A turkey smoking at The War Mouth

A turkey smoking at The War Mouth

When it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, every family has its own little quirks. 

For starters, there’s the question of stuffing or dressing — and the even more essential discussion for what you put in it: Bread? Cornbread? Whatever the preference, the opinions are strong.

And there’s the never-ending argument over green bean casseroles, whether fresh or canned. Or perhaps most importantly, the debate over what pie(s) should be at the table — or what even is a pie: It’s Thanksgiving, don’t kick out that contrarian who insists pecan pie is actually a tart.

It’s these myriad variations — and the memories and traditions they reflect — that make the holiday so beloved.

In this spirit, Free Times reached out to local chefs to explore Thanksgiving’s eccentricities through a Midlands lens, hopefully providing a few new ideas to spark this year’s holiday table. Each detailed a dish and the distinct way they choose to make it — complete with recipes and tips.

Whether it’s a classic (like Lizard Thicket’s mac and cheese) or a new tradition like the family recipe shared by F2T Productions’ Gabrielle Watson (for peas with warmed lettuce), they help shape the holiday for the people who make them — and the people who eat them.

Smoking the Perfect Turkey with The War Mouth’s Porter Barron and Rhett Elliott

The Thanksgiving turkey often gets short shrift. Most people gush about sides. The creamy mac and cheese. The rich casseroles. Sweet potato souffles and buttery mashes. The turkey gets tossed aside, relegated to background decoration or an afterthought until the day-after sandwich. 

But turkeys provide the foundation for a good Thanksgiving meal. A well-seasoned turkey’s drippings serves as the foundation of the ever-important dressing. It’s also the reference point that everything should work around.

Rhett Elliott and Porter Barron, owners of hyper-locally rooted Southern restaurant The War Mouth, agree. The team at the Cottontown favorite has been doing something a little different in recent years, eschewing the traditional oven-roasted turkey, instead smoking birds in its wood-fired barbecue pits.

“Since we’ve opened we’ve enjoyed smoking turkeys for people,” Barron says. “The first year was like a few and then 15 the next. Last year, word got out and we were doing more than we probably actually could handle.”

The big secret to their turkey is in the brine — or rather the lack of it.

“The purpose of a brine is to keep it juicy,” Elliott explains. “With a brine to me though, you run the risk of it tasting too much like a ham. We just salt it the day before to let it set in. A dry brine really lets it get in there and flavor the meat. We use our barbecue rub and salt for flavor and just let it hang out overnight.”

Though they opt to drop the brine, they do encourage home cooks who only have access to an oven to consider the brine to pack as much flavor as possible into the meat. Smoking the turkey, however, adds lots of flavor all on its own. 

“There’s not much to it,” Barron says. “Wood, fire and patience. It’s not precision cooking, but just like we do our pigs, low and slow and smoky.”

“I think a brine in a home fridge is a whole thing,” Elliott posits. “The most important thing is to just not overcook it. I would suggest using a digital thermometer. Don’t let it hit 165 degrees. 165 degrees is when it is done, but 150 degrees, 155 degrees is going to carry over. You just want to make sure it’s not overcooked. Nine times out of 10 if turkey sucks it is because it’s overcooked. It doesn’t have a lot of fat, so there’s not a lot of wiggle room between perfect and not perfect.”

Tofu turkeys, Thanksgiving Sandwiches and a Crisp Salad with F2T’s Gabrielle Watson and City Roots’ Katie McKinney

Though not vegetarians, F2T Production’s catering chef Gabrielle Watson and City Roots farm’s Katie McKinney know a thing or two about the subject, having spent years together behind the deli counter of Rosewood Market.

Gabrielle Watson’s English peas and lettuce

Gabrielle Watson’s English peas and lettuce

“You get your tofu, roll it into kind of a log,” McKinney says, describing the process of putting together a tofu turkey, a classic vegetarian delicacy. “You season it, the tofu, with nutritional yeast, tamari, arrowroot and a few other things to give it lots of flavor. You then put your clumps of dressing down and make it into its thing. The dressing would have carrots and onions, regular seasonings like sage and thyme, all that sort of thing along with a vegetable broth. It’s actually really good with tamari gravy.”

