Sharing a Soulful Thanksgiving

I didn't know what to expect when I invited a friend to join my family on Thanksgiving for a taste of that soul food delicacy…chitlins.

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Carving Turkey
Photo: Allrecipes

My family's Thanksgiving dinner tradition was a mix of traditional New England, contemporary American, and classic soul food. I loved this annual meal, but I didn't know what to expect when I invited a friend to join my family on this special day.

I don't know if it's because I was selfish or naïve in my youth, but I never invited people over to Thanksgiving dinner while growing up. I was blessed with such a wonderful family situation that I assumed others had the same. During my college years, I was too broke to make a quick round trip home for Thanksgiving from California to Colorado. That's when I discovered the "Friendsgiving" and the power of building community in new ways. After those experiences, I made it a point to check with my friends to make sure that they had a place to go for Thanksgiving.

For years afterwards, when I extended an invitation to share Thanksgiving at my family's home, many of my friends often responded, "Thanks, man, but I've got a place to celebrate." But, in 1998, just when I was on the verge of no longer asking, my friend Mark said: "That sounds great!" I was thrilled, and a little nervous. My man Mark is as cool as the other side of the pillow, but I didn't quite know how a white, Jewish dude from Ann Arbor, Michigan would react to a soulful Thanksgiving. Yet, if anyone could feel at home, it would definitely be him.

Turkey being carved on a large platter
Dotdash Meredith Food Studios

Recipe: A Simply Perfect Roast Turkey

Johnetta Miller, my late mother, ran the show, and, like many other head cooks, she always made way too much food. Of course, no one complained. Her annual Thanksgiving menu fused components of a traditional dinner with Southern and soul food classics, and a bit of the unexpected. In terms of pure tradition, the meal was anchored with roast turkey, a baked ham adorned with sliced pineapple and cherries, cranberry relish (I like the chunky kind using whole berries) green bean casserole, and mashed potatoes (this is great make-ahead recipe) with a dark brown gravy (that includes the giblets). In addition, we had soft, buttery dinner rolls. For years, my young niece, Leticia, would eat little else! No big culinary surprises thus far. Mark had eaten similar things at many previous Thanksgivings.

baked ham studded with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries
Vanessa Olvera

Recipe: Ham with Pineapple

She also placed other dishes on our groaning table which didn't neatly fit in the Thanksgiving tradition, but they were just things that she liked to make. This included rice pilaf, a seven layer salad, Waldorf salad (she added pineapple chunks), and Watergate salad (not something that I ever really liked). At this point, my friend Mark's taste buds were still doing just fine. In addition to soft drinks, my mom always made a good lime sherbet punch served from a crystal punch bowl.

Cornbread dressing on white plate with garnish

Recipe: Holiday Dressing

That was still the case when my mom stayed true to her Chattanooga, Tennessee roots and made an array of Southern side dishes. When it came to the essential pairing with roast turkey, she made dressing instead of stuffing. What's the difference? Stuffing is usually made with wheat bread and additional ingredients, placed in the cavity of the turkey, to cook as the turkey is roasted. Dressing often has the same ingredients as stuffing, but with cornbread as a substitute for the wheat bread (my mom used a mix of both), and it is cooked separately from the turkey.

sweet potato casserole in a red casserole dish
Tamara B

Recipe: Yummy Sweet Potato Casserole

Sweet potatoes are a mainstay for Thanksgiving traditionalists, but preparations vary. Some have candied sweet potatoes, the deep orange varieties are also known as "candied yams," where sweet potatoes are sliced or cut into large chunks and baked in a sweet sauce. My family went a different direction, and we always had a sweet potato casserole that verged on being dessert. I've heard of cooks who top their casserole filling with marshmallows, but it was a buttery, crushed pecan topping for us. Another side dish was a macaroni and cheese casserole, not the quick stuff made out of a box. The last soulful side dish we had was greens. In soul food culture, collard greens, kale, mustard greens and turnip greens are the most popular dark, leafy greens that are stewed, with either smoked pork or smoked turkey to provide flavor.

pot of chitterlings with peppers, onions, and celery
Monique Dionne Conard

Recipe: Creole Chitterlings (Chitlins)

Then came the real test for Mark, and many other human beings...chitterlings, also known as chitlins! For the uninitiated, chitlins are a generic term for intestines, but in soul food culture, we're talking about pig's intestines. Chitlins are a legacy of the hog-killing tradition that was an important part of life in the rural South from the time of the earliest colonies to the twentieth century, before large scale meat farming and processing met the needs of most consumers. In the plantation setting, slaveholders would wait until after the first frost, an indication that the weather had cooled.

As with most large tasks, the enslaved were forced to do the work of killing, butchering, and further processing the hogs. The belly (for bacon and salt pork), hams, and shoulders were the key parts preserved through pickling, salting, and smoking. The remaining cuts of meat were dispensed to the enslaved to enjoy however they wanted. Chitlins were part of this surplus, and it had to be eaten soon afterwards because it was extremely perishable. That circumstance gave rise to the idea that chitlins are the slaveholder's "garbage" or "leftovers." Yet, that is not entirely true. Lots of Southern whites ate chitlins; you'd be surprised how many still do. To the enslaved, and later to free African Americans, chitlins cemented its status as a celebration food and delicacy.

I know what you're thinking, and before I even floated the idea of a taste-test, I made sure that Mark didn't keep kosher. I was surprised that he was even game to try. In my family, our chiltins maker-in-chief is my brother Duran. Why? Because he takes the time to thoroughly clean the intestines and remove the excess fat. His diligence largely, but not completely, avoids the unholy smell that turns off so many to chitlins. He fulfills the old African American proverb, "Know who makes your chitlins." It's about trust, and attention to detail. I wasn't going to make Mark go "whole hog" on the chitlins, so I gave him a very small portion. I remember that Mark took his first taste of chitlins in stride, but I couldn't remember his exact reaction. I texted him as I was writing this article, and he reminisced in his text back to me: " Surprisingly tender. Taste, meh, smell not for me." Yeah, that sounded about right. I'm not sure how this got started, but we always serve our chitlins with coleslaw.

glass dish of lemon pie topped with whipped cream decoration

Recipe: Magic Lemon Pie

Sometimes the desserts were as plentiful as the other dishes that made up our gargantuan holiday meal, but the two I most remember are lemon icebox pie (called "magic lemon pie" in this recipe) and sweet potato pie. Lemon ice box pie is similar to a key lime pie except the custard filling is lemony, the crust is made of crushed vanilla wafer cookies glued together with butter, topped off with a silky meringue. Sweet potato pie remains a strong line of demarcation between Southern Thanksgiving celebrations, especially with African Americans, and those in other parts of the country where hosts end the meal with a pumpkin pie.

Overall, my good friend Mark had a great time, and he was fully satisfied. It was a helpful reminder that a soulful Thanksgiving is a tradition best shared.

More From Adrian Miller

About Adrian Miller

Adrian Miller is the author of the James Beard Award-winning book on the history of soul food, and a book on African American presidential chefs. His next book, on the history of African American barbecue, will be published in spring 2021.

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