Test Kitchen Cast and Cooks Share Thanksgiving Traditions and Memories

From “Friendsgivings” in Cambridge to Thanksgivings in Italy, test kitchen employees cherish the holiday in their own special ways.

Published Nov. 18, 2016.

Everyone celebrates Thanksgiving in different ways. Some people serve pumpkin pie, while others prefer pecan. Some like turkey legs, while others prefer the white meat of the breast. (To the people who prefer the latter: come on!) We asked a few members of our test kitchen community to chime in on their Thanksgiving traditions and favorite holiday memories. Here's what they had to say. 

Jack Bishop: ATK TV Cast Member and Chief Creative Officer

Although I was an avid cook as a teenager and did much of the weeknight cooking for my family, Thanksgiving was always the purview of my mother or my grandmothers. My first crack at planning and preparing the most important meal of the year came during my junior year in college. I was studying abroad, as was my girlfriend Lauren. I was in Munich and she was in Florence. The food is much better in Italy (sorry Germany), so I took the overnight train so we could spend the holiday together. It would be the first time we were both away from home for Thanksgiving.

Celebrating a holiday when everyone around you is going about their daily life is a bit odd. Spending Christmas or Easter in a foreign country gives you a peek into how another culture celebrates the day. But Thanksgiving is an American institution. It doesn’t translate. Good luck finding cranberries in Italy.

Bishop in Italy in the spring of 1984 with his wife Lauren (right) and her sister Stacey.

We did secure the most important part of the meal—the tacchino. I recall it was a mighty skinny bird (Butterball wasn’t an option). We roasted the turkey in a very small oven and made a variety of sides—the particulars are long forgotten—that we shared with other American friends. It wasn’t my mother’s Thanksgiving. Nor was it the meal Lauren’s mother would have prepared. But it was the first Thanksgiving meal we prepared together.

In the years since, Lauren and I have planned and cooked more than 20 Thanksgiving dinners. It’s our daughters’ favorite holiday, in part because cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends are always around the house. Their mom’s pecan pie and dad’s mashed potato casserole are pretty memorable, too. I’m not ready for our daughters to celebrate Thanksgiving on their own—but the day will come. But not just yet.

Lauren Savoie: Senior Editor, Tastings and Testings

I don't think I've ever spent Thanksgiving Day in the same place two years in a row. I've done pretty much every iteration of Thanksgiving you can think of: eating out, dining in, traveling, staying home, a cozy dinner with just one other person, a massive gathering with my extended family, and even Thanksgiving in Disney World one lucky year. Every year the food is different, the setting is different, and the people are different. For me, the real tradition takes place about two weeks before the actual holiday, when I host a Friendsgiving at my house.

Savoie hard at work in the test kitchen.

My roommates and I have a passive agreement that the Christmas season officially starts on Friendsgiving morning. We play Christmas tunes (Cee Lo's “Magic Moment” is mandatory listening—don't ask), decorate the house, and cook all day. In the evening, we host an open house where all our friends stop by to eat and share food. There's always at least five types of stuffing and usually two types of turkey. It gives everyone a chance to come together and unwind before the hectic holiday season, and for me, it's a little slice of tradition I get to come back to each year.

Afton Cyrus: Test Cook, Books

I was fifteen years old, and it was Thanksgiving morning. While I was heading downstairs to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, my mom, wrapped in a robe, poked her head out of her bedroom door and croaked out to me that we’d just have to have Thanksgiving another day—she was sick with a terrible cold and couldn’t cook. “Maybe tomorrow or Saturday?” she mumbled as she crawled back to bed.

Opening the fridge to find milk for cereal, I could see all the trappings of our Thanksgiving-to-be: bunches of celery and carrots, sweet potatoes, a bag of cranberries, a plastic-wrapped turkey lurking mysteriously on the bottom shelf. I turned around and headed back upstairs, knocked softly on my mother’s door, and asked, “So about Thanksgiving…maybe I could try making it?” She paused, shrugged, said, “Have at it!” and rolled over to go back to sleep.

Cyrus posing triumphantly after her first solo attempt at cooking a Thanksgiving feast.

Now let’s recall that this was 1998, and the Internet wasn’t what it is today (and certainly not in central Maine with a dial-up connection), so Googling “How do I cook a turkey?” wasn’t an option. Left to my own devices, I leafed through my mom’s cookbooks, not really sure where to start. Luckily, she also subscribed to some magazine called Cook’s Illustrated, which I’d never really paid attention to. I dug through a stack, and lo and behold, there were the recipes I needed! Stuffed turkey, apple pie, sweet potato casserole—maybe I could just make those? There were pictures, and they seemed to spell things out pretty well.

I won’t say that it was a pretty process. It definitely took hours and hours, I cooked things all out of order, I wasn’t great at using a knife, and the kitchen was a towering mess of dishes by the end. But somehow, late in the evening, we finally sat down for a meal—a real Thanksgiving meal with a real turkey on the table. I was exhausted, and I’m sure some of the food was cold, but I had done it, and I’d never been prouder. My mom stared in wonder at the spread on the table—made by her weirdo teenager—and simply said, “You’re hired.”

And I was. I have been drafted into making the full Thanksgiving meal for our family every year since. Over the last almost-twenty years, I’ve made dozens of America’s Test Kitchen’s Thanksgiving recipes, starting long before I moved into a food career or ever dreamed of working here. Considering the genesis of my love for cooking, it’s surreal to now see my fellow test cooks pulling beautifully bronzed birds out of our ovens and developing new and innovative Thanksgiving recipes. Maybe another weirdo 15-year-old will read a recipe of mine someday and will think, “Maybe I could try that?”

Leah Colins: Associate Editor, Books

I grew up in South Philly with a large extended Italian family on my mother’s side, so holidays were always a big to-do. There was always enough food to feed an army, and meals took multiple days to prepare. I had six Italian great aunts, and my grandmother was the only one of her sisters to have children. So when it came to Thanksgiving, all the attention was put onto my brother, sister, and me.

We spent a lot of time in the kitchen learning to cook from them, in between the loving insults they hurled back and forth across the kitchen counter in an Italian dialect I couldn’t quite decipher. I think this early exposure to cooking had a direct effect on my wanting to go to culinary school and later cook in restaurant kitchens. Since a young age, I was always comfortable in the kitchen, and now professionally I enjoy developing recipes that many families can enjoy to create their own Thanksgiving traditions.

Colins works on a recipe for raspberry jam from our recent publication, Foolproof Preserving.

So when my mother took the torch for cooking the Thanksgiving meal, we started to stray from our traditional Thanksgiving meals made by the aunties and grandma. My mother, sister, and I created our own new Thanksgiving traditions, different from the usual spread of turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, and cornbread. Together, as a family, we read cookbooks, take cooking classes, and visit specialty stores all across Philadelphia to create different culturally themed meals every year. Since my teenage years, my mother, sister, and I have turned every Thanksgiving into an exciting culinary adventure. We have made fun themed and well researched Thanksgiving meals ranging from Jamaican to Hawaiian to German to Thai. The one constant is that every year, we prepare a turkey inspired by that year’s chosen cuisine.

For more holiday recipe inspiration, check out our Thanksgiving guide

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