But for the McKinney and Watson families, Thanksgiving is often not about turkeys or tofu masterpieces. Rather, it’s the wealth of sides, from green bean casserole to roasted root vegetables to every form of dressing. 

It’s not just the meal that Watson herself specifically looks forward to, though. There’s also the classic day-after sandwich.

“You start with good sourdough,” says Watson when asked to describe her perfect next-day combination. “Then you have to have some of the stuffing, turkey, a little bit of cranberry and some potato chips for crunch. Then you heat up a side of gravy and you dip it. You do have to have your jus.”

Watson offers a unique family recipe with her English peas and lettuce, one that not only would do great next to that day-after sandwich, but would also offer a fresh addition to an otherwise heavy Thanksgiving table.

“You get the peas, they’re tender and bright green — and then you end up with iceberg lettuce in there, and it’s crunchy, and then there’s the lemon and oregano,” Watson describes. “It’s not retro, it’s just good.”

Recipe for Gabrielle Watson’s “English Peas and Lettuce — Because Remember, They Will Never Expect Hot Peas and Lettuce”

2 pounds English Peas fresh shelled or frozen
1 cup water for simmering
2 tablespoons butter
2 cup shredded iceberg lettuce
¼ cup chopped onion
Salt and pepper to taste
3-4 basil leaves chiffonade 
Half of a lemon
In a small pot without a lid, bring fresh peas to a simmer for 4-6 minutes, if using frozen (and it’s still relatively frozen) simmer for 8-12 minutes. Thawed frozen peas can be simmered 1-2 minutes. Stir a few times during cooking to distribute heat. The peas should still be crunchy and bright. While they are simmering, sauté chopped onion in butter until translucent. Use a lower heat — it should be done in the same time that peas are done. Stack basil leaves on top of each other, roll up and cut into slivers for chiffonade. Drain the peas and add the cooked onions, peas and shredded lettuce to the pan off the heat. It should still be warm but you are not cooking the lettuce, just heating it. Mix with salt and pepper to taste with fresh basil and half of a lemon squeezed over it. 

Family Traditions, Serving the City and a Classic Pile of Mac and Cheese with Sara Krisnow and Matthew Williams of Lizard’s Thicket

It’s hard to process the sheer volume of food that comes out of Lizard Thicket’s many kitchens during the week of Thanksgiving. Sara Krisnow, the community relations manager at the Midlands-based meat-and-three chain, walks Free Times through the staggering numbers. Last year alone, more than 12,000 customers grabbed a meal at one of their many locations in the city, she reports. The week Free Times visits, the Airport location, the central area for all of Lizard’s Thicket’s catering services, is busy cranking out food for nearly 2,000 Thanksgiving-related events. 

Mac and cheese hanging out on the back of a plate at Lizard’s Thicket

Mac and cheese hanging out on the back of a plate at Lizard’s Thicket

“I already have people asking me on Facebook if they need reservations on Thanksgiving,” Krisnow says. “They know they are coming to Lizard’s Thicket to get that Thanksgiving meal.”

It’s not just Thanksgiving day that’s hectic. Much of the business comes in the days prior to the big holiday. A large percentage of the day before is spent preparing to-go orders. Beyond that, Lizard’s Thicket gets busy catering pre-Thanksgiving festivities at schools, businesses and beyond. 

“The day before Thanksgiving is sometimes even crazier,” offers Matt Williams, general manager of Lizard’s Thicket. “People are picking up before heading out of town and giving us all kinds of last-minute requests.”

Williams suggests that as crazy as Thanksgiving orders are, breakfast that morning can be just as hectic. The second doors start opening at 6 a.m., the restaurants see a steady flood of locals seeking a bright start to their day.

“A lot of people are off of work and it’s like a Saturday morning breakfast vibe just because they want to get out of the house,” he says. “Mom or dad or extended family is cooking and the rest of the family come to eat breakfast.”

