Setting Thanksgiving Tables and Traditions

A peek at some of the heirloom dinner-party supplies on display at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum helps us relive holiday meals of the past and consider our family meal traditions.

by Liz Williams

Setting Thanksgiving Tables and Traditions - Photo by ProFlower/Flickr (

With Thanksgiving Day comes lots of shopping for food, cooking traditional dishes, and eating with friends and family. Preparing food together with family is one of the best ways to form deep bonds and to pass on family lore and customs. And even when we want to add new dishes and flavors to the Thanksgiving table, we cannot abandon the old traditional family favorites.

I remember a few nontraditional dishes on my family’s table that were contributed by my Nana, who moved to America from Sicily when she was 18 years old. We ate her wonderful lasagna and very special olive salad along with our turkey, cornbread and oyster dressing, pumpkin soup with sausage, and roasted sweet potatoes. Today, decades after she has left us, I still make her lasagna and her olive salad for Thanksgiving, and I still serve it in the same dishes that she used. The familiar look of the dishes, Nana’s dishes, is just as important as the preparation of the food itself.

Heirlooms at the Traditional Table

When we cook familiar dishes in family pots and pans, and serve it on tablecloths that have been passed down and in family heirloom serving ware, we not only touch the past but connect our children and other family members to it, as well. And as we serve those dishes each year, carrying on personal and family traditions, we carry our traditions and culture into the future.

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB) in New Orleans works to celebrate and capture the traditions of food around the world, including the utensils used to make and serve holiday feasts. These items have made appearances in households across the country over the years, and maybe you still use them today.

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Cast-Iron Cookware

One important tradition, particularly in the South, is the use of cast iron. SoFAB has many examples of this classic cookware. We have skillets, which make excellent devices for baking cornbread. Heating the pan before adding the cornbread batter helps form a signature crispy crust. Whether you’re serving freshly baked cornbread with your turkey or making cornbread dressing with day-old bread, it is part of a cultural tradition. Somehow everything tastes better when it has been cooked in a cast iron, even more so when that pot has been in the family for generations.


Was the tablecloth on your Thanksgiving table brought from another country as a part of a trousseau, or is it a newly bought cloth that reflects the décor of a house or simply family taste? Regardless, by using it you are reflecting something about your family. SoFAB has a collection of tablecloths and other linens, including aprons, dishtowels and potholders—all of which are fraught with tradition: dishtowels made from flour sacks or beautifully embroidered linens. And Thanksgiving dinner, as well as other holiday and special meals, is usually the time when these items shine.

Growing Portions

As much as tradition connects us to our ancestors, tradition also connects us to future generations. Family artifacts can also show us how things change over time. A really interesting progression is the increasing size of our plates, which also reflects the increasing size of our portions. Plates from the mid-20th century and earlier in were at least an inch smaller in diameter than the dinner plates we usually use today. By the 1970s our plates were growing, and that increase in size is also seen in our pots and pans. Find a mid-20th century muffin tin and you will find a modest-sized muffin or cupcake. But today muffin tins are much larger. So our current servings are larger.

And if you are serving cocktails and wine at your meal, you will find that wine and martini glasses are larger than they used to be. No wonder people in 1950 were able to have two-martini lunches! A modern martini glass is about twice as large as mid-20th century glasses were.

Start a New Tradition
So if traditions can change, we can make changes for our children and for generations to come. We can begin by introducing new dishes and recipes to the mix of foods we serve for Thanksgiving. We can present family artifacts in new way and use new utensils and plates.

SoFAB has a collection of thousands of menus. Most of them are from restaurants, but a few are from private events. One thing that I have begun doing at holiday meals is to give each diner a menu for the meal. An interesting menu is a wonderful memento of a special occasion. It is an opportunity to be fanciful in script and design. And it lends an importance to the meal. Menus lend an organization to a meal without an overt explanation. And they add specialness to the meal without being solemn.

What are your special family traditions? What kind of dishes to you use?

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