer too much liquid. (The filling should look wet, but there should not be small pools of liquid.)

Discard the top plastic wrap from the two remaining pie dough rounds. Carefully invert each one so it completely covers the filling. Discard the remaining plastic wrap. Trim, press and crimp the edges to complete the two pies. Use a fork or sharp knife to create enough small holes in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Transfer to the middle oven rack; bake for 10 minutes (to help set the crust). then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for 45 minutes or until the crust edges are light golden brown.

Transfer the pies to a wire rack to cool at least 30 minutes before serving.

Mamie Eisenhower’s Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

The filling is light on the tongue, with pleasant and balanced spices. Although a regular pie crust works fine, we recommend a shortbread or gingersnap crust for this pie.

SERVINGS: 8 – 12
  • 3 large eggs, separated into yolks and whites (see NOTE)
  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups canned pure pumpkin puree
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup cold water
  • 1 envelope (1 tablespoon) unflavored gelatin
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • One 9-inch baked pie shell

Bring an inch of water to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low so the water is barely bubbling.

Beat the egg yolks in a medium mixing bowl that fits into the saucepan to form a double boiler. Add the brown sugar, pumpkin, milk, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg, stirring to thoroughly combine. Place the bowl over the hot water and cook until the mixture has thickened, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes.

Place the cold water in a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin on top and allow to soak for 5 minutes. Add to the pumpkin mixture and stir to thoroughly incorporate. Transfer the bowl to the refrigerator to chill until the mixture is partially set: A spoonful of the mixture dropped onto a plate will just hold its shape.

To assemble the pie, beat the egg whites in the clean bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer on low, then high speed until they form soft peaks. Add the granulated sugar and beat on high speed to form stiff peaks.

Fold the whites into the pumpkin mixture, combining them gently until there are no streaks of white. Pour the mixture into the pie shell and chill until set.

NOTE: Because the eggs remain raw, use pasteurized eggs if you have food-safety concerns.