Despite the November frenzy, the Williams family still makes time to get together. A large clan, big, communal potlucks are commonplace. 

Lizard's Thicket mac and cheese

Lizard's Thicket mac and cheese

“If it’s not loud and chaos, it’s not really normal to me,” Krisnow says.

“Mashed potatoes and gravy,” Williams starts when asked what a typical Williams family table looks like. “Squash casserole. Sweet potato souffle. A root vegetable roast. Salad. Red jello, cream cheese congealed salads with pineapple tidbits. I’m a sucker for any congealed salads at this point.”

When asked to provide a recipe, the family decides to go with not only one of their favorites, but a popular dish that’s the foundation of their restaurant: mac and cheese.

“It’s one of our most popular sides,” Krisnow says. “We feel like we do a good job at it. It’s a traditional baked mac and cheese that everyone enjoys. Here, we scaled it down for home cooks to try out.”

Recipe for Lizard Thicket’s Mac and Cheese

Serving Size: 8-10 

3 cups uncooked elbow macaroni
2 eggs
2 cups whole milk
3 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
White pepper
2 tablespoons butter
Boil noodles in 2 quarts of salted water (one tablespoon of salt). Rinse noodles in colander under cold water and drain.
In large mixing bowl, add milk, salt and white pepper to taste. Add two beaten eggs.
Butter 9” by 13” baking dish with soft butter to prevent sticking.
Add cooked noodles along with two cups sharp cheddar cheese, remaining butter and milk/egg wash. Stir mixture, cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
Remove and stir well and cover with remaining cheese. Place back in oven until cheese melts and reaches desired color.

The Creamiest Creamless Butternut Squash Soup with Baan Sawan’s Alex Suaudom du Monde

Growing up in Iowa, I craved Thanksgiving day. It was the one time of year when we dove head-first into commercial culture. Instant mashed potatoes. Stove-top stuffing. Pumpkin pie. It was a full-on explosion of things I absolutely loved and never got any other time of year. The Creamiest Creamless Butternut Squash Soup with Baan Sawan’s Alex Suaudom du Monde

Moving to the South was a big culture shock to my Thanksgiving, with the huge number of different casseroles and other desserts. As I got older, we steadily incorporated some mixing of cultures, with things like fried rice and egg rolls occasionally coming into play. There were some years we abandoned Thanksgiving food altogether and just ate a lot of Vietnamese food. 

Alex Suaudom du Monde’s Roasted Butternut Squash Bisque

Alex Suaudom du Monde’s Roasted Butternut Squash Bisque

Alex Suaudom du Monde, chef at Baan Sawan Thai Bistro in Five Points, has a similar story.

“We would have turkeys when my brother and I did the work to do it,” Suaudom du Monde recalls. “My parents would do something more like a Thai feast. We would have sticky rice, thai omelette, char siu, Thai soup and stews, Chinese sausage.”

Since becoming a chef and getting married, Thanksgiving has become more of a communal event for Suaudom du Monde and his family, who often share the holiday with friends and relatives. 

In search of a few go-to staples, Suaudom du Monde latched onto squash, trying to find a way to create a dish that blended something typically Thanksgiving with a little bit of his own Thai background. The inspiration for the recipe he provided came from an unlikely source: the BBC version of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen.

“He did a side-by-side [with a cook] who was overthinking it with their broccoli soup,” Suaudom du Monde explains. “The cook had kept putting more and more stuff, like cream, into it, and making things worse. What Ramsey did was cook up broccoli and blended it up really simply with water and salt. It was all technique, and proper ratio of water and soup. I took that to heart. When you have something seasonal like butternut soup, I was thinking of less being more.”

What Suaudom du Monde came up with was a very humble recipe for roasted squash soup. It’s thick and rich despite not having any real cream in it. Garlic helps provide lots of body to the squash. Once the soup is ready, Suaudom du Monde says this is where creativity can come into play. 

“Since I had curry bases available, I would make a curry sauce and drizzle it with that. I would want a bite of raw green onions to mix with the smooth round taste of soup and a little coconut milk as opposed to a cream. Cream in general could be great here, too, though.”

