Grilling Up Your Thanksgiving Dinner

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Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty
Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty

For 17 years, Sarah Josepha Hale wrote to presidents—five of them!— hoping to convince one that the New England harvest festival called Thanksgiving might be nationalized and made into an official holiday. In the meantime, she wrote a poem that was turned into famous nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

In her letter to Abraham Lincoln in September of 1863 she wrote: “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”

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Up to this point, each state scheduled a holiday of its own, if it recognized it at all. Although the first Thanksgiving in America had been held at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia in 1619—with apologies to elementary school teachers everywhere, it was a few years before Plymouth—the celebration had largely faded away in the South.

Hale had been ignored up to this point, but she hit the jackpot with Lincoln. He wrote back to her right away and went on to make a proclamation on October 3 that created the holiday, which was drafted by his Secretary of State William Seward.

The country rejoiced, Seward suggested, despite the tragedy of the war, because of “augmented strength and vigor” and perhaps felt most importantly the “large increase of freedom.” He asked that wounds be healed, and hoped that America would soon see a return to the “full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”

Thus began the tradition of Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays.

We eat simple, mostly unadorned food at Thanksgiving—cranberry “sauce” and gravy, but no complicated presentations—for the same reason we serve all the food at once, to accentuate the Americanness of the meal. The table is laden with vegetables that represent not just a bounty, but also the plenty that a harvest provides, and the freedom implied by such a bumper crop. To have enough is the foundation of liberty. Norman Rockwell’s famed picture is not called “Thanksgiving,” but rather “Freedom from Want.”

As we approach Thanksgiving this year, we are in the throes of the worst phase of the Covid-19 pandemic that we have experienced. Things are very bad, and not getting better. I would like to suggest that we think about the concept of freedom both as the freedom to do something, and as the freedom from something.

Addressing the latter first, I, for one, would like to be free from this plague. The easiest way to do that is to curtail travel, stay at home, and to put together alternative versions of this American celebration that might allow us to heal in an all too literal sense.

To look at this another way: We’ve got an out, why not take it?

This year, you are free to eat whatever you want — is 2020 the year of the Thanksgiving lobster roll? Why not? You don’t have to brave the roads, you don’t have to clog the airports, you don’t have to worry about arguing around the table because you have a very good reason to stay home.

Skipping the super-spreader turkey day festivities is the responsible, patriotic thing to do, and very much in line with the foundation of the holiday. A harvest festival isn’t just a party, after all, it means you made it through, you survived.

So how, though, do we take the standard holiday game plan and cheer it up? How do you make something festive without the fest?

To up the spirit of adventure, and make things seem more in line with the original Pilgrim menu, I’m thinking of cooking some of my Thanksgiving meal over fire outside.

I turned to celebrity chef and best-selling author Vivian Howard for some advice. She was quick to suggest that I look at the butter basted bird in her James Beard Award-winning Deep Run Roots cookbook and consider, in addition to seasoning it with the traditional rosemary and thyme, using a far more intriguing ingredient that fits with my outdoor theme: pine needles. “You can do some foraging around your yard, even,” she pointed out. She waxed rhapsodic about how the piney scents fill the air as the bird roasts. It works just as well with chicken as it does with turkey and just as well in an oven as it does on the Weber grill.

And if you’re going to rethink your traditional holiday feast, consider serving some of her Little Green Dress next to the cranberry sauce. The condiment plays a key role in her new book, This Will Make it Taste Good, and truly makes the mundane special and pairs perfectly with smoked, grilled and, even, deep fried turkey.

“Cranberry sauce is the only acid that Thanksgiving generally brings with it, but Little Green Dress can add a whole other dimension,” she said. It’s a beautiful condiment, and makes me think of chimichurri, Caesar dressing, green goddess and salsa verde all at once. Howard likes it on deviled eggs, on mashed potatoes, on prime rib and especially on poultry. (The recipe is below.) This time of year, she likes to make a big batch and jar up some for gifts. “It lasts more than a month and it speaks to staying at home, and saving money, and giving people things they can use,” she says. “One of the things I’ve learned in this pandemic, I don’t want anyone to give me any more junk.”

