Webb Report: 15 Thanksgiving side dishes, definitively ranked

Nov 17, 2017
Clockwise from the turkey with gravy: Cheesy potato casserole topped with cornflakes, stuffing, broccoli cheese casserole, pureed yams, a roll and roasted Brussels sprouts in the center. (Tamir Kalifa for American-Statesman)

Did you think that Thanksgiving Day was a time to come together with your family? To express gratitude for the love and fortune with which you’ve been blessed in this life? You’ve been had! Thanksgiving is about the thrill of battle.

Some might find November’s signature holiday is a fraught political minefield, where parents and siblings and cousins are separated by both ideology and a tasteful foliage-themed tablecloth. Others might take the opportunity to let pie and wine ferry them to a clearinghouse of long-unmentioned family grudges. (Especially about Aunt Barb.)

All that sounds terribly unpleasant, though. No, in the spirit of the thunderdome that is Thanksgiving, we are instead gathered here to rank the staple side dishes of the turkey day menu. A few words about criteria: Pies are considered desserts for this list, and turkey is, of course, not a side dish. I selected the candidates by browsing the seasonal recipe sections of several popular cooking websites, as well as by drawing from my own family Thanksgiving traditions. If you think an important dish was excluded, get your own column where they let you rank food for some reason.

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Gobble gobble. Let’s rumble.

15. Green bean casserole: In the year of our Lord 2017, we can send human beings to space (allegedly) and cure myopia with lasers. For some reason, we can’t make a cream of mushroom soup that doesn’t look like a sea slug sliding out of a cave. Who are you people who love green bean casserole so much? Do you show up the other 364 days a year to gush about the garden variety of those French-cut Gumby clones? Have you stared into a can of fried onions and seen the failure of the Founding Fathers’ vision stare back? Do you not think that a side dish created by Campbell’s in 1955 to make use of the gray fungus gelatin in people’s pantries deserves a little retrospective critical assessment? This monstrosity should never have made it out of the baby boom, and you know it.

14. Dressing: Or stuffing, whatever you want to call it. Let’s get one thing straight: It’s weird to stuff wet bread up a dead bird and call it a side dish. Oh, you mean you made it from a box instead? Apologies. Enjoy your soggy crouton sludge, then.

13. Brussels sprouts: These cute lil’ cabbages are featured on many a Thanksgiving menu. (Not at my house growing up, though.) Brussels sprouts are having a culinary moment these days, and thank goodness. They’re great! But when it comes to autumnal flavors, they’re the odd man out.

12. Roasted vegetables: Ah, the fall harvest! We know that the American colonists’ first Thanksgiving meal looked a lot different than the current-day version — goodbye turkey, hello venison and shellfish! — but a few eternal foods have stood the test of time. Squash and carrots, for example. If your dinner host values at least the illusion of health, you might encounter these veggies on the table with minimal gussying-up. Thanksgiving, however, is a time for particulate edible matter suspended in creamy sauces, not rustic produce.

11. Cranberry sauce (whole berry): Aromatic and gorgeous, like a plug-in wall candle made from a bowl of fruit. If homemade, inedible. If served from a can, forever the second-best cranberry option available (see No. 2).

10. Broccoli casserole: What makes this Pyrex-housed concoction more favorable than the mushroom soup-centric disaster at the bottom of this list? Velveeta, baby. Grade-A processed cheese-food. It’s the reason for the season.

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9. Candied yams: “Potatoes, but dessert” is a pretty genius branding strategy. Second only to …

8. Sweet potato casserole: “Mashed potatoes, but dessert.” Great moments in nerve through history: 1) Björk’s swan dress; 2) covering a root vegetable with melted marshmallows and telling people it’s a side dish. A little misunderstood? Flashy but unapologetic? Comes from humble beginnings and makes itself something much more? Sweet potato casserole is a gay icon.

7. Fruit salad: This is the point in the ranking when you cancel your subscription. I will argue that, in a world of gravy, potatoes and tryptophan, a lighter touch of ambrosia on a Thanksgiving plate is essential.

6. Corn bread: The only way cornbread could be a more quintessentially Texan Thanksgiving side dish is if it began a secessionist movement from the rest of the table.

5. Jell-O salad: A large box of Jell-O mix. An 8-ounce tub of Cool Whip. A package of cottage cheese. A can of crushed pineapple or mandarin oranges, depending on your Jell-O flavor. Put in a large bowl, sprinkle the Jell-O on top of the cottage cheese. Add the fruit (drained). Fold it all up in Cool Whip. Leave it in the fridge overnight. Take a bite. I accept thank-you letters, kind emails and encouraging Twitter GIFs.

4. Mashed potatoes: Forget Thanksgiving. Mashed potatoes are the perfect side dish, and you know it. They go with almost any main course. They’re Switzerland, they’re Type O blood, they’re Meryl Streep. They’re the platonic ideal of a comfort food, and what says “the holidays” better than comfort food?

3. Biscuits: I would like to take back what I said about cornbread and instead apply it here. (Non-Texan readers: Insert dinner rolls here.)

2. Cranberry sauce (jellied): This isn’t a relish, baby. This is modern art. This is a sculpture that critiques industrial society. This is a metaphor connecting the hardscrabble beginnings of this country to its consumerist present. This is a round crimson jewel, a gleaming accent to a spread of nondescript rectangles in neutral tones. This is a cylinder made of berries so tart that they have to be turned into a quivering sugar-solid that retains the shape of its packaging in order to be palatable. God bless the U.S.A.

1. Cheesy potatoes: Au gratin, I love you. Scalloped, you’re my moon and my sun. Hashbrown casserole, call me by your name. No matter what form cheese and potatoes take on the Thanksgiving spread, they are the stars of the show. Seconds, please.

Well at least he’s got enough tables

In recent months, famous Houston furniture salesman Jim McIngvale, known more commonly as “Mattress Mack,” has gained attention for his charitable acts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. But the good deeds don’t stop there.

According to the Gallery Furniture website, Mattress Mack is inviting the public to an oversized Thanksgiving feast. The meal will be served on Thanksgiving Day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Set to be served during the event: an impressive 2,450 pounds of turkey, 2,450 pounds of ham, 625 pounds of sweet potatoes, 625 pounds of dressing, 1,200 pounds of mashed potatoes, 477 pounds of cranberry sauce, 900 pies and 6,000 dinner rolls.

— Amanda O’Donnell, American-Statesman Staff