Recipe for Alex Suaudom du Monde’s Roasted Butternut Squash Bisque

Serves about 6 

2 medium-sized butternut squash (about 3.5-4 pounds). (An equal amount of pumpkin could also be used with excellent results.) 
2 ounces garlic cloves (about 6 or 7 cloves), minced. 
2 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil like canola or soy 
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 
7 cups of a rich stock 
6 tablespoons coconut milk or heavy cream, for garnish 
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions or chives, for garnish 
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut each squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Cut halves into about six uniform pieces. Toss in a bowl with oil, salt and pepper until evenly coated. They should be pleasantly salty, like a nice french fry. Place pieces cut side down on a foil lined baking sheet and roast approximately one hour or until a fork inserts cleanly and easily. The cut side should be a rich golden brown. 
You can use a smoker to cook the squash — a smoked butternut squash or pumpkin bisque is pretty decadent.
Cool squash enough to handle, then peel or cut off skin. Add the pieces to a pot with the garlic and six cups of the stock (or enough to submerge the squash). Bring to a simmer. Simmer for about a half-hour, stirring occasionally. This is for the garlic to infuse and the squash to absorb the stock. Remove from heat and use an immersion blender to blend until the texture is smooth and velvety, which makes a bisque a bisque. Adjust for salt, blending in some of the reserved stock if too thick, then serve. 
The soup might thicken if made ahead and stored overnight. This is normal and is an effect of the squash continuing to absorb liquid. Just blend in a bit of stock while reheating. When garnishing, drizzle a thick cream, like coconut milk or heavy cream. Scatter with finely chopped green onions or chives, then dust with a few twists of freshly ground black pepper. 
The garnish is an area where anything goes: seasoned toasted pumpkin seeds, crushed pub mix, etc. Suaudom du Monde has used drizzles of curry sauce and even the salted nut packets you get with salads from Wendy’s. 

 Kugels & Collards — and Corn Pie — with Rachel Barnett

If one were to list Columbia’s most interesting food projects, Kugels & Collards would have to be near the top. Run by Rachel Barnett and Lyssa Harvey, the food blog explores the city’s Jewish history and the community’s relationship with South culture. 

For Barnett, her Thanksgiving experience with her family exemplified this intersection.

Rachel Barnett’s corn pie

Rachel Barnett’s corn pie

“The Thanksgiving meal was a wonderful combination of traditional Thanksgiving dishes combined with several Jewish contributions —the omnipresent kugel and brisket for instance,” Barnett tells Free Times. “Everyone was assigned a dish and over the years that became their traditional annual contribution for Thanksgiving.”

Meals for Barnett were often communal potluck affairs with her large extended family. Whether it was squash casserole or dressing or kugel, every part of the family brought an essential dish to bring to the table. 

“My contribution was a corn pie, or corn pudding,” Barnett says. “My earliest memory of this delicious dish came from Ethel Glover, who cooked for my family when I was a child. Ethel was a wonderful cook and her recipes weren’t written down but came from taste and memory. Corn pudding is a rich dish that incorporates eggs and milk into corn to make a ‘pudding.’ I searched for years for a recipe that would taste like the one from my childhood. I finally found one in an old Southern Living cookbook, and with tweaks, it is almost — but not quite — as good as Ethel’s. 

“Food evokes memories and I can see, smell and almost taste the corn pudding of my youth.” 

Recipe for Rachel Barnett’s Corn Pie

4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
1 ½ tablespoon sugar
1 cup milk 
3 cans cream style corn (17 ounces)
¾ teaspoon salt
4 eggs
Melt butter in saucepan. Add flour. Stir well to make a roux. Add sugar and salt. Stir constantly for 1 minute until smooth. Slowly add milk, stirring until thick. Add corn to the mixture. Crack and beat eggs in a separate bowl. Slowly add eggs to corn mixture. Pour into a greased 9” by 12” baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for an hour. Begin checking every five minutes until the top is lightly browned and bubbling evenly through.

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