And if you want to take the whole party outside, remember that skillets and Dutch ovens are made to be used over direct flames.

Have plenty of wood on hand and make a real fire that will throw some heat, not just a sputtering smoky centerpiece. Let some good garlicky beans bubble in a Dutch oven on the edge. Wrap some potatoes in tin foil after rubbing them with olive oil and salt and tuck them into the coals. Make sure you’ve got seats by that fire—cushions to take off the chill—and maybe pick up a couple camp blankets. Bring out the good glasses, and pour some fine bourbon into a chunky crystal tumbler at the fireside. Part of the trick to pulling off an outdoor dinner in weather that doesn’t scream cookout is to make people feel comfortable—even if it’s just two of you.

But what about the pie, you ask? Of course. Here’s where things get really good. I’ve been experimenting with a pie iron I whimsically picked up at a hunting and fishing shop, and then proceeded to ignore for months. It’s basically a cast iron sandwich press on long handles, and it’s so much fun that I’m tempted to cook every bit of Thanksgiving in the pie iron—pressed stuffing layered with turkey and cranberry sauce; hand pies stuffed with sweet potato; sourdough bread filled with sautéed mushrooms drizzled with Howard’s Little Green Dress sauce.

How does it work? Line the iron with any pie crust (homemade or otherwise), crescent roll dough, or even slices of sandwich bread (which are transformed by the press and the heat into something more perfect and new), and drop a couple of dollops of filling into the middle. Clamp it shut, and cut off the extra, then hold the iron over the fire (or just put it on the burner of your stove) for about three minutes per side. These pies are not only tasty, they are individual, which is perfect for 2020. (In the U.K., electric “toastie” machines are very popular and you can find them here, too.)

To get ready for Thanksgiving, I recently sautéed some apples with sugar and nutmeg and cinnamon (you could get fancier, of course, with a squeeze of lemon and a smear of apricot jam) and dropped a couple tablespoons into the iron filled with pie dough. The crust was golden and flaky and toasted to sealed perfection: they were delicious. I do suggest a couple of dry runs—my sense of how much stuffing the pie iron could hold and how much of each ingredient to use improved dramatically after a couple of tries.

With any luck, next year we can all get together and, like the original celebrants who inspired the holiday, commemorate our survival. I’ll make extra hand pies to share.

Little Green Dress

By Vivian Howard


  • 2 medium Shallots, peeled

  • 2 Cloves garlic, peeled

  • 3 Tbsp Red wine vinegar

  • 2/3 cup Castelvetrano olives, pitted

  • 1.5 Tbsp Capers, rinsed

  • 2 Oil-packed anchovy filets

  • 1 bunch Fresh flat-leaf parsley (about 1 cup packed)

  • .5 oz Fresh mint (about half a cup packed)

  • .5 cup Extra-virgin olive oil

  • Zest of 1 lemon

  • .25 cup Fresh lemon juice

  • 1 tsp Hot sauce

  • .5 tsp Kosher salt


  1. In a small food processor, mince the shallots and the garlic, then stir them in a small bowl with the red wine vinegar. We want them to pickle a bit, so give them all some privacy for about 20 minutes before you add them to the rest of the ingredients.

  2. Meanwhile, mince the pitted olives, capers, and anchovies in the food processor. Transfer to a medium bowl. Pick the leaves and smaller stems from the parsley and the leaves from the mint and mince in the food processor; it may take a little while to get them all fully processed. Transfer the herbs to the bowl with the olive mixture.

  3. Add the vinegar-shallot-garlic mixture, olive oil, lemon zest and juice, hot sauce, and salt to the bowl with everything else. Stir it all together and let this vinegary puddle of green sit for a minimum of 30 minutes before you bathe in it. LGD will keep for a month in a sealed container in your fridge as long as all the green stuff is submerged in just a bit of olive oil.

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